Notions Of Innocence And Experience

May 14, 2002

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: 865-5714

Young minds absorb knowledge the way sponges soak up water. That's the way some primary and secondary teachers like to think education works on students. And children--pure, innocent and malleable--are blank slates awaiting input from educators. Notions about the innocence of childhood have prevailed in Western thought since the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau put forth his ideas about innocence in the 18th century.

But doesn't a child have autonomous intelligence? How important are culture and history to the way a child lives in and views the world? Aren't children creating their own peer cultures and resisting authority of adults? And when a child bullies other children, what happened to innate innocence?

These questions are among the issues raised in a five-session seminar, "The Social and Cultural Construction of Childhood," that Tulane professors participated in this spring with Newman School elementary and secondary teachers. Funded by a National Humanities Center grant to Newman, a private Uptown kindergarten-through-12th-grade school, the seminar was led by associate professors Molly Travis of English, April Brayfield of sociology, and Stacy Overstreet of psychology.

The purpose of the seminar, whose reading list was developed by the Tulane faculty in consultation with the Newman teachers, was professional development for the teachers. "They identified what was important for them to understand that they wanted to learn about and focus on," says Overstreet.

The readings ranged across disciplines--history, literary theory, sociology, psychology, anthropology and ethical studies--as well as fiction, including science fiction. Historical interpretations of childhood, coming-of-age stories and arguments about our culture's eroticism of children through risque dress and pop-star adulation were among the topics covered.

Travis says she is thrilled to be part of Tulane's efforts to create partnerships in the city and says the pairing of Newman and Tulane is significant because of the close historical association of the two schools. She says she came away from the seminar "amazed at the work that K-12 teachers do."

In addition to her renewed admiration for pre-college teachers, Travis says she's grateful for the rare opportunity the seminar gave her to work with Brayfield and Overstreet. Brayfield agrees and says that listening to how the Newman teachers and her Tulane colleagues approached issues from different disciplinary vantage points helped her to think outside her own disciplinary box.

Brayfield's area of concentration is the sociology of childhood, which looks at children's status in society. "It's basically how people view children and their position in society," she says. One thing that's interesting to Brayfield is that "the way in which we talk about children in this country is much different than in many countries--especially European countries."

One reason for this difference, says Brayfield, is that the United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. "In Europe, even in the popular press, there's much more discussion of children in terms of children's rights as well as parental and societal obligations to children," Brayfield says.

The Newman teachers were quite open and eager to hear about cultural comparisons such as this, say Travis and Brayfield, because the teachers are striving to provide an international perspective for their students. A challenge that is more difficult for the Newman teachers is what to do about what Travis calls the "postmodern" youth culture--the shallow TV, film, music, shopping, mall-going culture--which many of the teachers believe has eclipsed more profound, deep, cultural experiences.

The teachers expressed concern about a lack of civility and meaningful rituals among their students. This yearning for bygone manners and formal dress codes may merely be nostalgia, Brayfield points out. She says that the teachers' "experiences and their perspectives illustrated the challenges of overcoming the well-entrenched, popular conceptions of children as innocent. It's difficult for educators--really, for all of us--to move beyond a sentimental notion of the good old days."

The seminar focused on how adults help children shape their identities and how society brings them through that process. Overstreet, who has studied the effects of violence on New Orleans children from a vastly different socioeconomic group than Newman students--those who live in public housing developments, says all children and adolescents have in common the basic developmental task of understanding their own identities. All children--whether impoverished or privileged, "no matter who you are or where you're living"--struggle with identity issues, says Overstreet.

Mary Ann Travis may be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000