Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880-1960 (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880–1960. By Laura Lee Downs (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. xv plus 411 pp. $14.95/paper $74.95/cloth).

Legend has it that one could look at a watch at anytime during the day and know exactly what school children throughout France were studying at that precise moment. This symbol of the rigidly centralized and highly disciplined world of French schools is the stock in trade for most who study childhood in modern France; it epitomizes the prevailing attitude that childhood was first and foremost an arduous apprenticeship to adulthood, when children had to be taught responsibility and prepared for the rigors that awaited them outside school doors. This was a pedagogical view that left little room for play. In Childhood in the Promised Land, however, Laura Lee Downs argues that the child-centered, active mode of learning that became a hallmark of Anglo-American education did not simply whither and die in the imposing shadow of France’s stern instituteurs. Though French school teachers deemed such ideas unacceptable for their classrooms, a pedagogy of play found fertile soil in the colonies de vacances, or summer camps, that grew out of late 19th-century charity and developed into important centers of socialization in the middle of the 20th century. Focusing on the municipal colonies established by the left-wing suburbs of Paris (most notably Suresnes and Ivry), Downs uses these institutions as a prism for examining a wide range of topics, from attitudes toward children to gender, from ruralism to welfare reform. Throughout, she rejects “the jaundiced eye of Foucauldian suspicion” (p. 7) to reveal the rise of a pedagogy founded upon games and the fluid foundation of children’s agency. Similarly, the colonies de vacances reflect the “trickle-up” nature of welfare development in France, “a development that has proceeded less by top-down impositions than through the central state’s gradual adoption and expansion of private and local initiatives.” (p. xiv)

Downs’ analysis revolves around the gradual transformation of the colonie from a site of social assistance for the poor, sickly children of Paris’ industrial suburbs to a privileged pedagogical arena designed to bring out and refine the innate characteristics that children reveal only in play. Central to this evolution was the debate over family placement versus collective organization. For early [End Page 1098] planners, especially Protestant charities, the colonies’ primary goal was hygiene. Whatever educational value to be had from these extended visits to the countryside came chiefly from close contact with the peasant families that housed the young Parisians. There, while taking in the essential cure d’air, children would re-establish a lost connection with the land and peasant values like hard work. This model underwent relatively minor revision when the Socialist administration of Suresnes established its colonie as a central part of a wider system of municipal social assistance during the Interwar years. While they maintained family placement, however, the Socialists espoused a different form of ruralism, one that recognized an important connection between a healthy childhood and proximity to nature, but that no longer vaunted rural over urban life. Unlike right-wing ruralism and its fear of deracination, the Socialists did not ascribe to peasant life any form of moral superiority. Nevertheless, the Socialists continued to reject more overt forms of education that accompanied collective organization as detrimental to the essentially hygienic purposes of the colonie.

At the same time, municipalization marked an important step in the history of colonies de vacances; it began the process of linking hygiene and lengthy rural vacations with the “rights” of children, and it embedded the colonies firmly into the growing array of institutions of mass education and leisure. For the Suresnes colonie, however, municipalization was also a double-edged sword; its enrollment dwindled when its emphasis on family placement no longer appealed to a population imbued with the spirit of popular education and pedagogical innovation that blossomed during the Popular Front. More and more parents wanted collectively organized colonies that promised various educational benefits; the hygienic rationale for a vacation in the countryside didn...