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Childism - Mother Philosophy's Newest Child

The following is an email-interview with Dr. Tanu Biswas by Stefan Herzer, Association of Curative Educators, Switzerland. Translated from the original German and published here with permission.


Preface by Stefan Herzer, Interviewer:


Curative Pedagogy (Pedagogy for Children with Special Needs, German: Heilpädagogik) is the child of two mothers. Although it has been given a dubious name, it actually comes from a good family. It is fair to say that it has origins in medicine on the one hand, and in philosophy on the other, like all education. As a humanities discipline, it is based on values such as humanism and ideas derived from it such as social responsibility, gender justice or equal opportunities. These values and thoughts, as we well know, are not originally inherent in society. They were wrested from traditional circumstances through long historical processes.


If we look at curative pedagogy as a child, it also becomes clear that it has not yet grown up but is still developing. It is still strongly influenced by its parents. If there are any new developments on the medical front, whether in neurobiology or in the use of medicines, these are usually reflected in curative pedagogy in a timely manner. The implications mentioned in the article “Corona affects the youngest” in this issue dealing with the most famous virus of the decade is the best example of this. But it usually takes a little longer when something is happening in the philosophical branch of the family. Nevertheless, one can hope that changes in the canon of values will be of a more sustainable nature. For this reason, we as curative educators notice when news from mother philosophy makes the round.


Childism has been discussed since the beginning of the 2000s, but at the grassroots level we have only recently become aware of it. We have already mentioned the fact that philosophical processes are leisurely.


Childism, we learn from our sources, is to be understood as a philosophical approach and a logical continuation of a process that first brought forth feminism from patriarchal humanism. As a movement critical of society, feminism has been demanding and promoting the right to equal rights and equal treatment for both sexes since the middle of the 19th century. In other words, for both sexes – provided they are adults. Consequently, childism now focuses on children’s view of the social and scientific structures of the world. Childism sets out to criticise and deconstruct prevailing adultism, i.e. the sole claim to validity of the adult view of the world and truth. Childism in its academic form has naturally emerged from Childhood Studies, but it is not limited to it. Childism is not to be understood as an independent philosophy or philosophical school, but as a ‘philosophical approach’ which is to be applied to various views of the world. For example, questions of ethical theory, human rights, globalisation research or political theory, as well as in literary studies, Jewish studies or research on girlhood and citizenship. Childism thus deals with everything that has to do with the position of the (growing) human being in his or her social environment.

Of course, in this selection we are particularly interested in the insights of childism in education. What prospective expansions does the childist approach offer in terms of pedagogical practice?


We have sought contact with one of the few German-speaking exponents of childism. Dr. Tanu Biswas teaches and researches at the University of Bayreuth. Dr. Biswas has published a book this year. It has the promising title “Little things matter much – Childist ideas for a pedagogy of philosophy in an overheated world”. Dr. Biswas has happily agreed to answer some of our questions. The interview was conducted via email. On the one hand, this form is chosen due to restrictions on social mobility caused by Covid 19, but on the other hand, of course, it is also due to the limited travel budget of the editor of this newsletter [based in Switzerland].


In the following, we publish excerpts from the written interview. For better readability, Dr. Biswas’ responses are printed in italics.


Interviewer (MB):


Dear Dr. Biswas,


Before the questions are posed, it is important to point out that I am a questioner who is still questioning. This means that I am not yet familiar with the field and have not yet taken a position on the subject. Accordingly, my questions are not substantiated by anything and are therefore naturally of a thin nature. The catalogue is therefore not intended to be a systematic checklist that already follows a blueprint for the article that will be written later, but rather an invitation to tell a story. The article is aimed at educational staff [in Switzerland and neighbouring German-speaking countries] and is intended to encourage them to think further, to invite them to reflect on themselves and to entice them to broaden their perspectives … Therefore, you should unabashedly stand up for your cause as an advocate.


The term ‘childism’ would be translated into German as ‘Kindismus’. In both languages ‘childish’ or ‘kindish’ sounds pejorative. But on the contrary, why is ‘childism’ to be taken seriously?


Tanu Biswas (TB)


Translation is always a bridge between languages and cultures. For example in German, one does not translate feminism as ‘Weiblichmus’ [but ‘Feminismus’] . Therefore, I first of all recommend translating childism as ‘Childismus’ and not ‘Kindismus’. The similarity with the sound “childish” does not imply an identical meaning at all. However, one of the first intellectual steps you can take is by asking yourself this question: why do I use the word ‘childish’ the way I do? There one can already begin a process of deconstructing of adultism, which is an important goal of childism.


MB


Childism as a philosophical approach must have origins. What are its roots, what is it symptomatic of, what is its necessity?


TB


Just as various forms of academic feminism have emerged in part from Women’s Studies, academic childism comes from the field of Childhood Studies. This began to emerge in the early 2000s. However, it is neither limited to Childhood Studies nor a substitute for it. I must add at this point that the tradition of Childhood Studies, which emerged at the end of the 20th century, is not quite the same as Childhood Research (Kindheitsforschung) in German-speaking academia, which can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. The roots of Childhood Studies in English-speaking and Scandinavian science are to be found in a frustration with developmental psychology, which is based on a deficient conception of childhood. Today, there is a great deal of overlap between Childhood Studies and Childhood Research (Kindheitsforschung), but I think it makes a difference that their starting point, i.e. an intellectual and social need to overcome the deficit understanding of children and childhood development, is not the same. It can be described as a need to overcome intellectual and social adultism. Consequently, the raison d’être of childism as a philosophical approach is to deconstruct and overcome adultist hierarchy.


MB


You mention that one of the aims of ‘childism’ to provide a perspective to deconstruct ‘adultism’ and ‘patriachalism’. Can you provide a localisation of these three terms? How do they relate to each other?


TB


Patriarchalism, i.e. the rule of the male father or pater has been practised for hundreds of years, but in the 20th century after the second wave of Western feminism, it became an analytical concept in the social sciences and humanities. However, patriarchalism requires an adult male. And the women’s rights movement in the West was also about equal rights for adult women. The term ‘adultism’ can be found in the Francophone psychological literature of the early 21st century. In the 1970s it was also used by the American psychologist Jack Flasher to describe social prejudices against children and adolescents. Some psychologists, who probably did not know Flasher’s work, have used the word ‘childism’ as ‘adultism’. This can be confusing. As I have already explained, childism as a perspective that comes from Childhood Studies aims to overcome adultism. One way to achieve this is to emphasise what children and childhood teach us about existence. [Update on 19th January 2021: I thank Toby Rollo (Lakehead University) for reminding me of psychiatrist Chester Pierce and Gail Allen who published a paper in 1975 titled ‘Childism’ and used the term to mean oppression of children in the same way that psychologist Adam Flasher used the term Adultism in 1978, or even earlier Patterson Du Bois in 1906. This contradictory usage in North American academia, doesn’t seem to have occurred in European academia where oppression of children is consistently described as Adultism. While one still finds the negative use of ‘Childism’ in Educational Sciences, since the early 21st century Childhood Studies scholars reclaim the positive sense of the term to mean something transformative similar to the way Women’s Studies and Gender Studies used the word feminism.]


MB


Philosophy as play. We know the idea from quotations of great minds like Schiller’s: Man only plays where he is man in the full meaning of the word man, and he is only fully man where he plays. Or Einstein’s: Play is the highest form of research. To what extent can childism concretise these commonplaces?


TB


There are many examples of philosophers, artists, scientists who recognise that ‘play’ is valuable. But their descriptions do not emphasise that they may have been inspired by children and/or childhood to think in this way. The contribution of children and childhood to their philosophical insights either remains on the periphery or is entirely missing. Childism sees ‘play’ as part of the ontological structure of human existence. This means that play is not something we do, rather something we are. This is like the description of the ‘homo ludens’ given by the renowned play theorist Huizinga. One difference is that childism, in ontological descriptions, explicitly emphasises the contribution of children and childhood. Furthermore, it would reflect on the practical implications of recognising the contribution of children and childhood to such realisations. In my work, I do not propose philosophy as play, but say: philosophy is play. Childism does not compare philosophy to play (as), it identifies the two with each other (is). It is not only an intellectual activity, but an embodied way of being.


MB


What does a non-logocentric, play or playful philosophy look like? Which methodology does childism follow?


TB


I would explain and emphasise again: philosophy is play. Nevertheless, an important thing we also learn from childhood is that we exist in an interdependent relationality. Therefore, any childist methodology will not only include this understanding, but will pay special attention to the fact that our interdependence promotes reciprocity and not domination of power.


So, it depends on who we play with, i.e. philosophise with. Playing with an adult is different from playing with a small child. With the former we can use our knowledge from books and enter argumentation with spoken narratives. In this way, we exercise our narrative creativity with other adults. We can do this in a sitting position, because a large part of our educational history has been about learning to sit. When philosophising with young children, narratives are not only expressed through spoken words in a sitting position. Children create worlds and meanings through physical movements and sounds. This kind of narrative creativity is far removed for adults. Therefore, a child must be allowed to lead negotiations of the rules of narrative engagement. In this sense I say that it is not possible to philosophise ‘with’ children as equals, but ‘with’ children as guests in their playfully constructed worlds. [In German one would use the preposition ‘bei’ instead of ‘mit’ like the Norwegian ‘hos’ or French ‘chez’]. We may imagine ourselves as temporary guests in the narratives that children playfully construct. It is an opportunity to practice thought experiments in movement with the whole body, not just the intellect.


MB


Childism undoubtedly criticises the education system. What is this criticism? What demands arise from this criticism? What can the school gain from childism?


TB


The main issue arising from the logic of the current education system is that we cannot simply ask: Can adults learn from children? The function of adults is to teach, and the function of children is to learn. Not only does it prevent children from contributing to the development of adults, but it also forces adults to constantly play the role of ‘experts’. A childist philosophy of education is closely related to liberal philosophies of education. It attempts to reduce this one-sided circulation of knowledge and power asymmetry. I suppose you want to ask what the adults can gain in schools? If we can see that feminism also gave men the opportunity to have time for childcare and to participate in family life, or to experience the sensitive sides of masculinity, then we can conclude that childism gives educators the opportunity to experience intense curiosity and discovery throughout their lives. It frees both adults and children from what a functional curriculum prescribes.


MB


The subtitle of your book promises to provide ideas for a pedagogy of philosophy in an overheated world. To what extent do childist ideas complement philosophical education? Which ideas are these, for example?


TB


The basic idea is that ‘philosophising’ should not be limited to a certain format, e.g. sitting and talking. It is not limited to logocentric activities. The forms of philosophising need to be extended to include the different narrative forms of childhood.


MB


Does a new pedagogy of philosophy also result in a new philosophy of pedagogy? Can you outline such a philosophy?


TB


The philosophy of pedagogy that will emerge with the abolition of the logocentric format of philosophy is that adults will no longer remain the experts of philosophy. Therefore, the pedagogical approach will include ‘learning from children’ as an integral part of pedagogical practice.


MB


Your book bears the remarkable subtitle ‘Childist ideas for a Pedagogy of Philosophy in an Overheated world’. With the phrase ‘overheated world’ you are obviously alluding to climate change! Is childism in action in the youth climate protests?


TB


Definitely yes. To give you a counterintuitive example – young climate activists ‘play with the meaning of democratic participation’. They can neither vote nor participate in formal democracy. They negotiate this ‘meaning’ by striking. Because of our structures and laws, it is difficult for us to even recognise this as a strike. Instead, when pupils intentionally skip classes, it is labelled as ‘truancy’. The school strike movement also helps me to recognise that childism is deeply linked to environmental sustainability.


MB


Can you give an example of how childism brings new impulses into a (deadlocked) discussion?


TB


Childism brings the intergenerational dimension into the discussion. One of the central questions raised by Greta Thunberg and other activists is: Why learn for a future if there is no future? Intergenerational justice can be an important compass to guide socio-political and economic decisions.


MB


You describe childism as a gift. How can you help adults to learn to accept this gift?


TB


For those adults who are ready – I propose two simultaneous steps. One is to start by identifying adultism in their own behaviour and also in their society. The second simultaneous step is to ask ourselves what do we learn from children and childhood? And you have to do this perseveringly, it is not a one-off exercise.


MB


Dr. Biswas, on behalf of our readers, I would like to thank you very much for your wise and thoughtful comments. The exchange with you was a great pleasure.


TB


With pleasure, Mr Herzer. I would also like to thank you and the readers for this engagement and look forward to further correspondence.


MB


Curative Pedagogy (Pedagogy for Children with Special Needs, German: Heilpädagogik) is the child of two mothers, and it also has a problem with its name. In naming a child, parents very often express implicit expectations they have of their child. In the name of curative pedagogy now lies the claim to cure something. But something can only be cured if it is sick or broken. Because it is a matter of pedagogy, this defective thing must be a childhood. One cannot help but feel a certain malaise in such considerations. The malaise arises from the disparagement that lies in describing a child’s life as dysfunctional.


However, in order to pick up the ball that Dr. Biswas passes on to us, and to juggle the terms a little further, we could accept the invitation of childism and look at the subject from the perspective of a child human being. This would at best alleviate our malaise. After all, curative pedagogy is itself a child. This would turn curative pedagogy into a pedagogy which is not intended to heal someone’s childhood, but one’s own. It is not the instrument of an adult society which repairs defective childhoods but, on the contrary, a child’s approach to the world which benefits everyone in society as a whole.


In this sense it is to be hoped that the childist approach can lead not only to a society which is healthy for our children – but also to children who are healthy for our society.


Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator and manually copyedited from the original German version published in: Herzer S. (2021), KSH-Mitteilungsblatt Nr. 46, Kantonale Konferenz der Schulischen Heilpädagoginnen und Heilpädagogen des Kantons St. Gallen, Schweiz

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