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The Cult of Childhood

reviewed by M. A. Eckstein - 1967

coverTitle: The Cult of Childhood
Author(s): George Boas
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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When W. C. Fields was asked how he liked children, he is supposed to have said, "Broiled!"; but child-hatred as an adult way of Me is rarely voiced so bluntly in the so-called advanced countries of the world today. This is not to say that it might not lurk beneath the surface. Bertrand Russell's view is that hostility is natural to the adult view of childhood. For many centuries, according to him, children were seen as limbs of Satan. Then, in the nineteenth century, they came to be regarded as angels of innocence. One could hardly spank those delicate beings who possessed the unique qualities ascribed to them by Rousseau and Wordsworth. So parents invented new devils, no longer theological ones inspired by Satan, but scientific ones: Freudian demons of the unconscious; the unbearable pressures of adolescence; the impact of society itself. When parents could no longer wallop the little pests, as Russell put it, they compensated by inventing a new demonology about the young.

Professor Boas' study is devoted to the revolution in thinking whereby children became innocents in the minds of men. It is an elegant tour de force of intellectual history based largely on European literary sources. His thesis is that various cults-the Noble Savage, the rural Folk, and later the Irrational-provide different exemplars of a general belief in primitivism. With the passing of the idea of the Noble Savage (coinciding, incidentally, with westward expansion in North America and the decimation of the American Indian) other objects of belief in the primitive were unearthed, all possessing several qualities in common: intuitive wisdom (rather than learning), a keen appreciation of beauty ("Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art"), and a great sensitivity to moral values. The cult of childhood, the author asserts, is part of a larger history of cultural primitivism which developed synchronously with the advancement of the natural sciences. In his essay, Boas analyzes the changing concepts of childhood during recent centuries and their culmination in radically new views of the child and new assumptions about its nature and characteristics which led to new ways of treating the young.


The beginnings of the cult are to be found in sixteenth century scepticism, although its Urgeschichte may be traced back to the story of the Christ-child. But Jesus was not really representative of childhood; and, even when the theme of Mother adoring the Child appeared in Renaissance art, it was worship of an exceptional child rather than of children. The origins of what was an occasion to become no less than child adulation He in a period of European history characterized by rediscovery of forgotten classical texts, vast geographical explorations, new inventions, new sciences, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of new nations and vernacular literatures. All of these provided the basis for philosophical scepticism and anti-authoritarianism; and, though the author does not delve into it, for the development of scientific methods of inquiry. It was at this point in history, for example, that praise was accorded to animals "who knew good and evil without possessing reason, are virtuous without instruction and have no need of intellect." These attributes were later transferred to children. The theme occurs in Montaigne when he praises animals and primitive man, although his ideas about the training of children remain firm. Boas also shows how seventeenth century theology and belles-lettres gave support to the emerging cult of childhood. He quotes a delightful early example from John Earle's sketch of the child in his Microcosmographie (1628) which incorporates several important themes: the Child is like Adam before the Fall; the life of the individual recapitulates the history of the race; growing up is moral degeneration; experience is defacement of original purity; the Child is pure and simple.


It was not until Rousseau, however, that such ideas became a full blown theory of the nature of the child and child treatment. Since Boas is interested in the history of the several themes in the cult of childhood—and especially in their literary expression—he does not enter into much discussion of Rousseau's educational philosophy. He is more concerned with relating the portrait presented in Emile to those of other writers and thinkers. Thus he unravels the pertinent strands of the cult of childhood found in Bernardin Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie, that tragic tale of conflict between nature and civilization, or between purity and love on the one hand and artificial, imposed modesty (properly, sophistication) on the other. It is in Pestalozzi, however, that Boas discerns the very essence of the cults of childhood and cultural primitivism; the belief that those highly lauded traits now being described were actually innate. By the end of the eighteenth century, the child was becoming a new and special being, sui generis.

Boas' gallery of portraits from the nineteenth century shows the further development of a host of important motifs. Wordsworth, of course, points at Heaven which is around us at our infancy, the shades of the prison house closing about us as we grow. Emerson, amongst other themes, offers infant non-conformity as a paradigm for adults. Victor Hugo, exuberant as ever, tells how the innocence of childhood (a naked little girl) has the power to subdue the ferocity of the beast (a lion which is carrying her brother in its mouth). In Swinburne, Boas comments, ecstasy over babies becomes ludicrous. By the end of the nineteenth century the precedent of child heroes and heroines is well established, although the types vary from "such revolting little prigs" as Elsie Dinsmore to the "angelic" David Copperfield and Hans Anderson's saintly child who saw that the Emperor was indeed naked. There are even a few bad boys in Twain and Tarkington.


Boas is especially interested in the growth of the law of recapitulation, the idea that human development retraces the history of the race. He follows this from its origins through Herder, Comte, Freud and Schopenhauer into its various modern manifestations in the natural and physical sciences as well as social science, notably anthropology.

Just as society becomes aware of the special and meritorious qualities of childhood, so does art come to value the childlike, innocent eye. Boas lighty traces the connections between his main theme and developments in art, Dadaism, Surrealism and on into a variety of contemporary forms. The child draws what he knows is there and what he feels, not only what his eyes show him. By the middle of the twentieth century, artists have claimed the status of children, or perhaps it has been ascribed to them by critics, in so far as they paint "from within", seeking to explore media in highly personal ways. Art, for both artist and child, becomes exploration or therapy rather than aesthetics or communication.


The key word of the cult of childhood, according to Boas, is innocence, and obviously it leads to a new pedagogical system. The major example he quotes is Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book, Teacher (1963), a rather surprising choice in several ways. One might have expected the author's interest in the literary sources to have led him rather to her novel, Spinster, a far subtler and more persuasive presentation of the same set of ideas, and a far more elegant one. But the choice of Ashton-Warner as an example of the new pedagogical view is arbitrary, to say the least. Educational views based on "the assumption that the child already possesses the wisdom that he needs" have been presented over and over again by a host of writers during the last fifty years, many of them more systematic and thoughtful than she. Boas admits that a detailed study of pedagogical theories since Emile is a necessary complement to his study of the cult. Yet he might have given a more appropriate example of the connection between literary themes and pedagogical statements.

Since Boas is concerned with documenting the growing cult of the child, he must perforce omit much. Yet he appears to dismiss all too quickly the anti-child theme which is a part of the history. He does mention that the early statements such as Earle's are in opposition to Calvinist doctrines and the idea of original sin. He also notes that Puritan New England took the "putti" of the Italian Renaissance, angelic little children associated more with profane than sacred love, and transformed them into disembodied faces with wings, for decorations on their tombstones. But the twentieth century emergence of children who were downright evil to which he refers (in Richard Hughes and William Golding), cannot be altogether the new trend that he suggests. It is surely the re-emergence of a traditional concept, the Calvinist view of the child in a new guise, compensating, perhaps, as Russell suggests, for the temporary loss of a rationale for treating children in ways that are tough. This anti-child theme, appearing early as part of the doctrine of original sin and later in the idea of children as uncontrolled, passionate, driven by subterranean forces and generally threatening to the adult world—uncivilized in the negative rather than in the Rousseau sense—is the Doppelganger of the cult of childhood, the Anti-Christ of the Child. The inhabitants of the Island of Flies and the young mutineers sailing under a high wind to Jamaica, did not arrive from nowhere. It would have been interesting to consider where they were hiding during the period from Rousseau to Freud. There are certainly intimations of their immortality in nineteenth century pedagogical writing and practice, to say nothing of the public image (and the private vision). They were at Arnold's Rugby, for example, and were undoubtedly taught their lessons from the McGuffey readers.


A few other thoughts occurred to this reviewer as he read the book with growing fascination and admiration. The two rather lovable bad boys in nineteenth century literature which Boas mentions are American; the two evil ones in more recent novels are English. French writers provide the philosophical basis for "the new child", as do some German thinkers, but the child heroes of other European countries to which the author refers just do not compare with the number and variety found in novels in the English language. Is this due simply to his own choice of illustrations of the cult of childhood? Or is there some evidence that the view of the child varies systematically not only over time, as Boas shows, but also between cultures? Study of child-rearing patterns and selected aspects of educational practice and theory have made cultural comparisons possible. There still remains, though, a great opportunity for some of our comparative educators to consider cross-cultural variations in educational phenomena by scrutiny of literary as well as other sources in order to examine culturally different ways of regarding childhood and of implementing these beliefs in education.

The frontispiece to Professor Boas' book is a reproduction of Caroto's painting, Franciullo con Pupazzeto (early 16th century), in black and white, unfortunately, so that the gorgeous red tints are missed. This delightful little girl, joyously showing her drawing, is modern in both spirit and content, testimony to the long history which Boas, as he admits, merely sketches. Yet his work is replete with scholarly detail and provocative insight. The practice of quoting at length in the original language should not deter any readers; but, as he states, will delight those who wish to see for themselves what the authority quoted actually said. It is a scholarly piece, but not dry, and will give satisfaction and stimulus to all who are interested in children, literature, art, or social and intellectual history. This reviewer, for one, was sorry to reach the final paragraphs where the author merely mentions the many fascinating possibilities for further study, for example, the fullest blooming of the cult of childhood in adult behaviors of various kinds in the United States. He notes that his study needs to be complemented by studies of child-sages, fashions and fads (e.g. collecting dolls, toy soldiers and electric railroads—by adults) and attempts at producing prodigies (Hersey's novel, The Child Buyer, takes up this theme), to say nothing of what authors of children's books thought would interest their readers. Many of these topics have indeed been studied and reference to the numerous attempts to handle such data and themes would have provided a useful appendix to this work. They are in fact too many even to mention in this critique, yet none that the reviewer is acquainted with has the erudition, the wit and the scope of Professor Boas' study of the cult of childhood.

One final thought: the word 'cult' carries the suggestion of something cranky and impermanent. What then will be the fate of the adored object, the Child, and the dogmas associated with it? Boas' sketch of the origins and the development combined with the evidences around us today show how the early beliefs and their implications have been amended. Adolescence, for example, seems to have grown out of the cult and replaced the very young child as an object of worship. Boas, without making any real prognosis, takes the optimistic view. If, he says, men have persistently rejected the ultimate vision of the cult of childhood—which he finds expressed in the work of Norman O. Brown—and have always insisted on growing up, "we can only conclude that there is after all something congenial in maturity." Yet, as one considers contemporary fashions and other adult behaviors, art and literary forms, leisure-time activities, and domestic or foreign political affairs, the basic motifs of the cult of childhood appear appallingly persistent: the Irrational; the Naif; the Egocentric; the Simple; the Intuitive.

Maturity may be congenial, as George Boas puts it. One sometimes wonders if it is congenital.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 69 Number 1, 1967, p. 91-95
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2059, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 2:52:49 PM

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