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Reviewed by:
  • Childhood in World History
  • Tanya S. Maus
Childhood in World History. By Peter N. Stearns. New York: Routledge, 2006. 160 pp. $100 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

The volume Childhood in World History, by Peter Stearns, is part of a larger series called Themes in World History, edited by Stearns and published by Routledge. In regard to the purpose of the series, the editor states that it is intended to serve as a supplement to textbook treatments of world history in order to "allow students to probe particular facets of the human story in greater depth than textbook coverage allows, and to gain a fuller sense of historians' analytical methods and debates in the process." Thus, it is evident that the targeted audience is that of world history students at the undergraduate level (and perhaps AP high school students) and their instructors.

In terms of the goals outlined by the series, Stearns crafts an introduction that effectively asks students to consider historiographical questions related to the study of children and childhoods within world history. First, Stearns introduces the idea of historicizing childhood by discussing the relationship between the biological determinants of the child and the historicity of "childhood" as a social and cultural construct. Such methodological concerns regarding continuity and change, the constructedness of childhood, and the need to understand childhood as varying over time and space will be of no surprise to historians but will help introduce students to the concept of historicity and challenge their assumptions regarding childhood as a natural, unchanging fixture of the human experience.

The second historiographical question Stearns introduces is particularly salient for historians of children and childhoods in the past. Stearns poses to students the dilemma of how to access the lives of children in the past when there is a near absence of historical sources because children's voices (as children) so rarely appear in the historical record. Stearns clearly illustrates the complications of attempting to recover the lived experience or the phenomenology of the child within history. Again, although this dilemma will be familiar to historians, it will challenge students to consider the failure of history to fully account for the human experience.

The third methodological problem Stearns introduces is the concept of presentism. After illuminating many examples of parental affection and caring in the past as well as harmful modern constraints on children, Stearns asks students to challenge their assumptions that childhoods of the past were necessarily inferior to those of the present.

However, despite the effectiveness of Stearns's introduction in introducing historiographical and analytical concerns to an undergraduate [End Page 276] reader, instructors of world history may hesitate to use this volume for several reasons. The first concerns history as craft. Instructors who wish to emphasize the craft of historical writing in terms of referencing and citing materials may find Stearns's volume less than ideal. Although each chapter is followed by a list of further readings for students (a typical strategy for current survey history textbooks), the lack of citations or endnotes is a poor model for students who will need to use footnotes or other forms of citation in their own essays. Moreover, for the instructor, the lack of citation in the form of footnotes or endnotes is frustrating: it is unclear if Stearns is citing from the brief list of references noted at the end of the volume, if he is referencing those works in the "Further Readings" sections, or both. While this format may be typical in textbooks, this book appears to present itself as a scholarly volume. It may therefore be problematic as a model for students learning the craft of academic writing at the undergraduate level. The absence of citations is especially problematic in this volume because Stearns covers so much territory, essentially childhoods from the advent of complex societies (9000 B.C.E.) to the early twenty-first century.

This expanse of coverage relates to a second fundamental concern that world history instructors may have about this book. Although clearly intended to be available to both premodern and modern world history courses, the expanses of history that are covered for the pre-modern period (roughly 9000 B.C.E. to...


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