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  • Introduction
  • Karen Sánchez-Eppler (bio)

The "infant" is one who cannot speak, etymology suggesting how much the entrance into childhood entails an entry into language. The essays collected in this issue of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth explore the connections between children and language over a broad geographic landscape and a long chronology, ranging across four continents and from 300 BCE to the present. These essays are just as diverse in terms of disciplinary methodologies: some analyze institutional structures such as educational reform in early-modern England or Republican China; some find children's own voices, through texts written by young people in ancient Egypt or the nineteenth-century US, and through fieldwork interviews with young people in Namibia or India; while some engage with large-scale demographic or institutional trends, and still others with the intimate particularities of individual families.

Yet for all these differences the close resonances between these far flung pieces are striking. The doubling of socialization and play that Raffaella Cribiore traces in the Coptic alphabetic text a young scribe wrote on a stray limestone shard in Greco-Roman Egypt seems in many ways commensurate with the miniature libraries fashioned by nineteenth-century American children out scraps of paper. Both sorts of child-made literary remnants not only provide access to the content of education, but also offer clues to children's engagement with and attitudes towards broader social structures. The questions Nicholas Orme asks about whether the poor truly benefited from the newly endowed schools of fifteenth-century England intriguingly echo with the contemporary policy debates over the relation between child labor and education, and the consequent best interests of the child explored in Sarada Balagopalan's fieldwork in India and Bangladesh, and in the large scale research analysis undertaken by Lorenzo Guarcello, Scott Lyon, and Furio C. Rosati. The colonial anxieties that structure education reform and suffuse the new geography textbooks of early-twentieth-century China that Limin Bai studies are fascinatingly embodied, and perhaps inverted, in the experiences Jason Owens recounts of Namibian children educated in East Germany and then returned to Namibia. Both of these essays offer [End Page 163] precise and provocative accounts of how the childhood inculcation of racial, national, and for the Namibian youths, linguistic identity comes to have significant political impact in these new republics. Thus these essays explore not only how the power struggles of colonialism shape the experiences of young people, but also how youth may become a powerful ideal in the articulation of national political goals.

At stake in all of this work are questions of power, not only the power of books, schools, and language, but also the complex power dynamics of age. These essays demonstrate the precariousness of childhood's historical elaboration, how difficult it is, for example, for Nicholas Orme to extract a brief portrait of an individual child out of the institutional records of endowed schools. But they suggest as well, how frequently information about childhood has been overlooked, that there are hundreds of ancient school exercise texts that have received far less scholarly attention than other sorts of documents from Greco Roman Egypt, that it is of course possible to talk with Indian children about their own understandings of the nature and value of school, and in short that the sources for the study of childhood are richer and more numerous than is frequently presumed. These essays recognize the vulnerability of young people, revealing how often they function as pawns in struggles structured by adult priorities, even when those appear to be shaped by concern for the interests of children. But even more these essays elaborate the broad ways in which paying attention to childhood can affect general understanding of political and social norms. In these essays ideas of youth prove powerful, as Limin Bai's "Youthful Hope of an Old Empire" suggests, but just as importantly, young people themselves emerge as vital historical actors. [End Page 164]

Karen Sánchez-Eppler
Amherst College
Karen Sánchez-Eppler

Karen Sánchez-Eppler is Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College. The author of Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American...


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