Agents of reform?: Children's literature and philosophy

Philosophia 35 (2):129-143 (2007)
Abstract
Children’s literature was first published in the eighteenth century at a time when the philosophical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education and childhood were being discussed. Ironically, however, the first generation of children’s literature (by Maria Edgeworth et al) was incongruous with Rousseau’s ideas since the works were didactic, constraining and demanded passive acceptance from their readers. This instigated a deficit or reductionist model to represent childhood and children’s literature as simple and uncomplicated and led to children’s literature being overlooked and its contribution to philosophical discussions being undermined. Although Rousseau advocates freeing the child to develop, he does not feel that reading fiction promotes child development, which is a weakness in an otherwise strong argument for educational reform. Yet, rather ironically, the second generation of children’s writers, from Lewis Carroll onwards, more truly embraced Rousseau’s broader philosophical ideas on education and childhood than their predecessors, encouraging and freeing readers to imagine, reflect and actively engage in ontological enquiry. The emphasis had changed with the child being embraced in education and society as active participant rather than passive or disengaged recipient. Works deemed to be seminal to the canon of children’s literature such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan and The Chronicles of Narnia challenge readers to work through conflicts many of which can be identified retrospectively as exhibiting postmodern characteristics. By exploring moral and spiritual dilemmas in their writing, Carroll, Barrie and Lewis’s works can be regarded as contributing to discussions on theodical postmodernism. The successes of The Lord of the Rings and Narnia films suggest that there is an interest in exploring moral dilemmas, fulfilling a need (perhaps for tolerance and understanding) in society at large. Children’s literature has an almost divine power to restore, to repair and to heal, all characteristics of theodical postmodernism but differing from the more widely held conception of postmodernism which pulls apart, exacerbates and exposes. Children’s literature therefore offers a healthy and constructive approach to working through moral dilemmas. In their deconstruction of childhood, these authors have brought children’s literature closer to aspects of enquiry traditionally found in the domain of adult mainstream literature. As the boundaries between childhood and adulthood become more fluid, less certain, debate is centring around whether the canon of children’s literature itself has become redundant or meaningless since there are no longer any restrictions on which subjects can be treated in children’s literature. Despite the fact that children’s literature clearly engages with difficult issues, it continues to be left out of the critical equation, not given serious attention, disregarded as simplistic and ignored in contemporary philosophical discussions concerning morality, postmodernism and the future of childhood. With children’s literature coming closer to mainstream literature, and exhibiting prominent features of postmodernism, however, it is only a matter of time before philosophical discussions actively engage with children’s literature and recognise its contribution to the resolution and reconciliation of ontological dilemmas. When this occurs, philosophy and children’s literature will re-engage, enriching contemporary investigations of existence, ethics and knowledge and fruitfully developing thought in these areas. This paper aims to contribute to this process.
Keywords Children’s literature  Childhood  Narnia  C.S. Lewis  J.M. Barrie  Peter Pan  J.K. Rowling  Harry Potter  Rousseau  Theodical  Postmodernism  Development
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