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It is natural for people to become accustomed to what their society surrounds them with, in short, we are a product of our society and we consume what it provides us with. As human beings we are innately sociable creatures, so one could argue that society today is natural to what human evolution has made it. However, many psychologists, philosophers, scientists, and educationalists stand against the concept that a natural human being could inhabit today’s modern culture. Children are supposedly forced, not guided, into a world of unnatural constraints and intellectual requirements.
We live in a society that assumes that children are children by nature, not through what we, as adults desire them to be.
Nature or living naturally, as I will term it throughout this essay, is not as one would immediately presume it to be. I believe, as many others, that society over the past five hundred years has put unnecessary and unnatural restrictions on our living capacities, although we are a product of what we have made ourselves.
Society determines our moral judgement, the ways in which we confirm our intellectual capacities, the prejudices we hold, our human relationships and what we consume. Literacy and the development of communication is a by-product of human beings’ own societal evolution and so, a baby learning language, seemly effortless, is an innate and instinctive process. However, when a child reaches the age of understanding symbolism and other minds, we presume that this is the right age they should begin to read.
Many cultures survive on basic language, pictorial symbols for alphabetical purposes and nothing more. What sets our Western world apart from the simplistic/natural cultures? This is what I have set to find out, and this is what I endeavour to understand.
Is it necessary to be literate to be an active participant in modern human culture? This is the main question to be focused on. Necessity comes out of a need for something, it isn’t a desire or a want. As termed by the Oxford dictionary a ‘constraint or compulsion regarded as a law prevailing through the material universe and governing all human action’ (Sykes Ed 1976:729). Therefore I would like to put forward that being literate is an essential requirement, as a consequence of our own actions, of participating in ones own community.
Literacy came into common usage at the dawn of the printing press. A seemingly simple invention, that created a different way in which we look upon our world today.
This essay is not about children per-sƒ, but about what adults have conceived childhood to be, their idealism’s of how they should live and what they should learn. I will start with a brief overview of the medieval child, and then try to convey to the reader how the printing press had an enormous effect upon conceptions of the general public. As a consequence of the printing press is not only the occurrence of childhood itself (I shall explain this further below), but also children’s literature, or rather literature written for children; to aid their vocabulary, moral and individual development.
The knowledge of the incunabula is not new to us; many books that have been written are indebted to the invention, and many explaining the incredible force it had upon our culture. My intention throughout this essay is not to reel off a list of the many consequences, but to un-pick just one of them. I intend to follow a path not finished by Neil Postman in his extraordinary book, The Disappearance of Childhood (1994).
Throughout this book Postman makes some bold efforts to uncover the origins of childhood, although he takes a completely different stance to that of Aries in Centuries of Childhood (1962). He looks into why children are seen as inhabiting a different world to adults, and why this significant gap is now narrowing as we continue into the twenty-first century. He dedicates a large part of his research to the printing press, and I hope to make it apparent to the reader through my own essay why he holds this as the ultimate origin of adults’ many constructions of childhood. Postman’s thoughts, concerns and research will be referred to throughout the essay, but I will not dedicate my work to his. My only reason being a personal dislike to his own concept of childhood, which comes across as derogative, undermining and ignorant of the modern child we all know today.
The education of our children as we conceive of it now, would not have the same intellectual and literal constructs without one very simple invention. This came about in the mid-fifteenth century, it signified the demise of the medieval age, and became responsible for a new era; the Renaissance. Man was never to think the same again, within philosophical, scientific, economic and technical thought. Although debatable this fame lands largely on one mans shoulders, and he probably never knew the impact his supposed ‘winepress’ invention would have upon the culture of Western Europe.
Johann Gensfleich Gutenburg (1398 – 1468) was a trained goldsmith in Mainz, Germany. He invented the first printing press with movable type, and also developed a new kind of oil-based ink. His colleagues Fust and Schoeffer finished what he began, they produced the first printed bible in 1450-1455, known as Gutenburg’s Bible. Western Europe was to change forever, a sudden revolutionary force was unleashed the moment this bible was made public, and by 1500 there were presses in over 230 European cities.
According to Aries, childhood is a recently acquired concept. Before Aries no one had even entertained the fact that the medieval period simply did not have children, rather miniature adults. Of course infancy existed, for this is the pre-speech stage , but as soon as a child could walk and talk what was there to separate them from the rest of the adult world? At aged seven the child was considered at the age of reason, and so at the age they could commit serious sin . Illiteracy was widespread during this era, only a small percentage of medieval Europe could read. If the adults could not, and cared not for reading, then the child was considered grown when they could hold a reasonable conversation with an elder. This oral culture was all they knew. Story telling passed the knowledge through the generations. Entertainment came in the form of street theatres and performances, this was also the way in which local news was broadcast. The average man had no need for the ability to read, for there was no literature around to read. Hence children grew into the adult world quickly and without struggle.
There was no shame amongst the adults and children, sexual desires and practices were not hidden behind doors or grim faces, childbirth and death was not disguised, manners were an unknown concept and cleanliness was deemed pointless. Women bore many children and did not dwell in the hope of them surviving infancy – to this matter they did not inflict affection unto their offspring, for bonding and attachment were fruitless until the child grew out of frailty and weakness.
It can be seen in portraits of the time that the children’ are depicted as small adults. Their faces severe and chiselled, their attire adorned with adult restrictiveness and their parents’ display an expression of impartialness to their offspring. The whole culture seemed to lack a concept of childhood.
Some questions which arise here are; historically how has the general literate culture exposed children to the necessary and gradual knowledge they require for social development, without compromising their ‘innocence’? Do children really need to be protected from adult reality? These questions beg to be answered through the study on the history of childhood, and the conceptions that adults held, and still hold today, of their children.
Childhood began to come into existence in the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however this was highly restricted to the upper classes. Postman explains this away with the aid of literature, education and wealth. With the age of the printing press in full swing people were being exposed to large amounts of knowledge never available to them before. Children, unable to read, were ignorant to this knowledge and so must be taught
Given the large peasant population in early modern Europe and the persistence of local dialects (Einstein 1983:30), which posed great barriers between the written and spoken word, it is probable that only a minimal amount of the entire population was effected by the initial shift. It opened up the world to people, who before that, had known little beyond their own village or town. The rapid spread of new ideas, particularly about religion and politics, had already begun to influence Europe’s historical makings.
A new fresh wind began to blow across Europe. Christopher Columbus set off on his travels, Luther began his movement to reform the Catholic Church (with the famous ninety-five statements he nailed to the door of Wittenberg church), in general economic individualism and the force of nationalism were causing whole countries to reform. Standardisation was also a major by-product of printing, learning processes, attitudes and expectations were heightened and changed forever:
‘We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world’ (Francis Bacon in Einstein 1983:12)
There are many thousands of indirect consequences associated with the consumption of printed products that had an influence of changed mental habits of the population. The age of enlightenment had begun. However, this will not be discussed any further in this particular essay for it seems pointless to convey to the reader an area of study that needs extensive explanation and is of little significance here.
Aries had the view that once the establishment of childhood began to emerge, the condition of the child began to change in society. Several theories on child constructions and child correction began to surface, and so another era was in the making – the world of children and childhood. Children were now required to be protected from the reality of adult culture. From sex, birth, death, violence and tragedy. All the knowledge adults knew, children must earn access to it through education.
Corbet (1985) brings about a valid and poignant point of view concerning Aries thesis, and further studies that could be borne out of it. He considers the natural life of the young, and faces the reality that we have made our children into children – it is through our own choice. By society’s rules we rear the young slowly and carefully , hiding them and being cautious to the dangers life has in store for them.
‘Our culture assumes that young people are children. We assume that there is a longish period of preparation of children for adulthood. We treat young people accordingly, and they act accordingly’ (Corbett 1985:2)
He puts across an excellent argument, although claims this argument is his and is supported by Aries thesis. This concern of societal influence, however, is not new, and certainly not indebted to Aries. Some of the first popular widely read essays on education concern themselves with the burden that community, religion and education put upon young children. Of the most famous for his work on the ‘noble savage’ in Emile (1672) is Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Childhood, for Rousseau, represented the human potential for fulfilment. Children are not to be tamed, their innate desires are to be fulfilled, and we are to build upon what nature has given the child – a natural sense to learn. He stated; ‘Let us lay it down as an incontestable maxim that the first promptings of nature are always right’ (Rousseau 1979:92). He went far beyond his predecessors (Locke 1632 – 1704; Comenius 1592 – 1670; Hobbes 1588 – 1679) in valuing the experiences a child receives in early life, and he theorised in its qualitative difference to that experience which adults receive. He was not the first man to hold importance on children’s education, but he was the first to insist that the natural growth of the child be of paramount importance.
In the 1680’s the Cambridge Neoplatonists asserted an innate goodness in the child, and in 1693 Locke published Some Thoughts Concerning Education. Locke had a different notion to Rousseau, he insisted more upon the child’s education and speculated the fact that we are what education makes us. He even argued against innate ideas, which was one of Rousseau’s central beliefs. However, it still attacked the idea of infant depravity, and portrayed children as Tabula Rasa (blank slates). In effect the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries heard a debate on the child’s nature. At one extreme stood the famous statements of John Wesley (1703-1791), the Methodist leader, and at the other stood Rousseau, urging parents to invest their affections in their offspring, with many starting to gather in-between.
Rousseau was adamant that ‘the fundamental principle of all morality K is that man is naturally a good creature, who loves justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and that the first movements of nature are always right’ (Rousseau 1979: 39).
In contrast Wesley, a popular and widely known preacher and author, proclaimed consistently that ‘The bias of nature is set the wrong way. Education is designed to set it right’ (cited in Palmer 2000: 50). Rousseau’s view was Pelagian, that is, he denied the doctrine of Original Sin, a prominent idea of his time. He could not see how a child, directly brought into the world from nature itself, could suddenly inherit such a heavy load. Some claim that he was part of the movement concerning humanists, who consistently believed in the child’s capacity for good and the moral neutrality of its impulses’ (Plumb 1975: 64 – 95). The children, he insisted, were corrupted by their up bringing, and then punished for being brought up. For this controversial sin in itself, he was banned from his home country.
The impact of Emile on both parents and educationalists was immediate and intense. By the end of the eighteenth century its influence was felt throughout the Western world (especially in Switzerland and England ), though resistance to it was stronger in Catholic than in Protestant Countries, understandably. Historians agree (e.g. Hendrick, 1994; Aries, 1962; Maritain, 1928) that he has a lasting and powerful hold on theoretical debate throughout Europe, lasting still today.
He was persistent with his view that a child was not to be corrupted by the society that man had created, and suggested taking the pupil (Emile) out of town life into a solitary country life. With only his tutor and nurse for company. The child should be guided to learn about his own impulses and natural instincts, but he was to be guided by a tutor who had grown up in the ‘corrupted society’. This seems a little contradictory. Many critiques focus on Rousseau’s suggestion of solitary life, and that fact that he chooses to ignore the social side of human nature. Wesley and Locke knew that the child should conform, but to what expense should the child be moulded? This was debated for years.
The impact Rousseau’s work had on the general public’s concept of childhood, despite his criticisms, was vast. To many it must have seemed as though ‘Rousseau took children form the gates of damnation to the doorway of trust in human capacity’ (Thomas 1983 as cited in James and Prout 1997). There is general agreement (Plumb 1975, Houlbrooke 1984; Aries 1962; Palmer ed. 2001; Postman 1994) that from the late Seventeenth century a new attitude towards children began to manifest itself, so much so that the eighteenth century was claimed as a new world for them.
As discussed above new concepts of children were sweeping through the population, at first gradually, and then eventually, within the late nineteenth century it reached the lower classes. Religion was the main contributor to these views, and it depended on what area you lived in, or what class, on how your child was to be treated. For ‘One view stressed the angelic, unsullied, natural goodness of children. The other stressed their devilish, potentially evil, self-willed nature’ (Shipman 1972, cited in Mills 2000:8).
However, no matter in which genre the child was viewed, an underlying theme was to take hold, which was strictly post-medieval Europe. This was to be the unknown exploitation of the concept of shame. Paralleled to shame were the sheltered secrets adults were obliged to keep from their children until they arrived at a suitable age to be exposed to them. This was a crucial step in the developing conception of childhood, and still in broad, ignorant use today. Postman used these two constraints on children as his main argument, and explains both their evolution into society and their supposed decline today.
Eventually the knowledge of these cultural secrets, gained only by adults through reading literature, became one of the distinguishing characteristics of adulthood. The only access a child had of the information was through learning to read themselves. Through the centuries this became more prominent, ‘by the end of the sixteenth century, school teachers were already refusing to allow children to have access to ‘indecent books’ and punishing children for using obscene language’
(Postman 1994: 49),
Where as this was seen as common place in the middle ages. Now children did not know or understand commonplace public behaviour, and so books on manners became popular and plentiful.
Erasmus’s Colloquies (1516), was probably the first book to be published on shame. Its intention was to curb and correct the young boy’s natural instinct. Manners were spoken of, and prohibitions were dealt out. He seemed to lead in this field, for he then produced a book called De Civilitate Morium Puerilium, on how to conduct yourself in public. Erasmus was identifying what he presumed children should be taught, and the knowledge that was still to be kept hidden from them. In a sense he addressed the adult of his time, and ruled over the children in social etiquette. The first book on Paediatrics was written by Thomas Phaire and published in Britain in 1544 titled The Boke of Chyldren. This provides the evidence that children were steadily being considered as a special group of humans who needed separate disciplines for health and education. By 1659 Comenius delivered Orbis Sensualium Pictus to the world of children. This is an entertaining book, which provides simple information from the virtue of temperance to the inhabitants of the animal kingdom. Although delightful, it cannot hide its obvious purpose, which is to educate children with the knowledge only seen fit for their eyes.
Comenius writes of Moral Philosophy ‘turn from vice, the entrance is fair, but the end is ugly and deep down’ (Comenius 1970: 221), he also writes of diligence, temperance, fortitude, patience, humanity, justice, liberality, and society between man and wife, and between parents and children.
It is a primary condition that links the emergence of childhood to the era of the printing press. The apparent ‘nature of childhood’ is inextricably linked to the qualities that individual literacy gave us; the capacity for self-control, to think logically and sequentially, to manipulate symbols and abstract oneself from those symbols. This was never available before to adults, and this is what the children must discipline themselves for, to join the adult world.
By the 1850’s childhood was fully set in its place. Children were no longer to share the language, the learning, the tastes, or the social appetites of the adult. Their worlds were completely separated. Childhood was now a social principle and fact.
‘It took nearly two hundred years to become a seemingly, irreversible feature of western civilisation. But it could not have happened without the idea that each individual is important in himself, that a human mind and life in some fundamental sense transcend community’ (Postman 1994: 27)
Adults had taken it upon themselves, as scientists, doctors, teachers and parents/carers, to provide the children with specified equipment and knowledge for their own world. However, as always something became amiss, and children were getting hold of material seen unfit for their eyes. They now read what they wanted to read and the first example of such literature is seen within Malroy’s Tales of King Arthur, brought to Britain by William Caxton.
Caxton was the first to bring the printing press to Britain, his vowed purpose was to introduce the English readers to the high culture of European romance. He then set about publishing the works of Chaucer, Langland and Malory. He was concerned not only with these writers, but with adding to the number of readers, and he did not forget the young ones. Among the first books he issued in his first year of printing was The Book of Courtesy (1477), also known as Lytyll John. This put instructions in to rough and homely rhyme for young boys on how to mind they manners; for example saying prayers, table manners and behaviour in presence of elders.
Other books include; The Night Of The Tower (1484) – a gentlemen’s instructions for his daughter, The Book of Good Manners (1487) – aimed to improve the ‘conditions and manners of the comeym people’ (Meigs et al, 1953, P.23) and The Book Callid Cathon (1483) – which was for the study of ‘younge children in schole’ (loc.cit.). Caxton appeared to have joined at once to the common adult notion, greatly proved by the title of these books, that children should read only those books which were to instruct and improve them. We go on to see such titles as John Russell’s Book of Nurture (1460-1470) and Peter Idleys Instructions to his Son (mid 15th century). These books could be seen as precursors to the succession of literature that could be observed generation after generation.
“Nothing could be more immovable or more dismaying than this settled conviction, this stubborn blindness to the fact that children take what they like while admonition blows its windy breath in vain (Meigs et al 1953: 33).
It must not have occurred to Caxton that in the fine works of Malory he could not have dreamt of such a perfect example of manners, courtesy and the teachings of morals.
Aesops fables were a purposeful way of helping and guiding children not only in their reading skills but also in their moral development. Although published in 1484 by German born Stainhowel, the fables where older than Christianity itself. Believed to date back as far as 6BC, it is also considered that they have origin in Egyptian and oriental sources. The tales used characatures, probably the first, of talking animals and provided comical stories of virtue, trust, forgiveness and moral judgement. Such include Raynard the Fox, The Wind and the Sun and A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Popular amongst children and adults, Aesops fables survived the test of modernity and can still be found in schools today.
The average children’s story in general is designed to teach a lesson. Literature that is seen as overtly preachy or didactic was given over to the children who seem to adults to be in need of a lot of teaching. This brings about two truths about children’s literature. The first; even the best is incredibly didactic, and secondly, children acquire and claim as their own anything they like, whether it is designed for them or not. For example the King Arthur Tales and Aesop’s Fables.
With the doctrine Original Sin still in common understanding, the literature that was given to the child was to remind them of the important rules one must follow in life. The Puritan view was more common within the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the extreme religious views such as “hell fire and damnation’. Parents were obliged, even forced to implant the idea of faith and sin within their children. they were also still under the desire to treasure and love them. In 1786 The Book for Children was published, this followed the Roussearian (and later Montessori) view, that one must not confuse children by make believe. Its stories where about home, reality and the teaching of morals. Similar books followed, for example; The Little Dog Trusty or The Liar and the Boy of Truth (1809); The Birthday Present or True Reward of Self Control (1833); Pippie’s Warning or Mind Your Temper (1848). Rousseau believed that a child’s mind must not be filled with notions that they cannot understand, and of fantasy that is not real life. In Emile he tells us that ‘reading is the scourge of childhood, for books teach us to talk about things we know nothing about’ (Rousseau 1972: 13).
In spite of this, children’s fiction developed largely in the age of Romanticism. Where the child’s own view point was taken into special consideration. Such books included; Jane Eyre (1847), David Copperfield (1849), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1865 – 1870), Little Women (1868), Treasure Island (1883), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), Pinocchio (1883) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). These are to name but a few, although it is clear that the reader can appreciate that a slight boom in children’s own literature came about the mid-nineteenth century. The books, although still containing high virtuous messages about behaviour and the education of morals, tell the stories from a, supposed, child’s point of view. Although often these books ignore the realities of everyday life they are purely fantastical.
“It is apparent from at least the middle of the 17th century onwards that there was an increasing awareness of the different needs of child and adult readerships. And from the end of the 17th century this awareness was to manifest itself, more positively, as a wish to cater for the specific needs of child readers” (Meigs et al 1953: 67)
Whether this is what children want to read or not is a matter of debate, for they will always acquire what they see fit for their own interests. Today children can gain large amounts of inappropriate knowledge from such media as the Television, Sky, the Radio and Newspapers. It is now harder to conceal the facts of adult life as they were once in the Victorian times, and before.
We get to a point where a definition of our modern culture is needed. I have endeavoured to portray to the reader a brief overview on how we have come to conceive of children today. With technology and science playing major roles in the way we live and the information available to us.
However, learning to understand literature (reading and writing) is still the main focus and aim that schools today hold for their pupils. If a child is unable to perform easy literate skills at the beginning of adolescence, not only is he at a disadvantage, but it is almost certain he will be taunted. Without these skills a child is unable to read the news, read significant literature such as school reports or work requirements, they would also be unable to recognise signposts. These are only a few of the everyday situations we all come across today that require the skill of reading.
We have produced this society that we inhabit, and it is still debatable whether reading comes naturally to the child. As Postman suggests his two reasons in why learning to read and write is unnatural to children:
‘In the first place, because mature reading is an act of immediate recognition, that is, an unconscious reflex, the habit of reading must be formed in that period when one is still in the process of acquiring oral languagekwhen children are not biologically suited to the rigours of immobilityKWhen one learns to read one learns a peculiar way of behaving of which physical immobility is only one feature. Selfrestraint is a challenge not only to the body but to the mind as well.”
(Postman 1994: 76)
Rousseau believed that the child should not be exposed to either society or books. This was a revolutionary concept in his day, but it seems perfectly ludicrous now. Although it is viable to take some of his underlying messages he portrays through Emile (for example that the child is born as nature intended and the adults corrupt this child) to commit to my own modern concept of what children should be and what children are. From Rousseau comes Froebel, Piaget, Montessori and Neill, these self proclaimed revolutionaries of education all have one thing in common; the concept that children will always learn what they want to learn. They will take from society, literature and adults what they wish. We must not inflict restrictful and false ideas upon the children, but simply guide them through their own, self-involved, interest in life. However, even in Emile Rousseau still portrayed the child as something to own. Children did not have rights until the twentieth century.
Surely any educator today should know that learning is a disposition, a life process, knowledge is always being absorbed and interpreted to the child’s personal needs. The adult should have an understanding of guiding the child through their own natural learning processes and not forcing our requirements upon them.
This is most obviously the concept that I hold today of children and their learning, although I do still believe that modern adults do not have a broad notion of children’s capabilities, or what we require them to be capable of. I would like to have discussed further some of the aspects concerning the modern culture we inhabit today, it’s restraints and requirements of children. I felt however that it was of more importance to portray to the reader the origins of literacy and a small part of its evolution. The study of literature and children’s literature is such a broad area, I have simply touched the tip of the iceberg. However I have thoroughly enjoyed researching for this essay, and I feel personally that it is always important to study the origins of a discipline, before looking at where we are today.
The title ‘Reading is unnatural to children yet necessary for participation in today’s culture and society, is a just statement. Throughout this essay I have given brief examples of how childhood came into being, and how it has changed in conception throughout the renaissance, the enlightenment and industrialism. It survives still today, although in a form barley Rousseau, Locke or even Wordsworth would recognise. It has been said, repeatedly, that reading is an unnatural constraint that children of our times have to endure to reach adulthood. Children are not designed to sit still for eight hours of the day, this is not only physically impossible but also hinders their holistic development. This is the view we have today, we all agree that young children’s play is far more important than didactic lessons, but still we are persuading the child to learn, and eventually lead him to a route to literacy. Is this wrong? It has been debated over and over, but I agree intensely that children are not natural readers or writers, but they do have the capacity to learn, and they are natural social beings. To participate in our modern day culture and society the child must adapt to what we consider as acceptable. An illiterate child is not acceptable, natural maybe, but not acceptable.
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