These boys are innocently crazy. Download their video here:
There is no encompassing introduction into the scattered research area on innocence and childhood. Books mentioning “innocence” in their titles focus on specific aspects, mostly addressing questions of children’s sexuality. But the interconnection of childhood and innocence refers to a far broader issue. The best introductions are therefore texts that expose the history of ideas and mentalities on children and childhood and relate it to social and institutional history.
The gap between innocence and experience is endlessly explored, like a gap in a tooth, by artists and writers. I have felt in exile ever since childhood – not as a result of some traumatic experience, but the simple, slow dimmer switch of time passing and imagination coarsening.
Growing out of childhood innocence
In The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media, Kate Eichhorn (2019) made a compelling claim about the state of childhood in contemporary life, arguing that “the real crisis of the digital age is not the disappearance of childhood, but the spectre of a childhood that can never be forgotten” (p. 12). For Eichhorn (2019), this contemporary problem of “perpetual childhood” (p. 12) promised by the fidelity of digitization is one that emerges out of understandings of childhood as a discursive site of both memory and forgetting. For example, Eichhorn (2019) referred to Sigmund Freud’s (1915) theory of memories of childhood as concealing or screen memories. For Freud, memories of childhood are never accurate representations of the past, but rather, a curation of the past in the present that involves processes of forgetting. Eichhorn’s (2019) focus on the distinct conditions of digital life is important to the question of whether forgetting is even possible in the perpetual trail of images and artifacts that children of the digital revolution create to represent themselves. If “maturation is as much an accumulation of knowledge as it is an accumulation of forgetting” (Eichhorn, 2019, p. 22), then what is at stake in an era when we cannot detach from our childhood is growing up itself. While the conditions that Eichhorn (2019) described are unique to the digital era, the politics of memory remain familiar to certain populations of people, particularly those who have been and continue to be colonized and racialized. These are also the same people who have been perpetually framed as culturally, socially, and politically childlike for the last 500 years as justification for the interventions that claim to socialize and civilize them (Nandy, 1984). To those subject to colonization and its racializing processes, the question of growing up has always been a troubling spectre. What then does it mean for those who have been, as Franz Fanon (1952/2008) put it, woven out of a “thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” (p. 91) of being childlike to grow up alongside White spectres of childhood that refuse to fade away? Does growing up demand their acquiescence to the hierarchies of knowledge defined by a settler colonial past?
Eichhorn (2019), drawing on the horrors of WWII, argued that forgetting past experiences, particularly the most embarrassing and painful ones, may be necessary in order to “move on and live a full and productive life in the present” (p. 17). Yet, the articles in this issue of Curriculum Inquiry invite us to consider the symbolic and material violence of intentional forgetting, namely the erasure and exclusion of colonial, racist, and heteropatriarchal histories that are part and parcel of this violence. We find this invitation particularly compelling given the US political context, in which, at the time of this writing, highly visible acts of erasure are being committed, unapologetically and with disturbing regularity. In September 2020, US President Donald Trump and his administration banned the federal government as well as federal contractors and grant recipients from receiving diversity training on racial and gender biases. In his executive order, Trump pointed to several specific examples obtained from curriculum materials, in which trainees were encouraged to reflect on concepts such as White privilege, implicit bias, and systemic racism, all important elements of critical race theory. Trump and his administration asserted that these elements were reflective of a “malign ideology” that is “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country” (Exec. Order No. 13 and 950, 13,950, 2020). The order effectively erases any mention of historical, systemic racism or sexism, obliviating any opportunity for federal employees to discuss the ways that existing social structures and institutions were built in ways that privilege colonialist White heteropatriarchal supremacy.
Trump didn’t stop there. He continued his campaign against critical race theory and its interventions, this time targeting school curriculum. In direct response to the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times 1619 project, which analyzes the history and legacy of US slavery, Trump announced the creation of the 1776 commission “to promote patriotic education.” Speaking at the first ever White House Conference on American History, Trump called critical race theory “toxic propaganda” and described initiatives in support of the development of “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.” Referring to the Black Lives Matter protest movement as “left-wing rioting and mayhem” that directly resulted from “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” Trump made it clear as the election neared that he was serious about securing the support of his conservative and unabashedly racist White base. A key part of the strategy to secure the fervent admiration of those who benefit from White supremacy is invoking the spirit of the innocent child by declaring that teaching critical race theory was tantamount to child abuse, which “patriotic moms and dads” would not tolerate. In other words, to teach White children about the histories and contemporary realities of US racism is to enact violence against childhood altogether.
Trump’s appeal to concerned White parents through the unnamed and unmarked “child” is no accident. It is part of a rhetorical strategy that draws on idealized notions of childhood, including childhood imagined as innocent, to foment existing US White supremacy. For Duschinsky (2013) childhood innocence is given “unimpeachable moral status” (p. 764) and operates as a seemingly unassailable offence – a literal “trump card” (Meiners, 2016, p. 2) that halts interrogation, and thus produces the erasure, of the politics in which it is involved. These politics are the colonial and racist organizing structures of the Enlightenment from within which modern childhood emerges as a naturalized life stage the individual progresses out of and into being a fully rational and civilized subject (Cannella & Viruru, 2004). This hegemonic version of children and childhood as a “human becomings” (Holloway & Valentine, 2000, p. 4) only outgrows itself by way of actively and intentionally excluding and erasing Black, Brown, and Indigenous ways of being, which are produced as perpetually childlike.
For critical scholars, innocence is not a natural state of being that is accessible to all children, but a socially constructed category shaped by differentials of power that enables adults, namely those who are White and colonial, to produce themselves as dominant. As Kincaid (1992) reminds us, “Innocence is not…detected but granted, not nurtured but enforced” (p. 73). One way in which these colonial and racial relations are regulated is through understandings of childhood as a social practice (Garlen, 2019). Here, the linkage between the rhetorics that surround childhood and the material realities for racialized children come into relief. For Garlen (2019), drawing on Butler’s (1988) notion of performativity, childhood is instituted through patterned and repetitive acts. As such, it is an exclusionary social practice that is “maintained through the rhetoric of protection, which justifies protective practices and policies” (Garlen, 2019, p. 57) and that expels and erases Black, Brown, and Indigenous children. One way that childhood innocence exerts its obliterating effects is through its ability to transfer innocence to those within its proximity (Bernstein, 2011). This is important because of what innocence implies. For Bernstein (2011), “To be innocent is to be innocent of something, to achieve obliviousness. This obliviousness was not merely an absence of knowledge, but an active state of repelling knowledge – the child’s ‘holy ignorance’” (Bernstein, 2011, p. 6). Thus, innocence implies an obliviation of knowledge, a kind of ignorance that is transferable and protective of the Whiteness that is constitutive of it. In this way, childhood innocence is the perfect alibi to violent acts of erasure and the actors who carry them out.
The QAnon fueled #savethechildren movement is one example of the effects of these colonial and racial politics of erasure that manifest in digital life in ways that invoke childhood innocence. QAnon is a far-right, White-supremacist, pro-Trump conspiracy theory that promotes the idea that Democratic child-eating satanic paedophiles are plotting against Trump, who they imaging as the saviour of these victim children. They first appeared anonymously online to give birth to the Pizzagate conspiracy, which claimed top Democrats including Hillary Clinton were running a human trafficking and child sex abuse ring out of the basement of a pizzeria. Since the debunking of Pizzagate, “Q” has become a collective of anonymized adherents who are at the same time nowhere and everywhere protecting their imagined lovely object, the innocent White child, and in turn Whiteness. The more recent and disturbing actions of this domestic terrorist organization involve their attachment to a legitimate international anti-child trafficking organization, Save the Children, which has national and international footprints. Not only has the US arm of the organization denounced QAnon, but it has also asked them to stop their campaign because they are distracting and detracting from legitimate efforts to address child trafficking and sexual abuse that disproportionately affect children of colour and Indigenous children (Geoghegan et al., 2020; Maulbetsch, 2020). The unmarked “child” that QAnon supporters claim to be speaking out for is a proxy for the White innocent child who provides a perfect alibi to otherwise racist intentions and actions while literally erasing anti-racist efforts that prioritize Black, Brown, and Indigenous children’s wellbeing. QAnon’s mobilization of childhood innocence secures their now presumed “unimpeachable moral status” (Duschinsky, 2013, p. 764), deflecting any criticism of its adherents, their intentions, or their actions while simultaneously rendering their detractors as the paedophilic devils they seek to cast out. Here, actions that repeat calls to save the White child invoke childhood innocence (Garlen, 2019), which then operates as a means of transferring innocence to those in its proximity, in this case to White supremacists and their acts of erasure (Bernstein, 2011). In what follows, we read how child and childhood figures and functions through the articles in this issue.
In her article, titled “Palimpsestic Pedagogies: Mapping Fascist Violence Against Children from Mussolini’s Dictatorship to Present Day Italy,” Paula Salvio is inspired by the Museum della Shoa in Rome, Italy and the fascist representations of childhood in a collection titled “The Enemy Race: Nazi and Italian Fascist Propaganda.” Salvio begins her process of remembering that which has been obliviated by the violence of both fascism and colonialism through narratives that “render Italians as brava gente (good people) who offered Jews a safe haven where they could live free of persecution” (pp. 291–292) during WWII. These “exculpatory myths” (p. 292) represent Italians as victims of fascism. Salvio argues that this “‘cover up’ of Italian complicity” (p. 292), what she calls “imperfect erasures of memory” (p. 292), continues to operate through the figure of the child in ways that produce policies that exclude racialized migrants who are in transit as a continuation of fascist and colonial ideology and practice.
Salvio begins her analysis through the pedagogical narratives surrounding and informing the exhibit to develop a “palimpsestic rhetorical analysis” (p. 292). She describes the scene of the exhibit and highlights the curators’ intention to challenge the myth of brava gente by cultivating histories of Italian participation in the Shoah in order to work towards reparation. In particular, Salvio notes an intertextual approach that connects Italian histories and episodes of violence in ways that disrupt linear causal histories and colonial arrangements of space. She extends these intentions by drawing on Michael Rothberg’s (2009) notion of “multi-directional” memory as an alternative to competitive models of remembrance to frame fascim and colonialism as interconnected organizing structures. For Salvio, the figure of the child is one such point of convergence of memory and forgetting, consciousness and oblivion. To read the representations of the child in the exhibit, she draws on M. Jacqui Alexander’s (2006) notion of “palimpsest time” and the trope of the palimpsest as that which can be written upon, over, erased, and rewritten to “begin to recognize older forms of oppression and violence [both fascism and colonialism] in contemporary forms of colonialism” (p. 292).
Salvio unpacks the exhibit and the figures of children in anti-Semitic postcards, children’s school notebooks, literature, and the interconnected apparatus of fascist propaganda, including the state magazine Difesa della Razza and the Manifesto of Race or the Charter of Race, commissioned by Mussolini’s regime and “scientific” authorities (Marcus, 2007). Together she argues, this system of racial ideological discourse works to produce an ideal White Aryan Italian child who will eventually “conquer colonial territories in Africa” (p. 297) by way of eradicating and erasing the Jewish Italian. Following the pedagogical intentions of the museum, Salvio then connects these past ideas and practices to contemporary Italian life. The narrative is remarkably similar. In 2016, the resurrection of the regime’s pro-natal policy by Silvio Berlusconi would extend to fuel anti-immigration policies and practices that continue to fan the flames of existing colonial Italian-African relations. Ultimately, Salvio’s work, drawing on Alexander’s (2006) notes on memory, offers an “antidote to alienation, separation, and the amnesia” (p. 292) that colonial, fascist, and racist formations of childhood produce.
Noreen Rodríguez similarly offers an antidote to the erasures that childhood innocence engenders. In “‘Invisibility is Not a Natural State for Anyone’: (Re)Constructing Narratives of Japanese American Incarceration in Elementary Classrooms,” Rodríguez illustrates how the difficult experiences of Japanese Americans have been left out of the curriculum and historical narratives. Rodríguez details the dehumanizing conditions suffered by the Japanese Americans who the US government forced into concentration camps during World War II and describes the contradictions inherent in this practice. As Rodríguez notes, and as many critical childhood scholars have illustrated, early childhood and elementary curricula maintain children’s innocence and silence their lived experiences through the avoidance of topics deemed difficult or controversial (Garlen, 2019; Nxumalo & Ross, 2019; Pacini-Ketchabaw & Taylor, 2015; Templeton & Cheruvu, 2020). In the US, with the recent surge of exceptionalism, illustrated by Donald Trump’s attack on the 1619 project, historical narratives in elementary curricula have become, as Rodríguez puts it, “more sanitized and simplistic” in order to avoid disrupting “idyllic notions of the United States as the land of the free and the home of the brave” (p. 309).
Through the lens of Asian Critical Theory, Rodríguez explores how White supremacy has operated to render invisible the experiences of Japanese Americans. As implied by the article’s title, invisibility is not a natural trait that occurs involuntarily. Rather, the deletion of historical narratives that could threaten the Eurocentric, exceptionalist master narrative is an intentional act of erasure. Rodríguez calls for the reconstruction of those deleted histories through counterstories that resist the dominant Eurocentric narrative. Toward that end, she offers a case study of two Asian American teachers who taught young learners about Japanese American incarceration using Yoshida Uchida’s (1993) The Bracelet, which tells the story of a Japanese American family that experienced forced removal and detainment. Rodríguez’s analysis of the classroom instruction that took place illustrates the complexities and challenges of teaching towards social justice. While each unit featured distinctly different pedagogical approaches, both teachers, by avoiding direct references to race or racism, ultimately failed to challenge the dominant historical narrative. Although the teachers meaningfully sought to engender empathy and hope through the exploration of often-overlooked histories, these attempts are, as Rodríguez asserts, “not enough to overcome the centuries of injustice and oppression on which the United States was built” (pp. 323–324). What is needed instead, Rodríguez argues, is a pedagogy of discomfort that advances a critical hope centred on critique, reflection, and action. While Rodríguez does not provide a prescriptive guide for enacting such a pedagogy in the elementary classroom, the study acts as an invitation to consider the possibilities for teaching history in a way that acknowledges persistent inequities and attend” to the racist systems within which marginalized children and their families struggle daily” (p. 325).
While we hold on to critical forms of hope, these calls are becoming increasingly necessary as well as challenging due to the growing wave of right-wing populism, which Lauren Bialystok, Jessica Wright, Taylor Berzins, Caileigh Guy, and Em Osborne explore in the article “The Appropriation of Sex Education of Conservative Populism.” At the intense political nexus of childhood and sexuality, Bialystok et al. unpack the Ontario (Canada) provincial government’s use of the 2015 “sex education” curriculum as part of the change “process” heralded by Premier Doug Ford and his kakistocratic cabinet members. Bialystok et al. draw on the Ford government’s rhetoric shortly after assuming power to argue that they employ “populist and post-truth strategies” (p. 331) to unmake and remake educational policy. Bialystok et al. remind us that education policy within “post-truth” populism envisaged by conservative ideologues adheres to neoliberal reforms that defund public education in order to justify privatization. The result was an interim curriculum that is nostalgically heteronormative through its exclusion and erasure of trans and Indigenous two-spirited identities, while continually reliant on the 2015 curriculum in efforts to appease critical public feedback.
Bialystok et al. begin by considering the process of curriculum change in Ontario and the 2015 Ontario Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum of which sex education is part. Bialystok et al. highlight the lengthy, socially respondent, multivocal process of development and change involving teachers, parents, academics, and administrators that lead to the 2015 HPE curriculum. The authors juxtapose these careful and collaborative processes with the Ford government’s bulldozing repeal of the 2015 curriculum to question how such an approach became warranted. They note that, in the end, the new curriculum is largely reminiscent of the 2015 document. Bialystok et al. note that Ford’s populism is “consistent with a brand of politics that incentivizes a certain degree of chaos and ignorance” (p. 333). The ignorance mobilized by the Ford government operates to sow relentless doubt on the curriculum, teachers, and educational experts writ large.
Full article of childhood innocence is available online.
Of particular importance is who becomes validated after chaos ensues. Bialystock et al. highlight how practices of “chaos and ignorance” (p. 333) invalidate expert knowledge so that parents can be positioned as the first teachers whose voices matter. While on one level this move is attendant to the voices of parents who have been cordoned off from the spaces of public schooling, it remains deeply attached to colonial notions of childhood. Such dualistic Enlightenment thinking defers authority to the parent for the protection of the child, in this case from liberalism and its sexually “deviant” potentials. The argument here is not that parents should not be protective of their children, but rather, that parental inclinations to protect children are not only dependent on the child’s sexual innocence, but also on how this innocence is mobilized politically. This is evident through popular discourses surrounding the Ford government’s curriculum change, which concluded that the new curriculum was “pretty much the same” (Vomiero, 2019). This neutralizing statement marks the transference of childhood innocence to an administration willing to put in the balance LGBTQ2S identified children and their communities through disorienting and anxiety inducing practices.
With the loss of erasure in the balance, the final article by Cleo Stearns and Aisha Guadalupe points to the contemporary emphasis on outcome-based education in early childhood teacher education, which Biesta (2017) called learnification, as a key contributor to exclusionary pedagogies. While public education has always been profoundly influenced by cognitive psychology, which emphasizes behavioural outcomes, Biesta (2017) noted a shift in recent decades from a focus on content knowledge towards individual learning, skills, and competencies. In their article, titled “Autobiography as Resistance to Learnification in Early Childhood Teacher Education,” Stearns and Guadalupe argue that this shift has created “a learnified system that emphasizes measurement and quantification, product rather than process, and hurried quantifiable results that obfuscate more open-ended exploration” (p. 355). Within such a system, the authors argue, there is no space for students to explore the ways in which their subjectivities are informed by their past experiences and their relationships to others. In other words, the learnified system is focused sharply on the “learner,” leaving the self, and particularly the self in relationship to the past and to others, diminished. Without space for the self, neither the teacher nor the students have the opportunity to examine how their “relational patterns, expectations about the meaning of power and authority, and anxieties and habits of response” figure into the pedagogical encounter (p. 356).
In the tradition of Pinar (1975) and Grumet (1981), Stearns and Guadalupe look to autobiography as a form of resistance to this erasure of self-history. Autobiography, they assert, demands transference; recounting our own history requires us to examine past experiences and relational dynamics from the vantage point of the present. Yet, autobiography can also unearth difficult past experiences, such as sadness, loss, or despair, which, as the other articles in this issue have demonstrated, are intentionally avoided, particularly in relation to early childhood curriculum. The authors see this disavowal of loss as another symptom of learnification’s focus on making easily consumed learning experiences that focus on observable outcomes.
To illustrate the pedagogical potential of autobiographical inquiry, Stearns and Guadalupe trace their experiences as student and instructor in an undergraduate course on early childhood education. They detail what they learned from the course and from each other in order to illuminate the ways that their deeply personal exchanges over the course of the term created space for them to defy the constraints of the “learnified” context in which they met. Through a series of excerpts and dialogues, the authors share how their past experiences came to bear on the pedagogical process, allowing them to meaningfully explore some of the taken-for-granted assumptions of early childhood curriculum. In particular, the exchange brought to light the “internalized contradictions” of childhood innocence, which “undermines children’s capabilities and improperly limits the capacity of their understanding” (p. 364). Such reflective explorations, the authors contend, are necessary in order to disrupt the “discursive and practical moves towards learnification” in early childhood education (p. 369). This demands a curriculum that makes space for self-history and “real life experiences” (p. 366), including difficult ones. Stearns and Guadalupe suggest that such a disruption can transform education into “an arena in which a range of challenges might be worked through—though not resolved—together” (p. 367).
We believe this issue of CI represents a similar kind of space where the challenges posed by discourses of childhood innocence are grappled with but not resolved. We opened this editorial asking what it means for those who have been produced as perpetually childlike to grow up along those White spectres of childhood innocence that increasingly refuse to fade away. The terrain of engagement is particularly difficult in this post-truth era in which populist political leaders in the US, Brazil, UK, Belarus, Venezuela, Canada, India, Austria, Indonesia, and the Philippines are determined to sow ignorance and chaos (see Bialystok et al., this issue). Yet, in a tradition of critical hope and pedagogies of discomfort that demands an examination of hegemonic values such as childhood innocence (see Rodríguez, this issue), strategic actions that counter the unequal frames from which children grow are possible. The authors in this issue offer such resistive actions that refuse the obliterative impetus of childhood innocence. Their repudiation invites a difficult question of childhood innocence, which on its surface is representative of our best intentions, hopes, and efforts as adults that write about childhood and are concerned with what this means for actual children. Thus, we reflect on what it means to grow up and out of childhood by repudiating innocence through memory work.
For Salvio (this issue) a “palimpsestic rhetorical analysis” turns to the memory of lost historical traces that serve as a kind of antidote to exclusion and erasure of histories that continue to shape present fascist immigration policies and colonial national identities through childhood. This approach is not only about excavating those pasts, but also about reorganizing them in the present to give new meaning to contemporary issues that carry the weight of the past imagined to be resolved. Thus, part of what it means to grow up and out of conceptualizations of childhood dominated by innocence is considering “what it means to act justly today” (Salvio, this issue, p. 305) versus the slow progress into adult futures. This means pursuing reparative justice not only through memorialization but also through the continuous interrogation of the colonial, racist, and anti-Semitic structures that have created the conditions for childhood innocence to be desirable at all. Similarly, Rodríguez offers Asian American repressed memories as counterstories to exceptionalist and imperialist master narratives of settlement and belonging. For Rodríguez, part of what it means to grow up and out of childhood innocence is exposing, instead of protecting, young children from traumatic and difficult histories. This standpoint recognizes the traumatic social locations of some children to whom innocence is unavailable. In turn, it understands these othered children as resources of experience that can grow, in the present, beyond taken-for-granted assumptions of childhood innocence.
Attending to the trauma of childhood is a recurring strategy in the work of this collection of authors, which is not surprising given the productive violence that flows from childhood innocence and creates the perpetually childlike other. Recognizing trauma does not mean succumbing to its damaging potentials. Rather, it orients the gaze to desires that lie just beneath loss, the desires that flow from erasure to find presence and meaning from the obliviating touch of childhood innocence. For Stearns and Guadalupe, growing up and out of the constraints of learnified pedagogies and its demands for abstract and objectified content is achievable through the memory work of autobiography. In particular, they consider the role of transference, or the existing relationships we bring to new relationships. Their reflection brings into focus the myth of innocence through the disavowals of individual loss necessary for the attainment of knowledge needed to grow into an adult. Here, autobiography attends to these losses and invites yet another, this time the loss of childhood innocence itself. Perhaps reimagining what it means to grow up is not “an accumulation of knowledge as it is an accumulation of forgetting” (Eichhorn, 2019, p. 22) and the slow progression into adulthood, which is only accessible to a few. Instead, we suggest a process of growing out rather than up, a process characterized not by acceptance but refusal. As the articles in this issue invite us to consider, growing out of childhood innocence demands an active repudiation of forgetting and its erasures through the knowledge of personal, Black, Brown, and Indigenous histories of childhood.