Fulton on Olsen, 'Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives'

Stephanie Olsen
Richard Fulton

Stephanie Olsen. Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 280 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-48483-3.

Reviewed by Richard Fulton (Washington State University) Published on H-Empire (June, 2016) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Childhood, Youth, and Emotions in Modern History, National, Colonial and Global Perspectives grew out of a conference on that subject held at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in 2012. As is normally the case with such collections, the subject is too broad to provide anything more than a tenuous link between papers; however, the papers themselves are generally very strong and provide some interesting entry points for closer historical studies of youth and emotions.

The introductory essay, “Emotions and the Global Politics of Childhood,” provides a framework for understanding the history of childhood and emotions in global terms “using the concepts of emotional formations, emotional frontiers and the sentimental/innocent child” (p. 12). The authors argue that a global study undermines the commonly held Western view of childhood innocence and lovability. That view is not a given even in Western cultures, and indeed varies according to race, class, and gender. The variation, and even a contrary set of assumptions, can be seen in the examination of attitudes toward childhood and emotions in other cultures and other times.

Ishita Pande examines the conflicting emotions expected of a child bride in nineteenth-century India. The joy of childhood, indeed, the innocence of childhood, had to be put aside when she was married at the age of, say, twelve. At that point she had to cope with feelings about sex especially, and fitting in with her new husband’s family as she was taken from her own people. Adolescence, with all the emotional experimentation associated with that important time in a child’s life, was either denied her or severely proscribed. Pande concludes that the concept of childhood and childhood emotions for Indian girls became focused on the fraught relationship between sexual norms and childhood innocence.

In “Teaching, Learning and Adapting Emotions in Uganda’s Child Leprosy Settlement, c. 1930-1962,” Kathleen Vongsathorn examines the emotions expected of children as British missionaries imported imperial ideals of childhood to an African colony. Students of imperial history will recognize the privileged emotions being taught to children: love, loyalty, respect for superiors, happiness, courage, fortitude, love of the Empire, obedience, keenness, enthusiasm, eagerness, faith. Little wonder that the missionaries promoted drill, scouting, and guides as positive activities. Vongsathorn concludes that the missionary project managed mixed results, partly as a result of the cultural insensitivity of the missionaries themselves, who represented by and large middle-class Victorian assumptions about the proper rearing of children, and partly as a result of children who quickly learned how to game the missionaries’ system while managing to obtain what they needed from the Settlement experience.

The privileged emotions that Vongsathorn’s missionaries brought to Uganda are central to a series of essays on imperial childhoods in New Zealand (Hugh Morrison, “Settler Childhood, Protestant Christianity and Emotions in Colonial New Zealand, 1880s-1920s”), England (Jane Hamlett, “Space and Emotional Experience in Victorian and Edwardian English Public School Dormitories”), India (Swapna M. Banerjee, “Everyday Emotional Practices of Fathers and Children in Late Colonial Bengal, India”), and Victorian England (Lydia Murdoch, “Anti-vaccination and the Politics of Grief for Children in Late Victorian England”). The focus varies, of course. Morrison concentrates on the importance of creating an emotional community among church children during World War I. Hamlett examines the conflict between officially assumed emotions of self-reliance, obedience, moral living, and brotherhood, and the realities of brutality and sexual depravity of boys living in spaces ungoverned by adults. Banerjee describes the emotional conflicts for boys and men especially in a Bengal society dominated by (an alien) British culture. And Murdoch examines not children’s emotions, but the politicizing of emotions toward children, in her study of the anti-vaccination movement’s exploitation of the newly emerging attitude toward the innocence of childhood and the grief felt when a child died.

Politicizing childhood emotions is also central to M. Colette Plum’s “Inscribing War Orphans’ Losses into the Language of the Nation in Wartime China, 1937-1945.” Wartime Chinese orphans were guided to substitute love of the orphanage, and at a higher level, the state to replace love of family, and were further guided toward replacing their feelings of trauma and loss (of family) to hatred of the Japanese and self-respect. Plum uses the testimony of orphanage survivors to conclude that emotional education with a political bent was not always successful, but that for many, their orphanage education gave purpose and meaning to the horrors they had suffered.

Like the Nationalist Chinese, the postwar East German regime promoted activities that would create positive, healing emotions for children. In “Disciplining Young People’s Emotions in the GDR,” Juliane Brauer focuses on an old Nazi technique to create emotional communities, mass marches coupled with singing and in many cases, torches. Brauer contends that new songs written for the new generation, describing a new world filled with joy, happiness, and satisfaction, may have had a short-term effect on creating a feeling of unity and optimism in a new generation recovering from the horrors of the war. However, she concludes that the effect of those tools designed to guide children’s emotions, ran out of steam by the 1960s when a new generation of young people found their own emotional style.

Susan A. Miller examines the Boys State movement’s attempt to build an emotional attachment to patriotism and the nation in “Feeling Like a Citizen: The American Legion’s Boys State Programme and the Promise of Americanism.” Miller contends that Boys State both encouraged high school boys (not really children) to be both mischievous and serious, guiding them to adopt the sanctioned emotions that the conservative American Legion identified as the hallmarks of good citizens. Her essay might have been improved by interviews with actual Boys Staters (full disclosure: I was a Montana Boys Stater in 1962) to see how well the emotional education actually worked.

Marcelo Caruso examines the conflicting official attitudes toward emotion and emotional education in Colombia in “Emotional Regimes and School Policy in Colombia, 1800-1835.” The dominant political culture in Colombia battled over the privileging of “hot” emotions, a product of liberal, republican politics, and cool emotions, a product of conservatism. When the republicans felt the need to reinvigorate revolutionary fervor in the young, schools were organized to provide civic entertainments like dancing, public examinations, and prize days. When a conservative government felt the need to tamp down emotions, schools returned to the days of the Jesuits and the teaching of penmanship instead of politics.

Finally, in “Architecture, Emotions and the History of Childhood,” Roy Kozlovsky builds a critical theory of how architecture and the design of children’s spaces are intended to introduce and reinforce acceptable emotions in children. His discussion of, especially, English playground and school architecture from the mid-Victorian to the postwar era argues that spaces for children were either focused on creating and disciplining, or, in the case of some experimental postwar schools, liberating children’s emotions. This essay too would have benefited from interviews with people who were the child inhabitants of those schools to see how those open spaces designed to stimulate happiness, security, and liveliness worked out in practice.

Obvious by its absence is a definitive list of important childhood emotions to be studied historically. Most of the essays focus on one or two of anger, joy, love in its various guises, happiness, patriotism, respect, gratitude, and so on. That focus seems to be in response to what the authors of the introductory essay say is an “assumption among adult agencies that the child is eminently makeable: tabula rasa in terms of knowledge, but innocent in terms of emotions” (p. 16). (By the way, it would have been helpful for them to explain the difference between “tabula rasa” and “innocent.”) Thus, presumably, the assumption on the part of parents, communities, governments, etc., that emotions can be taught or otherwise controlled from without, and all that is left to do is decide on what to teach and control: so, cool emotions or hot emotions in nineteenth-century Colombia; joy and patriotic fervor in East Germany; rage (against the Japanese) in wartime China; patriotism in the United States; a stiff upper lip in Edwardian England. Were these emotions even transferrable? Was their teaching successful? Were they necessary or disruptive to their particular culture? Those questions may be answered as these studies are fleshed out over time.


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Citation: Richard Fulton. Review of Olsen, Stephanie, Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46350

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