Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880-1960 (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 367-369



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Downs, Laura Lee. Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880-1960. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Pp. xv + 411. ISBN 0-8223-2928-X (cloth); 0-8223-2944-1 (paper)

Childhood is biologically founded but a social construction. Every society creates experiences and opportunities for children that are based on its goals, expectations, and aspirations for the next generation. In educational programs, child welfare policies, and economic investments are revealed a culture's values concerning children's needs, potentials to develop, and vulnerabilities to safeguard.

This is one of the themes that emerges in Laura Lee Downs's engaging study of the colonies de vacances movement in France during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The environment of wartime defeat in France in the 1880 s caused many to conclude that the nation's future rested on the fate of working-class children whose physical and spiritual well-being were vulnerable to the depredations of overwork, injury, disease, malnutrition, and the unclean and cramped housing of urban poverty. At the same time, the abolition of child labor and the institutionalization of a national network of primary schools that provided free education for all children raised the problem of how to tend children in working-class districts during the long summer holiday, when school was no longer in session and children were not permitted in the factory or workshop. In response, the colonies de vacances provided a "vacation colony" in which urban children would live for a few weeks in the French [End Page 367] countryside, their bodies restored by healthy air and robust exercise, their spirits enlivened by the pure, natural setting, and their minds expanded by the natural and planned educational opportunities of their vacation experiences with the peasantry. In this Rousseauian vision of restoration by removal from urban pathology to the natural world, sponsors of the colonies de vacances tailored this general vision for urban children to their own particular constructions of the children's needs and societal aspirations.

The earliest colonies de vacances were organized by Protestant evangelicals who borrowed from a program created by a Swiss pastor who gathered 68 children from the urban poor in Zurich in 1876 and took them on a three-week holiday in nearby mountain villages. From this modest start, the movement quickly grew in France, with more than one and a quarter million children participating in the early 1960 s before the movement started its slow decline. Downs masterfully describes the growth and evolution of the colonies movement in the context of other programs for children that formed its ideological and pedagogical framework, including the patronages (after-school youth programs) of the Catholic church, the Socialist efforts at municipal and human reform, and France's scouting movements, including the leftist Faucons Rouges and their orientation toward working-class children. Downs also discusses the colonies in light of changes in educational pedagogy of the era, crediting the organizers of certain colonies (particularly those of the Catholic seminarians) with pioneering a child-centered pedagogy of leisure that would influence educational innovations of the mid- and late-twentieth-century.

Within the broad umbrella of the restorative, socially hygenic goals of the movement, it was inevitable that different forms of the colonies de vacances would emerge under the sponsorship of educational, religious, and municipal institutions that each had distinctive views of needs of children and the societal purposes to be achieved. Downs organizes her study around contrasting models of the colonies that were based on different constructions of the nature and needs of childhood, the naturally restorative power of the natural countryside, the transformative effects of education, and the inherently pedagogical nature of children's unguided play activity.

The original Protestant colonies de vacances, for example, maintained fidelity to the Swiss vision of the physically therapeutic benefits of life in the countryside, and children were weighed and measured on their departure and return from summer...


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