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In 1932, John Dewey, now elevated to a position as Americas most prominent educational voice, heralded the end of what he called "the old individualism." Time had come, he said, for a new individualism that recognized the radical transformation that had come in American society:
Associations, tightly or loosely organized, more and more define opportunities, choices, and actions of individuals.
Death, a staple topic of childrens books for hundreds of years because it poses a central puzzle for all children, nearly vanished as theme or event after 1916. Children were instructed indirectly that there was no grief; indeed, an examination of hundreds of those books from the transitional period between 1900 and 1916 reveals that Evil no longer had any reality either. There was no Evil, only bad attitudes, and those were correctable by training and adjustment therapies.
To see how goals of utopian procedure are realized, consider further the sudden change that fell upon the childrens book industry between 1890 and 1920. Without explanations or warning, timeless subjects disappeared from the texts, to be replaced by what is best regarded as a political agenda. The suddenness of this change was signaled by many other indications of powerful social forces at work: the phenomenal overnight growth of "research" hospitals where professional hospital-ity replaced home-style sick care, was one of these, the equally phenomenal sudden enforcement of compulsory schooling another.
Through childrens books, older generations announce their values, declare their aspirations, and make bids to socialize the young. Any sudden change in the content of such books must necessarily reflect changes in publisher consciousness, not in the general class of book-buyer whose market preferences evolve slowly. What is prized as human achievement can usually be measured by examining childrens texts; what is valued in human relationships can be, too.
In the thirty-year period from 1890 to 1920, the childrens book industry became a creator, not a reflector, of values. In any freely competitive situation this could hardly have happened because the newly aggressive texts would have risked missing the market. The only way such a gamble could be safe was for total change to occur simultaneously among publishers. The insularity and collegiality of childrens book publishing allowed it this luxury.
One aspect of childrens publishing that has remained consistent all the way back to 1721 is the zone where it is produced; today, as nearly three hundred years ago, the Northeast is where childrens literature happensinside the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. No industry shift has ever disturbed this cozy arrangement: over time, concentration became even more intense. Philadelphias role diminished in the twentieth century, leaving Boston and New York co-regents at its end. In 1975, 87 percent of all titles available came from those two former colonial capitals, while in 1876 it had been "only" 84 percent, a marvelous durability. For the past one hundred years these two cities have decided what books American children will read.
Until 1875, about 75 percent of all childrens titles dealt with some aspect of the futureusually salvation. Over the next forty years this idea vanished completely. As Comte and Saint-Simon had strongly advised, the child was to be relieved of concerning itself with the future. The future would be arranged for children and for householders by a new expert class, and the need to do Gods will was now considered dangerous superstition by men in charge.
Another dramatic switch in childrens books had to do with a characters dependence on community to solve problems and to give life meaning. Across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, strength, afforded by stable community life, was an important part of narrative action, but toward the end of the nineteenth century a totally new note of "self" was sounded. Now protagonists became more competent, more in control; their need for family and communal affirmation disappeared, to be replaced by a new imperativethe quest for certification by legitimate authority. Needs now suddenly dominant among literary characters were so-called "expressive needs": exploring, playing, joy, loving, self-actualizing, intriguing against ones own parents. By the early twentieth century, a solid majority of all childrens books focus on the individual child free from the web of family and community.
This model had been established by the Horatio Alger books in the second half of the nineteenth century; now with some savage modern flourishes (like encouraging active indifference to family) it came to totally dominate the childrens book business. Children were invited to divide their interests from those of their families and to concentrate on private concerns. A few alarmed critical voices saw this as a strategy of "divide and conquer," a means to separate children from family so they could be more easily molded into new social designs. In the words of Mary Lystad, the biographer of childrens literary history from whom I have drawn heavily in this analysis:
As the twentieth century continued, book characters were provided more and more opportunities to pay attention to themselves. More and more characters were allowed to look inward to their own needs and desires.
This change of emphasis "was managed at the expense of others in the family group," she adds.
From 1796 to 1855, 18 percent of all childrens books were constructed around the idea of conformity to some adult norm; but by 1896 emphasis on conformity had tripled. This took place in the thirty years following the Civil War. Did the elimination of the Southern pole of our national dialectic have anything to do with that? Yes, everything, I think. With tension between Northern and Southern ways of life and politics resolved permanently in favor of the North, the way was clear for triumphant American orthodoxy to seize the entire field. The huge increase in conformist themes rose even more as we entered the twentieth century and has remained at an elevated level through the decades since.
What is most deceptive in trying to fix this characteristic conformity is the introduction of an apparently libertarian note of free choice into the narrative equation. Modern characters are encouraged to self-start and to proceed on what appears to be an independent course. But upon closer inspection, that course is always toward a centrally prescribed social goal, never toward personal solutions to lifes dilemmas. Freedom of choice in this formulation arises from the feeling that you have freedom, not from its actual possession. Thus social planners get the best of both worlds: a large measure of control without any kicking at the traces. In modern business circles, such a style of oversight is known as management by objectives.
Another aspect of this particular brand of regulation is that book characters are shown being innovative, but innovative only in the way they arrive at the same destination; their emotional needs for self-expression are met harmlessly in this way without any risk to social machinery. Much evidence of centralized tinkering within the factory of childrens literature exists, pointing in the direction of what might be called Unit-Manpeople as work units partially broken free of human community who can be moved about efficiently in various social experiments. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, thought of such an end as "laboratory research aimed at designing a rational utopia."
To mention just a few other radical changes in childrens book content between 1890 and 1920: school credentials replace experience as the goal book characters work toward, and child labor becomes a label of condemnation in spite of its ancient function as the quickest, most reliable way to human independencethe way taken in fact by Carnegie, Rockefeller, and many others who were now apparently quite anxious to put a stop to it.
Children are encouraged not to work at all until their late teen years, sometimes not until their thirties. A case for the general superiority of youth working instead of idly sitting around in school confinement is often made prior to 1900, but never heard again in childrens books after 1916. The universality of this silence is the notable thing, deafening in fact.
Protagonists goals in the new literature, while apparently individualistic, are almost always found being pursued through social institutionsthose ubiquitous "associations" of John Dewey never through family efforts. Families are portrayed as good-natured dormitory arrangements or affectionate manager-employee relationships, but emotional commitment to family life is noticeably ignored. Significant family undertakings like starting a farm or teaching each other how to view life from a multi-age perspective are so rare that the few exceptions stand out like monadnocks above a broad, flat plain.
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