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Opening the Nursery Door: Reading, Writing and Childhood 1600-1900

reviewed by Barbara Beatty - 1999

coverTitle: Opening the Nursery Door: Reading, Writing and Childhood 1600-1900
Author(s): Mary Hilton, Morag Styles & Victor Watson
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415148995, Pages: , Year: 1997
Search for book at Amazon.com

Perhaps because of the absence of the conforming influence of formal schooling, radical ideas abound in the seemingly innocuous world of young children. This fascinating collection of essays challenges the Romantic orthodoxy which has dominated thinking about children and childhood in England and the United States since the mid-nineteenth century, and recovers pre-Romantic attitudes toward children's learning and literacy. Inspired by the discovery of a shoe box containing home education materials made by an eighteenth-century Buckinghamshire vicar's wife, the engagingly written chapters in this volume defend the notion that rationality is better for children than fantasy. If this does not sound like a radical idea, read on.

The book starts with a detailed description of Jane Johnson's home teaching materials, but goes far beyond her nursery to the sources of early literacy, the origins of children's literature, and the instruction of lower-class children. Shirley Brice Heath states that Johnson's morally didactic methods were also quite "open-ended" (p. 29), and makes a strong case for the idiosyncratic intimacy of the ephemera of informal education. Margaret Spufford describes the range of "cheap print" (p. 58) and other literary resources available to the lower classes, and provides maps documenting widespread access to petty and dame schools in villages and dioceses in Cambridgeshire from the late sixteenth century onward. John Rowe Townsend explores the "dual prehistory" (p. 80) of children's literature prior to John Newbery's 1744 landmark Little Pretty Pocket-Book, and argues that Newbery's real accomplishment was to combine older recreational and instructional genres in a way that often included sophisticated technical content.

The next chapters deal with the issue of fantasy and rationality in children's education, a key divide between Enlightenment and Romantic educational views. Norma Clarke asserts that the often politically conservative male Romantics who criticized earlier, more liberal female authors such as Anna Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, and Mary Wollstonecraft were denying women's "teacherly" (p. 94) authority in the home and school. Nicholas Tucker undertakes defending one of the most famous, or infamous, of these female writers for children, Sarah Trimmer. A leading Sunday school and charity school advocate and mother of twelve, Trimmer epitomized the dour moralizers who Dickens, Ruskin, and others would later condemn for edifying and effacing fairy tales. Tucker suggests that Mrs. Trimmer may have had good cause for her concerns in a period when superstition was common and many still believed in fairies. Fairy tales also presented women in a stereotypical, negative fashion (for a somewhat different view on this see Marina Warner), and could be gory and terrifying, as any parent who has skipped over gruesome portions of Hansel and Gretel will attest. What Tucker fails to mention, however, is that censorship is also a serious issue. Maria Edgeworth advised mothers to mutilate books if necessary, as "few books can safely be given to children without the previous use of the pen, the pencil, and the scissors." In the past, as today, children's books were a battleground for adults who sought to protect or liberate children, and invoked rationality and fantasy in gendered political and cultural disputes.

Later chapters explore the relationship between home education and school curricula. David Vincent argues that old primers would probably have been as comfortable to home-educated rich men's sons as to school-educated poor men's sons, but that the early nineteenth-century monitorial system transformed the traditional part-to-whole reading method into a rigid organizational scheme in which lower-class children were stranded for years in strange, meaningless syllables. These charity schools, which supplanted and denigrated home education, were eventually forced to accommodate lower-class parents, however, by reintroducing the whole-word approach that mothers like Jane Johnson had been using in conjunction with phonics for years, and by acquiescing to demands for focusing on basic skills rather than morality. Though Vincent does not mention some of the other factors that contributed to this shift away from moral education, his detailed contextualized analysis of changing pedagogical methods is the kind of behind-the-classroom-door research that is sorely needed in the history of education.

Jane Swindells shows how class and gender intersected in the "ragged schools" of the 1850s, and argues that boys and girls may have reacted to and been affected differently by the official curriculum. Boys' resistance to schooling may have increased their class awareness, while girls were seen as more tractable and were given the responsibility for taming "bad" boys. Swindells suggests that these divergent gender expectations may have lessened class solidarity generally, a provocative hypothesis worth investigating in other settings.

I have not discussed all the essays in this very interesting book. My main query is why is there no mention of the kindergarten, the great incursion of home education methods into the school? Its absence may be explained by the focus on literacy, which Froebel and other Romantics wanted to delay. And able and energetic female kindergartners were not diminished by Romanticism, as these authors imply earlier female educators were, though their authority was limited to a marginalized, female domain. Nor do these authors mention that some eighteenth-century children were taught to read almost as soon as they could talk, a practice which makes the Romantics' desire to enshrine childhood seem understandable and warranted. Opening the Nursery Door provides a corrective to the treacly tots and endearing urchins who have been the focus of so much historical research on children. After reading it I am even more convinced of the radical potential of preschool and home education; of the importance of paying close attention to children's literature; and of the critical role parents like Jane Johnson play in the development of literacy.

1. Marina Warner From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairytales and their Tellers, (New York: Farrar, Straw and Giroux, 1994).

2. Maria Edgeworth, Practical Education (New York: George F. Hopkins and Brown and Stansbury, 1801), Volume I, p. 288.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 3, 1999, p. 680-682
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10326, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:03:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Barbara Beatty
    Wellesley College
    BARBARA BEATTY is associate professor in education, Wellesley College. She is the author of Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present (Yale University Press, 1995). She is working on a history of the impact of educational psychology on teacher education.
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