Friday, February 27, 2009

How Times Have Changed

So my wife looked at the calendar, and decided she'd better start preparing curricula for next year's homeshooling efforts.

(No, really--she's serious, and she has good reason. For one thing, we started the Pillowfight Fairy's first grade year in early July, instead of late August or early September; and if we keep with that schedule, it means the next school year begins in just four months. And besides, with Tonya pregnant--and pregnant with a Trisomy 13 baby with severe developmental abnormalities--it's likely that May, and possibly June, are going to be Really Bad Months. She figured it would be best to get all this planning out of the way now, while life is still fairly normal.)

So she has lots of educational materials scattered around the place. And, on a lark, I picked up McGuffey's Second Eclectic Reader from a pile of stuff yesterday and started flipping through it. And there was one story in there that caught my attention, which I'd like to share with you and comment upon.


In case any of my readers aren't familiar with them, the McGuffey Readers were a set of books used as reading texts, which have been around in one form or another since 1836, and later versions were still in regular classroom use into the second half of the Twentieth Century. Even though they aren't used in the Public Schools anymore (as their literary passages have a strong religious/moral component to them), they are still not infrequently used in the homeschooling community. I wrote about them at length here.

Although there's some debate among homeschoolers about the exact reading levels, most estimates I've seen put the Second Eclectic Reader (1879 edition, which was the latest one) at about a third- or fourth-grade level. Since the Fairy is reading a bit above her grade level, we're thinking that it's about right for her.

So, curious as to what kind of moral lessons Mr. McGuffey was going to teach our little girl, I opened it up at random, and read the following.
Lesson XIV


1. Henry was a kind, good boy. His father was dead, and his mother was very poor. He had a little sister about two years old.

2. He wanted to help his mother, for she could not always earn enough to buy food for her little family.

3. One day, a man gave him a dollar for finding a pocketbook which he had lost.

4. Henry might have kept all the money, for no one saw him when he found it. But his mother had taught him to be honest, and never to keep what did not belong to him.

5. With the dollar he bought a box, three brushes, and some blacking. He then went to the corner of the street, and said to every one whose boots did not look nice, "Black your boots, sir, please?"

6. He was so polite that gentlemen soon began to notice him, and to let him black their boots. The first day he brought home fifty cents, which he gave to his mother to buy food with.

7. When he gave her the money, she said, as she dropped a tear of joy, "You are a dear, good boy, Henry. I did not know how I could earn enough to buy bread with, but now I think we can manage to get along quite well."

8. Henry worked all the day, and went to school in the evening. He earned almost enough to support his mother and his little sister.
So, what do you think?

Well, by modern sensibilities, this story is something of a heavy-handed morality tale. Not that our modern sensibilities are against heavy-handed morality tales, but they tend to be heavy-handed about different things (ethnic diversity, the environment, healthful diet, acceptance of alternative lifestyles, et cetera).

But the moral lesson of this tale seems, well... simplistic to us. A young boy (by the looks of the picture, a pre-teen), who's lost his father, who spontaneously decides to start working to support his family, while going to school in the evenings? And he actually succeeds at paying most of his family's bills? And we're supposed to believe this stuff? We're supposed to give this really, really contrived story to our children, and expect them to accept such a moral lesson when the world depicted in the pages of the Reader is so different than the one our kids inhabit?

Well, um... yes.


As I said above, modern sensibilities also thrust heavy-handed, highly-contrived morality tales on our kids. That hasn't changed; all that's changed is the set of values that's being pushed. And one of the reasons that the above story seems so contrived upon a first reading, is that our values regarding childhood are so different now than they were in the late 19th Century.

What is childhood? What are children supposed to be doing with their time? What are children supposed to have accomplished by the time they turn 12? 16? 18? 22? 29?

I present for your consideration two different schools of thought on this question.

Here's the way people thought of childhood back when America was primarily a rural, agricultural society--back when Mr. McGuffey was writing his books. Childhood was, simply stated, training for adulthood. Kids are born without the survival skills they need--they don't know how to raise (or kill) their own food, they don't know what activities are safe and what are dangerous (and there are plenty of things on a farm that can get you killed), they don't have the moral fiber yet to get up and keep working even when they'd rather stay in bed (behavior which, in subsistence farming, will eventually cause you to starve). If a kid is going to set out on his own at age 18, then that 18-year-old must be fully-formed, fully-adult, fully mature; he can't be lazy, he can't be incompetent. He must know everything about growing and raising food, about caring for animals (and then slaughtering and butchering them), about how to survive winter, about binding up wounds, and so forth. By the time a girl reached adulthood, she needed to know everything there was to know about clothes-making: sheep-shearing or cotton-harvesting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, and mending. She also had to know all about food gathering, preserving, and preparation--starting with, say, a cow.

(Here's a cow. Now use it to feed your family....)

So from a very early age, these kids were faced with very immediate real-world problems and harsh realities. Farm kids knew the facts of life from a very early age--after all, they often, um... lived with their parents and siblings in small farmhouses without a lot of privacy. And they watched the livestock mating, and knew exactly what was happening. These kids knew about death; most kids in large families lost at least one sibling before they reached adulthood. And people didn't go away to hospitals or nursing homes to die; kids watched their elders grow to senescence and dependence in front of their eyes, and then when the time came, they helped bury them.

In this environment, children had tremendous responsibilities put upon them starting from very young ages: as soon as you were old enough physically to do some task, you had to do it--no shirking. Even very young children had to go fetch water, or fetch wood for the fire, or feed the animals. And as the kids got older, their responsibilities grew, until kids as young as what we would consider Junior-High age were capable of running the farms.

But in this environment, adulthood is a state greatly to be wished. Children have nearly as many responsibilities as the adults do, but they do not have much freedom; because they have not learned fully to control themselves yet, the adults had to maintain discipline. But as the child matured and learned to do the work on his own, he was granted greater freedom and independence. When kids became adults, they still had all the responsibilities, but they had the self-control needed to live up to them without needing a disciplinarian.

So under this paradigm, childhood had many very heavy responsibilities but few freedoms; as the child matured into adulthood, the freedoms increased. Adulthood was thus seen by children as something to be desired, and it came (by our standards) relatively early.

That view of childhood isn't very prevalent today.

What has replaced it is a view of childhood as unspoiled innocence; the idea that childhood should be a time of wonder and exploration, that should be enjoyed as (in many ways) the best part of a person's life. Children's responsibilities in the modern world are often limited to schoolwork and household chores--and the latter of these is often only sporadically enforced. The idea that children need to learn to pull their weight around here is seen not only as outdated, but as downright barbaric.

How dare you, a big, strong parent, demand that your kid do all this work? That's your job, not his! By making your kid do all this stuff, you're stealing his childhood.

In contrast to the other childhood paradigm, this one sees responsibility as something that comes with age. As you enter adulthood, at that time you have responsibility put upon you--the responsibility to earn enough to keep a roof over your head, the responsibility to earn enough to keep yourself fed, the responsibility of caring for children and for elders, the responsibility of finding and pursuing a vocation.

In this paradigm, responsibility is a mark of adulthood. Freedom, on the other hand, comes earlier. Now, even in this paradigm, freedoms tend to grow as the person ages--we don't let young kids drive, for one example. Nevertheless, we do tend to give out the freedoms before we assign the responsibilities; people often learn to drive before they can pay the car insurance.

And, for that matter, it is generally acceptable in our broader society for people to become sexually active long before they feel ready to accept the "adult" responsibilities of marriage and family.

In fact, under this new paradigm, we've developed a rather disparaging term to describe the process of accepting the responsibilities of adulthood: we call it (often with a hint of wistfulness in our voices), "settling down".

So the life trajectory of our kids has changed. Childhood has become a time of play, of wonder, of experimentation, of learning--ideally isolated by loving parents from the harsh realities of life. For a kid to be expected to shoulder real responsibilities, like the children of 1879 were, would be "stealing their childhood", and would be considered child abuse.

(I remember reading a news article once about the Duggars, that Arkansas family that has 18 kids--with no intention of stopping, so long as God keeps giving them more. The story asked them how they managed to take care of all of them; and part of their answer was that the older ones were expected to shoulder some of the responsibility to take care of the younger ones. The reader comments at the end of the article were instructive: they were full of self-righteous anger at how the parents were "stealing the childhoods" of their older kids by giving them this kind of responsibility).

But after childhood, there's a gap before "Settling Down" into adulthood. The teenager, or early twenty-something-ager, has new-found, new-won freedoms, but (understandably!) doesn't exactly want to jump into the world of mortgage payments, income tax, and PTA meetings. He or she wants to sow wild oats! Wants to travel the world, wants to try out different relationships, without committing to any (not yet at any rate), wants to try out different jobs for a while, without necessarily committing to a career.

And this thought leads onto a tangent that isn't exactly where I'm trying to take this essay, but fits in very nicely with my earlier post on Bristol Palin, here.


My point is, we have a tendency to judge the moral vision of childhood as presented in the McGuffey Readers, through modern eyes, and we don't necessarily like what we see. After all, how would you respond if you heard about this family:
  • The father is nowhere to be found.
  • The mother is unable to find a job that supports the family.
  • So the pre-teen boy of the family drops out of regular day-school, and
  • Starts taking whatever odd jobs he can find.
  • His mother collects the money he earns, to pay off the bills.
  • The boy continues his education at night school.
Egads! The Child Protective Services would be on this family in an instant. While within the scope of the story, the boy is voluntarily working to support his family, in real life we would sarcastically snark, "A likely story," and blame the mother for putting the boy to work when he should be in school! We would say that if she was really having that hard of a time making ends meet, she should talk to the state or county governments to see what kinds of public assistance are available. If (as in the story) the father was deceased, they would qualify for Social Security benefits, as well. There is no reason that mother should be suffering material deprivation. There is no excuse to be stealing that kid's childhood. And there is absolutely no reason that the kid should be working!

...except that working to take care of one's family is a thoroughly noble thing to do. It is a sign of adult-level maturity. And it is ennobling; far more than any academic work, it gives the person who's doing it a sense that I Matter. Real work is not a curse, or a chore; real work, of the kind that enables a person to meet his needs and those of his family, is a gift. There is no greater builder of confidence in a young man, than for that man to look back on the tasks he has accomplished (real tasks of real benefit to someone--not academic makework), and to be told, "good job".

And I suspect that the converse is true as well. There is nothing so disempowering, so emasculating, as being denied the opportunity or ability to do real work (again, I'm not talking about academic make-work here). Sure, a person may not like doing the work, but there are benefits (like self-esteem and self-confidence) that the work will impart anyway.


So yes: I fully concur with my wife's decision to have our daughter read the lessons from the McGuffey Readers, and I fully hope that she takes the moral lessons to heart. Between the two paradigms of childhood, I agree much more heartily with the early-responsibility, early-maturity model than the one more in vogue today. I understand that, yet again, we'll be swimming upstream culturally--but then, we're non-TV watching homeschoolers, so what else is new?


A few credits are in order, I think. One of the commenters to my earlier post on Bristol Palin and marriage, Theocentrica, sent me a link to an article entitled In Defense of Marrying Young, and some of the thoughts there--and other articles linked to from there--figured heavily in what wound up in this essay, especially this one by Frederica Matthewes-Green.

I've also written before on the topic of kids and work, here.


silvermine said...

Beautiful post. :)

My mom had a speech she gave often, and I now use on my kids, all about responsibilities and privileges. Basically that as one grows, so does the other. I can't imagine families where the kids aren't expected to help out. But I know they exist. I just wonder what the parents think they're teaching...

And hey, if that was my life, I guess I wouldn't want to grow up either, and would wait for ever to get married and have kids and I'd sign contracts and expect to be able to break them.

B. Durbin said...

I didn't work to support my family as a pre-teen and teenager... but I worked to support myself. Half of everything I earned went to savings bonds that were to help me with my college education. In fact, I cashed the last one of those on the occasion of my post-collegiate wedding.

And yeah, that was a NICE financial boon to me. Once I went off to college I didn't have to ask my parents for money (though it was really close some times— we got lucky.) That was good as I didn't want to ask; it's a point of pride to be able to support oneself. (One can carry it too far... we did, finally, move in with my in-laws for a few months when we realized we were just digging a hole. Our financial trajectory has been upwards since that point.)

Crimson Wife said...

My great-grandfather died when my grandfather was 13. As he was the oldest surviving son (his older brother had died in the 1919 flu pandemic), he dropped out of school to support his mom and siblings. He earned his high school diploma and then a bachelor's degree at night. After serving in WWII, he used the GI Bill to attend law school.

Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself in this economy, I think of my grandpa and it reminds me that if he could make it through the Great Depression, surely I can weather this current recession.

Timothy Power said...

Crimson Wife, I just read your comment to my wife, and she had an interesting response.

Those people who know their family histories, who know how their ancestors made it through the Depression, are the ones who are least frightened by the current recession (and the ones least likely to buy into the "We're all going to die!" hype coming from Washington. If you know what your grandparents or great-grandparents did to get through, you generally have the perspective to know that the current recession isn't really all that bad, and that even if it were that bad, we'd be able to make it through anyway.

Tonya's maternal grandparents survived the depression by taking whatever odd jobs they could, and retreating back onto the family farm when they couldn't find work. The great-grandmother managed to get a little cash by selling eggs and butter from her little farm, and this was enough to support the whole family. Listening to Tonya's mom, they had very, very little; but they somehow survived anyway.

People who know their family histories know that we aren't anywhere near that level of deprivation yet.