The Conspiracy Against Childhood
reviewed by John E. Williams - 1969
The Conspiracy Against Childhood
Eda J. LeShan
John Wiley, New York
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Book titles, like newspaper headlines, sometimes seem to be chosen for their shock value. Although the title of this book is shocking, it is quite descriptive of the author's view of certain prevalent attitudes toward children and childhood in contemporary American culture. Mrs. LeShan's principal thesis is that there is, at present, a concerted effort to divert our children from the normal process of gradual intellectual and social growth by premature emphases on the development of intellectual skills and the acquisition of knowledge which may (or may not) have applications to adult life. We are not content, says the author, to let our children enjoy childhood; we feel compelled to move them with the greatest haste toward adulthood. The great paradox is that this trend is intensifying at a time when medical science is prolonging human life and, hence, assuring us of an even longer period of productive adulthood. Along with Mrs. LeShan, the reviewer must ask, "With such long lives ahead of our children, what's all the hurry about having them grow up?"
Mrs. LeShan's documentation of the anti-childhood forces is impressive. The book is studded with poignant vignettes from her years of experience as a nursery-school teacher and director, and a child-welfare and child-guidance worker. She tells of the mother who goes into her eleven-year-old son's room each evening to whisper in his ear, "I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a lawyer." She relates her dismay at meeting a father who carried his children's report cards in his pocket in place of the usual pictures. She describes a widely-sold book designed to help parents train their children to read 150 words a minute, do arithmetical operations and simple algebra, all before the age of five by making lessons a "rigid part of the child's daily schedule, starting at 30 months of age." She comments upon the nursery school which told an inquiring parent of a three-year-old that they considered only children with college potential, and another nursery school which gave letter grades to three-year-olds in such subjects as "sitting still," "attention span," and "singing in unison." She tells of a program to accelerate the development of first graders so as to be able to handle such homework assignments as three-page written themes, and the subsequent abandonment of the program when the six-year-olds developed insomnia, headaches, stomach-aches, etc. She tells of the principal who told a PTA meeting of ninth- and tenth-grade parents that "approximately four hours of homework should be handled each night." Mrs. LeShan has collected some fantastic examples of specific homework assignments with her "favorite" being, "Read The Third Reich over the weekend." The remarkable thing about the foregoing anecdotes is that the adults involved were reasonably typical, contemporary American parents and teachers who are agents, knowingly or not, in the "conspiracy against childhood."
Having laid out the general outline of her argument in an excellent introductory chapter, Mrs. LeShan then proceeds to consider the evidence for the "conspiracy" from infancy to young adulthood through a series of chapters with headings such as, "The Computerized Baby: Or How to Teach Two-Year-Olds to Fail," "Getting into the Nursery School of Your Choice," "The Healthy Aspects of Underachievement," "Are They Dropping Out or Are They Dropping In?" Mrs. LeShan's chapter entitled "This Montessori Madness" provides a finely focussed view of her basic contention. While granting that, for her day (the early 1900's), Dr. Montessori had some extremely foresighted and modern ideas about little children, the author says that:
The Montessori Method as it is being formulated today is simply another expression of our impatience with childhood, and our mechanistic concept of learning and growth&. There is a tendency to push children into standardized patterns of achievement. It is an approach that covers up the exuberance and energy of young children, it represses their vitality, their obstreperousness, it makes them nicely manageable. It makes them look like miniature grown-ups, so that we can comfortably forget that they are not. It narrows the range of what a child may do because the equipment is to be used in certain circumscribed ways. And while the advocates protest that they are opening up new vistas and teaching new skills, they are really encouraging conformity and the narrowing of experience.
After a day of observing the artificial quiet, order, and system of a Montessori school, the author describes her relief on returning to her own nursery school and being confronted by one of her teachers who said, "Gee, I'm glad you're here todayI've got to talk to you about what to do about Peterhe urinated on Betsy again today." Mrs. LeShan adds, "Here was the reality of children being children, letting their feelings and problems show, so that we could help them learn to handle them."
The author's own point of view regarding childhood is eloquently stated in her final chapter, entitled "Let Me Be How I Grow," in which she argues that we must allow children to develop their own intrinsic potentialities, in their own way, and at their own rate. "To the degree that we permit a child to unfold himself, he can have the kind of deep sense of personal fulfillment that I am describing; the degree to which we arbitrarily manipulate nature will be the degree to which our children become puppetstwisted out of shape, never again quite the selves they were meant by nature to be."
Parents and teachers who are themselves deeply involved in the new trends in child-rearing and education might be inclined to dismiss Mrs. LeShan's thesis as being based on a sentimentalized view of childhood which is out-of-place in our brave new world of space travel, computers, and "micro-boppers." Such skeptics owe it to themselves and to today's children to see if they can read the first chapter of this book and still keep the faith.