By Philippe Aries. New York: Vintage Books, 1962. 447 pages.

Bob Corbett

In 1963 a landmark book was published in France. Translated into English as CENTURIES OF CHILDHOOD, Philippe Aries' book has revolutionized the study of young people. History has mainly been the study of kings, nobles, wars, the rise and fall of governments and empires. Notably absent from much historical study has been the story of the common person of past ages. This upper class bias of historians has not, in the main, been motivated by ideological concerns. Rather, historians have not had data about the common folk. These people never left many records. Most were illiterate. History is made up of interpretations of written records. Thus, exit the common folk as a subject for history.

Aries turned all that upside down. His book found new ways of understanding the past, and his methods unlock the story of common families and the youth of these families. Hundreds of books have been written since 1963 in the area of the history of childhood, and are deeply indebted to Aries for his methods of inferential history.

On Aries' view, childhood is a very new concept. It did not exist at all in the Medieval period, grew into existence in the upper classes in the 16th and 17th centuries, solidified itself somewhat more fully in the 18th century upper classes, and finally mushroomed on the scene of the 20th century in both the upper and lower classes. But, on his argument, childhood did not really penetrate the great masses of the lower and lower-middle classes until very late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Aries does not claim there were no young people. Not even a Frenchman would try a claim as bold as that. Rather, while there were an abundance of young humans between the ages of 7 and 15, they were not seen as children. Their cultures lacked the concept of childhood. In the Medieval world a young person of 7 was already an adult. (Recall that in Roman Catholic theology 7 is the age of reason, the age when one could begin to commit serious sin. This is an argument which Aries overlooked). Aries points out that most young people were apprenticed, became workers in the fields (later, after the industrial revolution, in the factories) and generally entered fully into the adult society at a very early age.

As evidence he cites art work. There are no children. There are babies. But, what we call children do not exist. Little adults are there. The musculature, dress, expressions, and mannerisms are all adult. An interesting footnote: For years art historians explained this embarrassing fact by suggesting that the artists lacked the skill to paint children. Consider how silly this well received argument was. The same artists had ample skill to paint adults, but they couldn't paint kids. Aries suggests another explanation, the one generally accepted today, namely that they couldn't paint young people as children because they were not children. In their cultures they were little adults, and this is precisely what the artists saw. Childhood is a later historical creation.

On Aries' view, once the institution of childhood began to emerge the situation of the young person began to change in society. First they were named children. A theory of innocence of the child emerged. Children were to be protected from adult reality. The facts of birth, death, sex, tragedy, world events were hidden from the child. Children, the new creation, were increasingly segregated by age -- the very fact of having an age became important, whereas in the "ancien regime" peoples ages were virtually unknown.

Suppose that Aries is right about all of this. What difference does it make? What hangs on it? I want to look briefly at two of these implications.

  1. What is natural in the life of human young? The Medieval world assumed that there was no childhood, and it treated young people accordingly. Young people behaved as they were expected, and society succeeded. On the other hand our culture assumes that young people are children. We assume that there is a longish period of preparation of children for adulthood. We treat young people accordingly, and they act accordingly. Today there are truly children.

    I believe there is no natural in all of this. People are as society treats them. To the extent that this is so, much hangs on Aries' thesis. We live in a society which assumes that children really are children by NATURE. I argue that children of the 20th century really are children, but that they are children by our CHOICE.

    At this point in the argument I do not argue against this practice. I simply argue against our pretending that what is a choice is really nature. Nature is a given. We simply cope with it, like we learn to live with the law of gravity. Choice is the realm of moral action. We have a moral obligation to defend our choices, to recognize them as choices. Such a view of young people would radically change the picture of parenting and living in our society.

    Consider, on such a view, the parents, teachers, educators and citizens would need to DEFEND their view of making young people into children as the best way to treat them.

  2. A second important consequence of Aries' thesis concerns compulsory schooling. In the research I have been doing on the origins of compulsory schooling, a disturbing pattern emerges. First comes the industrial revolution. The development of factory work changes the society from a basically rural feudal economy to a factory-centered urban society. This reaches significant proportions in England by 1840, by 1860 in the rest of Western Europe and the U.S. Families pore out of the countryside into the industrial centers. Children are grossly abused by early industrialists.

    But, what is often not noticed, so were men and women too. The industrialists responded to criticisms by allowing anti-child labor laws. This caused a great dislocation of the working youth. (Note that in the bargain men and women continued to work in the unsafe and inhumane conditions. The industrialists traded the children to save their systems of exploitation.) For the first time in Western history millions of young people were forcibly out of work. These youth became social problems. (Not unlike unemployed youth of today!) Society demanded protection from these "delinquents". First society forcibly put them out of work, then named them delinquents for misusing their idle hours! The great solution to all these problems was mandatory schooling. Force them--by law--into school to keep them off the streets. The birth of the school systems.

    This view is bolstered by the fact that geographic area by geographic area, there is about a 20 year gap between industrialization and child labor laws, and another 20 year gap between child labor laws and compulsory school laws. (Social change comes slowly!) Secondly, when one studies the arguments that actually appear in the newspapers of the times, and the arguments used in state and local legislatures, the primary argument is not all the glorious stuff about education for democracy, nor education for job training, nor even the wonderful humanistic arguments that learning is culturally important. Rather, the actual arguments emphasize getting the kids off the streets. School was a form of detention, as most school children have always known.

    It is important for parents, citizens and teachers to look at these issues. Are young people NATURALLY children or are they victims of a certain social decision? If the latter, do we consciously and fully affirm this state of affairs, or do we choose to oppose this forced childhood? Are there alternatives? If so, what are they? Many important questions flow from the work of Phillipe Aries.

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu