Thursday, February 17, 2011

Revolutionary questions

This week’s post can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. The front page is here. A direct link to the post is here.

Here's a teaser paragraph:

About two weeks ago, Pip dug out from the far end of our bookshelf two children’s biographies that had belonged to me as a kid and had somehow managed to survive all my subsequent moves and book purges. One recounted the life of Thomas Jefferson. The other was about Benjamin Franklin. Re-reading these books for the first time in about two decades, while popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were toppling dictatorial governments in the background, made me very aware of the almost magical ease with which the transition from revolution to stable democratic governance occurs in America’s founding mythology. This awareness made me question whether this mythology will ultimately do my children a disservice. Will it lead them to expect at an intuitive level that any dramatic break from established patterns will resolve itself neatly and in a way that is universally good? And, as such, will this expectation lead them towards a naive embrace of revolutionary change at the expense of careful and programmatic efforts (such as happened with the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy for creating a democratic Iraq)? My own experience makes me think that this is not a totally ridiculous question.

Read the rest of the post here.


  1. I think some caution is in order before trying to introduce too much complexity into the myth at too young an age. Young children developmentally are really not ready for too many shades of grey in the world. They need to understand the black and white, good and bad, right and wrong first, then can discover the complexities and shades of grey as they get older. And I think they need a certain amount of simple myths.

    I realized how important that was when my son was 6 and I listened to him try to explain Martin Luther King. His ideas were quite muddled, and I realized that I had made the mistake of talking about civil rights organizing, when what he really needed was The Dream. I had been too complex and too concrete, and not conveyed the simpler but more crucial message of the dream of a world where people are "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." At 6 that was the most important thing to know.

    I was also struck by this when my son was 7 and saw a play that my daughter's 4th grade class performed about the Norse tale of the Death of Balder. The play was written to emphasize the more traditional tragic elements of the story - the attempt to subvert fate and the inevitability of change, etc. - which my daughter, at 10, understood. But my son was outraged, because it ommitted the punishment of Loki, and to him it meant that Loki had gotten away with doing evil. In his 7-year old world, good needed to be rewarded and bad punished, or else the world was not safe. From my understanding of child development, that is a pretty typical way that young kids understand the world, and it is an important part of understanding right and wrong.

    I think there is time to introduce complexity when kids are ready for it. My son has actually had a remarkable shift between 7 and 8 in how he understands the world, and now is starting to grasp the complexities much more. Certainly by 9 or 10 there is room for many shades of grey. And teenagers just love to discover that the world is much more complex than they learned as a kid - it goes right along with the separation from their parents that is such a crucial part of adolescense. But for young kids, the myths are ok - freedom, democracy and equality are good things. People working together to overthrow tyrrany is a good thing. When they are older they can learn that it took a bloody 6-year war with abuses on both sides.

    What I think may be more important is which myths to share. There is a difference between a nationalist myth and a democratic one; between a myth of the deeds of great wealthy white men, and one of ordinary farmers standing up for what they believe in. While I believe kids need myths, we can also tell myths from the point of view of escaped slaves, indentured servants, bold women, etc. "Peoples history" can have its own myths.

    As for specifics - I have to say I was very impressed when we read Johnny Tremain to my daughter a couple of years ago. I had always thought of it as simple and nationalistic, but it also deals with a lot of complex issues - Johnny befriends some British officers who are quite decent too him, and feels the conflicts of understanding the humanity of your "enamy". Also, the Felicity series of the American Girl books, while glossing over a number of other issues (like slavery) has an interesting take - Felicity's best friend is in a loyalist family whose father is unjustly arrested, and the book disrupts the notion of a simple good-and-bad revolution, but still on an age-appropriate level. And Stan Macks graphic-novel version of the American Revolution is a wonderful "People's History". But these are really stories for 8-10 year-olds, not 4-5.

    John Chapman

  2. John, thanks for tapping into some of the complexities of when kids are ready to learn different lessons. I think what I am trying to do at the moment is just seed the ground. I don't expect either Pip or Polly to understand the role of someone like Daniel Shays in early American history. I just want a name like his to be rattling around in their memory so that their minds might be primed to ask about him when they encounter it again. As you said, an understanding of the complexities will come with time.

    Thanks also for the specific reading suggestions. I'll store them away on my reading list for when the kids get older.