The place of education in literature for children in English, 1950-present

Thomson, Stephen A. (1995) The place of education in literature for children in English, 1950-present. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis is primarily concerned with the institution of children's literature as imagined in recent criticism. The primary texts discussed are thus mainly novels for the eight to twelves/early teens which have received critical attention, and are not necessarily representative of the entirety of published matter destined for children. This literature, referred to throughout as kiddie-lit, is thus composed of texts favoured by, and conducive to, certain critical discourses which wish to find in the child's reading a site freed of social determination. These discourses, I argue, are profoundly influenced by the child-centred tradition of pedagogy, whose place in, and rhetorical affinities with, nineteenth- century philanthropic efforts to give power relations a softer appearance by effacing visible marks of difference and hierarchy I trace. Once this line of argument has been established, I go on to describe the literary critical apparatus that further liberalises these discourses to imagine in literature an educational domain that putatively speaks from the truth of the child, shedding any hint of adult teacherly intervention. Here, a trinity of originary discourses - the simple, the oral, and the organic - are shown in their critical, fictive and pedagogical manifestations. Kiddie-lit emerges from this as a literature that is to be seen as endowed with the disinterested quality that has sometimes been ascribed to its adult counterpart, only intensified by association with the child's assumed proximity to nature, and distance from the social. Subsequently, I explore the relation between this metaphorical notion of nature, and representations of the garden and the countryside which seek to embody it in text. Firstly I consider the alleged virtues of nature in the acquisition of knowledge, centring on the naming of a pure, trustworthy, and morally negotiable terrain. I then go on to discuss kiddie-lit's strategies for squaring its metaphysical notion of nature with a landscape marked by economic and social change, and hence its efforts to reintegrate the garden or nature into a modern world perceived as being tainted by the dirt and anomie of industrial society. Finally, I outline what I will term the "archaeological" narrative, the story of the child's rediscovery of the past through an antique talisman found in the countryside, that has been reproduced by a remarkable number of different authors for children over the past thirty years. This popularity, and the high critical regard in which these authors and texts are held, I consider in the light of the narrative's ability to comprise kiddie-lit's major themes in a compact and recognizable form. Here, fantasy is given a natural form (the recurrence of the past) which apparently transcends either literary effect or scientific knowledge, and children are valued for the lack of academic knowledge that leaves them open to this phenomenon. Thus, the object, especially that which comes out of the soil of the countryside, is valued over the word, and a life's attachment to the land is implicitly promoted as a spontaneous form of education, one that leads to understanding and even community with the organic past. Comparison with a contemporaneous pedagogical enthusiasm for local history, which promotes similar ideas, is pertinent, suggesting a broader cultural current within which the archaeological story develops; one that includes liberal conservative continuous historiography and indeed Leavisite literary criticism. It is to be noted, however, that kiddie-lit, both in criticism and in fiction, which both make extensive symbolic use of the archaeological narrative, tends to ignore or reject cognate discourses which, if they are not necessarily influences, at least operate in the same broad field of political dispositions. In effect, the archaeological story provides the institution of kiddie-lit with its single most powerful and condensed myth, one that acknowledges no cultural debt other than that to the land itself, and perpetuates its constituent ideas effortlessly in the to and fro between fiction and criticism, under the appearance of a perfectly self-sufficient autonomy. Finally, having thus characterised the structural coherence of the field on a thematic level, I suggest its possible operation in relation to other fields in literary studies, particularly its potential as a neutral zone for the recuperation and assimilation of theoretical/political discourses into an all-embracing liberalism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: English literature, Language arts.
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities
Supervisor's Name: Supervisor, not known
Date of Award: 1995
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1995-70948
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 08 May 2019 09:21
Last Modified: 16 Jul 2021 09:48
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.70948

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