restricted access Ignorant and Innocent: The Childs of Common Cultural Discourses
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Ignorant and Innocent:
The Childs of Common Cultural Discourses

At an early point in most courses Mavis Reimer teaches in young people's texts and cultures, she sets an assignment in which students are asked to bring to class at least one recent item about children clipped from a newspaper or magazine, transcribed from a television program, downloaded from a website, photocopied from a textbook, or found on an advertising flyer. Requests for clarification of the assignment typically are queries about other possible sources of information; no one appears to find the terminology of "children" difficult or questionable. Working in small groups, students are asked to unearth the assumptions about children embedded in the texts they have found, using the sentence form [End Page 88] "[c]hildren are ____" and filling in the blank with a noun or a predicate adjective. It is at this point that students sometimes resist the assignment, protesting that texts that report on actual young people should not be grouped with texts that discuss abstract children or ideas about childhood. Whether the groups decide to sort their texts into these subcategories or not, the first round of discussions typically results in copious lists: children are found to be annoying, beautiful, competitive, consumers, creative, dangerous, egocentric, gullible, precious, smart, and vulnerable, among many other things. In a second round of discussions, groups are reorganized and asked to study the lists produced by all of the groups, in order to consider what positive ideals might underlie some of the negative descriptors attached to children and to assemble the descriptors into categories. By the end of their discussions, most groups have found that, with a few exceptions, the assumptions identified by the class fall into two broad categories. Groups describe these categories in various ways, but the first can be summarized as the assumption that children are or should be learners, and the second as the assumption that children are or should be the best of human beings, or alternatively that children represent or should represent the best of what it means to be human. That both texts about actual young people and texts about abstract children work within the same set of assumptions leads to a discussion of the ways in which ideologies are instantiated in material practices and of the regulatory functions of discourse, in this case the discourse of "the child."

The outcome of this classroom activity is not surprising, given that there are two dominant theoretical frameworks through which "the child" is conceptualized in those societies that continue to ground their laws, spoken and unspoken, on their inheritances from Western European traditions. The first of these is a narrative of development from an inferior to a superior state: at its barest, this narrative holds that young people are ignorant and unknowing subjects who will naturally acquire knowledge and grow in wisdom as they move toward adulthood. The history of this view stretches back at least to classical times, although it is common for developmental accounts of children's growth to take the Enlightenment as a point of origin. One of the most frequently cited examples is from the work of the late-seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, originally a letter written to a friend, Locke famously describes the "very little" gentleman's son who is the particular subject of his letter "as white Paper, or Wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases." While Locke acknowledges that "there are possibly scarce two Children, who can be conducted by exactly the same method," he nevertheless believes that young people are enough like one another that he can formulate "some general Views" on "the main [End Page 89] End and Aims in Education" (261). The story "The Purple Jar" by Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth is a literary example of a child character in the process of learning how to be a prudent consumer. Rosamond chooses aesthetics (an appealingly purple jar to hold flowers) over utility (a pair of new shoes), even though her shoes have holes in them. While preparing the new purple jar for flowers, she empties it of the...