Eric M Gurevitch

Afterthought to “No Children”


This article responds to Hypocrite Reader Issue 34, Bait and Switch.


In Defense of Childhood (Just Not For Children or Adults)

Her painted eyelids lifted and lowered like the slowly beating wings of a great blue eagle. “But that,” she said, “is the one thing none of us can ever be: a grown-up person. If you mean a spirit clothed in the sack and ash of wisdom alone? Free of all mischief, envy and malice and greed and guilt? Impossible … Of course, men can have grown-up moments, a noble few scattered here and there, and of these, obviously death is the most important. Death certainly sends that smutty little boy scuttling and leaves what’s left of us simply an object, lifeless but pure … To be durable and perfect, to be in fact grown-up, is to be an object, an altar, the figure in a stained-glass window: cherishable stuff. But really, it is so much better to sneeze and feel human.

—Truman Capote

I. Mythic Ideals

In his essay “No Children” in November’s Hypocrite Reader, Michael Kinnucan led a pointed attack against the institution of childhood as we know it. His words bounced through my head as I found myself faced with classrooms full of Indian students paying (less than) rapt attention to my lectures. One paragraph in particular stuck with me. Kinnucan writes—

the myth of childhood doesn’t teach children what they are, since they don’t believe it. It teaches adults what they once were. Childhood isn’t anyone’s present, it’s just all of our pasts. It teaches us, for the most part, to be damaged and disappointed—in ourselves who used to be happy or should have been, in our parents who should have done better but didn’t or couldn’t. Oh well.

Childhood is a myth. That is, it is a story that we tell ourselves at various times for various reasons. It is a story that we live in, struggle with, and then pass on to the future generation. It shapes the way we live in the world. As Kinnucan argues, it is nobody’s present—those who construct childhood construct it as beyond their grasp—but, and this is very important, the telling of the myth happens in the present. As the people who tell the myth, we have the power to reshape it, to drastically invert it and use it for conflicting purposes.

When struggling with childhood we should ask ourselves a number of questions that we should ask of any myth—What type of norm does this myth establish? Are we comfortable living in a world with this norm? If not, what can we do to remove the norm? What should the future norm look like? Are there parts of the norm we would like to preserve? Are there parts of the myth we would like to preserve? Are there parts of the myth that we can use to undo the norm? What does our analysis itself do to the myth?

Childhood is similar to another analytical paradigm that arose concurrently in the 19th century (of course both had earlier precedents)—the invention of savage man. Savage man and child were often equated—they both live in dream realities, they have trouble verbalizing the world around them, they both don’t understand economy. These notions coincide in the Peter Pan stories where children live side-by-side with American Indians as they try and evade the adult world just on the other side of the stars, but which encroaches on their lives through the character of Captain Hook.

The notions of child and savage arise out of the same analytical framework that creates the modern Western individual. Both children and savages are cast on the margins of the known and communicable world in order to create that very world. We, the rational, thinking adults, can know who we are by looking at them. Childhood causes children and adults to be damaged and disappointed as it teaches us to accept those sentiments. But it also creates a state apart from us, gives us something to point to and have control over. At least I am out of high school we might say. Or for some of us at least I enjoyed high school. It constructs the real world, which is both in opposition to and an extension of childhood. The hierarchies created in childhood are extended beyond the classroom, while the new adults are cast as free individuals in sharp relief with the children they once were. It is only when placed in contradistinction to childhood that adulthood as we know it can be formed.

Childhood as we know it is a recent invention. But it casts itself as being a natural category, one that existed unchanging throughout history. To do this, it subtly shifted and integrated the models of childhood that had existed before it. We can find two such models in the Bible—one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament.1

Proverbs 22:15—Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.

Matthew 18:1-5—At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

The passages from Proverbs and Matthew operate within the same paradigm from opposite dialectic positions. Both of these views present the child as an unmolded being outside of the social order. But the valuation of the world around the child is changed. The one from Proverbs says, children are misguided (or unguided) and perhaps cruel, it is up to society to correct them. The one from Matthew says, society is misguided (or unguided) and certainly cruel, it is up to children to correct it. In part, Jesus is continuing the inversions of the earlier Beatitudes. The meek shall inherit the earth, yada, yada, yada, and who is meeker than a child? Therefore, you should make yourself like a child. More importantly, Jesus is saying that he is a child. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. The kingdom of heaven will undo the binds of the current order by returning us to childhood.

These two pictures present the makings of how we view the modern child, who synthesizes the two paradigms. The modern child is both angelic and devilish, she is paradoxical because she is without responsibility. Most of all, she is unmolded and shapeable. It is against this perception of childish innocence that we can form guilty adults who do what we really know they shouldn’t. There is no room in either of these positions for the child who accurately reflects the mores of society at large—for the child who is a perfect copyist and who is the most full expression of the stated values around her. For the child who takes everything he hears all too seriously and who is more adult than the adults around her.

II. Indian Observations

In the final years of his life, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, knew that he was important. He knew that generations of Indians would look back on his life to construct meaning for themselves. In what can either be construed as a selfless commitment to the future of India or as a brilliantly selfish marketing ploy, Nehru decided that he wanted his birthday not to be a celebration of his life, but rather as a celebration for all of India’s children. Every year now, on November 14th, schools all around India celebrate “Children’s Day.” I teach at one such school, a Catholic school of about 500 students (both full time boarders and day boarders) in South India.

For Nehru, as for many people around the world, children represent the future. The India that he saw emerging was an India full of children—the population of young people has skyrocketed along with the number of people who have had a childhood created for them. Both because of the sheer number of young individuals, and because of the infusion of Euro-American ideas and capital, India has a rapidly growing cohort of children. In The Discovery of India, Nehru looks back to his childhood days with conflicting memories of India at that time—

I went back to my childhood days and tried to remember what I felt like then, what vague shape this conception took in my growing mind, and how it was moulded by fresh experience. Sometimes it [the emerging India] receded into the background, but it was always there, slowly changing, a queer mixture derived from old story and legend and modern fact. It produced a sensation of pride in me as well as that of shame, for I was ashamed of much that I saw around me, of superstitious practices, of outworn ideas, and, above all, our subject and poverty-stricken state.

Nehru uses his own childhood to construct an image of India’s childhood. He needs to “go back and try to remember” what that time was like (but of course always through his adult mind). In his childhood he sees India’s childhood. For Nehru, and this is why Children’s Day is so important, childhood (and not just children) would be the key to India’s entering the seemingly-adult world. If we can just construct a childhood for our population, we can become a nation without outworn ideas or poverty. Individual childhoods need to be continually constructed so that the nation can pass out of its childhood. In a letter to Gandhi, Nehru once described himself, saying, “Am I not your child in politics, though perhaps a truant and errant child?” He saw himself as that mischievous child, who can utilize child-like civil disobedience to work through all this mess.

In the week leading up to Children’s Day, a student at my school would stand up in front of the assembled teachers and students and tell us a fact about being a child in India. Each day these facts seemed to get more macabre, touching on the subjects of child exploitation, illiteracy, and trafficking. (Did you know?! India has the most child laborers in the world!!) After the set of gruesome facts, the students were all reminded of how lucky they were to be at the school (even if they didn’t like it) and that they shouldn’t waste their opportunity. Something like: Unlike most people in this country, you are allowed to have a childhood, now get back to work.

Children’s Day rolled around, and the teachers switched roles with the students, running the normally student-run morning assembly and dancing and singing for them. The children particularly liked it when the nuns donned traditional Oriya dancer garb (complete with red lac for the feet) and took the stage. Students were not required to wear their uniforms, so they came in dressed in a way that both imitated and mocked adult dress. Some students clearly took the opportunity to flaunt their bodies in a sexual manner, the Thai students all wore matching T-shirts, but most students dressed in sort of Indian-vaudevillian attire. Humorously large ties with vests and bright pants abounded. White blazers, and mismatched sweaters. These were not the clothes you would see anyone (even in India, where fashion isn’t homogenized) wearing on the street. These were children living into a paradigm of childhood, a paradigm of childhood that constructs itself against the adult world that attempts to constrain it. (Or so it seems—it creates as well as constrains it.)

When childhood is viewed not as mandatory (as it is in the United States), but as a privilege (as it is in India), the analytical power of the category drastically shifts. When childhood is mandatory, it is set in distinction with adulthood, but when it is a privilege, it is set in contrast with other possible childhoods. Privileged childhood in many ways serves as a coercive warning: Experience childhood as we adults tell you to or you could end up like the chai-wala down the street.

As a warning, this privileged childhood is dangerous for the child, but when we speak the warning to the child, we also can begin to doubt the adult (“real”) world that created it. Why should there be a difference between my child and the chai-wala down the street? Likewise, the mandatory childhood of the United States constrains the child by saying you should be innocent and have fun unlike the world out there. But once again, through the teaching of the child, we must ask a question about ourselves. Why should we accept the world that we don’t want our children to accept?

I eat my meals at a table of fifth and sixth graders. At dinner (when the day boarders have gone home) one of the much older students might come over and eat with us. The dining hall is the center of economic activity among the students on campus. They are not allowed to have money here, but they are allowed to bring extra sauces or other luxuries to their meals. Students shuffle about the dining hall exchanging food and favors, often with students older or younger than they. The dining hall becomes the perfect replica of a distribution of scarce resources under laissez-faire economic principles. These children are not innocent and they are not devilish. Primarily they are imitative. They imitate the world they see around them and try and live into its values.

III. Mythic Inversions

The question of childhood extends well beyond children. Childhood helps to construct an uncomfortable adulthood. An adulthood that is at the same time sterile and violent, both knowledgeable and powerless. And when we think of places to attack this adult world, childhood is a good place to start. But the question we must ask ourselves is not simply how can we end childhood? We must also ask ourselves what can we do with childhood? Not how can we exploit childhood? But how can we use the category of childhood to inform our existence as we struggle against it? What happens when the focus of the gaze shifts? When the child stares back at us?

We should not imagine childhood as an idealized past. But if childhood is something inaccessible for children, it could still become something accessible to the so-called adults. As an ideal it will never exist, but its very non-existence becomes a point of value as it confronts the reality around us. If childhood does not remind adults of what they once were, it reminds them of what they could be. It reminds us that there is a world beyond the realistic, adult world, that the adulthood of that world is there as a limit. That all of this had to be created with much effort.

There is an analytical power released through the examination of childhood. We can see how arbitrary some types of control are when they are given to us adults. (Especially as teachers.) We can see the haphazard construction of our real world as we work to construct it for others. And finally, these become even more clear as we work not only to construct it for others, but also as we work with them to undo it.

If childhood teaches us to be damaged and disappointed, it also teaches us that we need not accept this state—that it is not natural. Not that “it gets better,” but that things aren’t as they seem. Jesus provides a good piece of advice before ruining it with sentimental messianism. He takes a child and puts him in the midst of his annoying followers (they really just never seem to get it). Look at this child! Jesus says. He then goes on to ruin the moment by saying become this child! The adult can never become a child; if she tried, all she would achieve would be becoming the adult fantasy of the child. Do not try to become Jesus. Do not try and be a child. You will simply be encouraging the desires, dreams, and hierarchies of the adult world.2

Still, Jesus was on to something when he put the child in the midst of his followers. We can imagine his followers, like the modern teacher saying to the child—look at how messed up the world out-there is! You are the future! You can change it! This is a lot of pressure for the child, but I think he is up for it. But only if he confronts her teacher with the corollary statement—Why is it up to me? What about you? Seeing childhood as a different phase helps us see the problems in the adult world, but seeing children, who learn and adapt so ably, should remind us that we adults too can start again.

1 It is difficult but necessary to read these two passages not from within the framework that presents Jesus as a fulfillment and supersession of the words of the Hebrew Bible. This task is difficult because it is fighting against a framework that Jesus laid out in the earlier sections of Matthew in the introduction to the Beautitudes. And we must fight placing our own conceptions of childhood onto Jesus just as we must fight him supplanting the Hebrew Bible.

We can see both our urge to impose our own conceptions of childhood and The New Testament’s urge to impose its own reading of the Hebrew Bible in a passage from Galatians, where Paul is attacking people who follow both Jesus and the laws of the Hebrew Bible. He writes (3:24) that the Law of Moses was our paidagōgos until Christ came. Because of the cognates in both Latin and English, this phrase has traditionally been translated (in the King James Bible and other translations that followed it) as “school master.” And this makes sense in a certain conception of what the purpose of the Torah is and with a certain conception of what a teacher is. In this view, children must be constrained, and the strict laws of the Torah were necessary to produce adults who could accept Jesus.

But our view of the past is often reflected, to quote another oddly translated Pauline phrase, but through a glass darkly, and things in the past are not always what they seem to the present. As modern scholarship has shown through analysis of contemporary Greek papyri, in Hellenistic Greek, a paidagōgos was not a teacher, but rather the slave who took a child to school in the morning, leaving him at the door. This was captured in the first edition of the New English Bible (1970), which rendered the phrase “The law was our school bus” (it has since been changed) and in some modern translations that translate it (less interestingly and more ambiguously) as “The law was our guardian.” In this view, Paul was making a far nastier attack on the Hebrew Bible, but also a far subtler picture of education, which is no longer seen as unnecessary, but which is now of the utmost necessity. We have been brought to the door, now we must be taught. We are still children, but now at least we have a proper school to attend.

2 In one of his most confusing passages, at the end of Capital, Karl Marx informs us that we must not simply invert the dialectic we live in. The dialectic though “standing on its head... must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” The surrounding passages continue this odd line of thinking and mixed metaphors. But the point is the same, inversion is not negation, a truly productive inversion will correct the problems by finding a radically different situation within the inversion (through the process of inversion) of the mystification. On this point, see Louis Althusser’s discussions in “On the Young Marx” and “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” both in For Marx.