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The Defence of Childhood
A plea for aesthetic education
Lecture at the start of the 28th Pedagogical Week, Archbishopric of Cologne, 25 October 2010, and as an abridged version at the invitation of the German Catholic Parenthood Association at their National Congress, 21 March 2015, both at the Maternushaus congress centre, Cologne
“DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street.” The author Herta Müller began her lecture at the Nobel Prize award ceremony in 2009 with this childhood memory: “I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection… Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and then a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, if you step up to defend childhood then the first question that arises is whether childhood is under threat at all? Childhood is a fact of life, experienced by every person, in all societies, under all political systems – and in all kinds of circumstances. Childhood is not a romantically glorified state; childhood in the first instance is a biological phenomenon. Every one of us has lived through childhood, but for each one of us childhood was different. Viewed objectively childhood is the period of growing up culminating in adolescence. A stretch of time that has a beginning and an end, from birth to the onset of puberty, or at the latest on reaching adulthood. The personal experience of childhood consists of a series of events, encounters with people and rooms, along with voices and atmospheres associated with familiar places. However, childhood is not lived subjectively but only remembered, for a child as a subject does not introspect in abstract terms, but is at one with him- or her-self and the world. Considered subjectively, childhood consists of recollections of that time, which may be ordered into an objective hierarchy: important and unimportant, minor or major, long-lasting or ephemeral, appearing meaningful from personal points of view. In our minds childhood is a space full of memories that we seldom visit but carry about with us always. I think of this realm as being full of packing cases, boxes, and folders, loose slips of paper, faded photographs, things we once made and others that we found. We can only access fragmentary information about their former contents and meaning at best, for most of it has lost its former significance. This is a timeless space, lacking any straightforward structure or chronology. For here we can encounter something that happened a long time ago and might have seemed unimportant at the time, but which can gain in significance, becoming highly topical and relevant to us nowadays. In this sense childhood is not a done-and-dusted chapter of our lives but belongs in a continuum, determining an important part of our personality and how we think and behave. Childhood is not a phenomenon pertaining only to our history, but is embedded in our sense of self. It is probably true to say that it is a stance and – to jump ahead a little – it is certainly our home.
Childhood is traditionally shaped by family and school, but this does not say anything much about its quality in the first instance. Children are dependant on the world of adults. To defend childhood objectively speaking is to question the conditions that govern how growing up takes place. No one would deny that these may be objectively better or worse. Childhood is adversely affected by poverty, for example. Therefore, it is an unbelievable scandal that in the European Union, including in Germany in particular, nearly every fourth child in North Rhine Westphalia and indeed in Cologne lives in relative poverty – endangering their health, leading to social exclusion and threatening their personal development. Childhood is bound up with the economical circumstances of parents and their world of work, such as day or night-time shifts, insecure work contracts, frequent changes of location etc. “Much of what is supposed to be child-friendly in Germany is in fact chiefly employment law”, as the journalist Cathrin Kahlweit writes: “When it comes to the topic of children, employer, trainer, job agent, management consultant and personnel administrator mainly consider the following questions: How can children be accommodated, cared for and educated to the advantage of the economy and the labour market? How can work and family be combined in such a way as to enable mothers to go out to work and fathers to work harder? In order for the educational and training systems to churn out sufficient numbers of new recruits for the labour market? So that there will be enough skilled workers? Enabling the State benefits system to save billions?” If poverty means deprivation for children this does not mean in turn that wealth guarantees their happiness, for the emotional environment of childhood is relatively independent of these factors.
Whereas the legislature has long unilaterally promoted models of this kind, which move away from the traditional family and assume, for example, that both father and mother want to go out to work, funded alternatives are on the increase – such as maternity and paternity leave. Moreover, these rights are enshrined in the constitution, allowing parents to decide how they want to arrange their lives as a family and who should care for their children (§ 6.2.). However, considering the enormous increase in employment in the low-wage sector many parents are obliged more than ever to put their children into all-day care facilities out of economic necessity, as one income per family often does not nearly suffice to feed them all. For this reason alone, it is pointless to address the conditions of childhood in former times when the reality nowadays is quite different. We have to recognize that the family unit, in which childhood was played out within a circumscribed sphere, has given way to a far more complex network of social and economic relationships. As the organization of private and public life has undergone a process of individualization socially binding structures, processes and rituals have declined in significance accordingly, as has the influence of the Church. I do not need to go into further depth here, as most of you, as educators and theologians, will be better acquainted with these circumstances than I am. However, whatever progress has been made on child care outside the family, it is reasonable to ask what conditions of childhood have arisen as a result, especially if you consider that many of these changes are closely linked to economic interests.
When thinking about a defence of childhood the theme can be difficult for us to grasp in all its facets and complexity. This is because questions about childhood and youth, upbringing and education are closely interconnected, being of crucial importance to society, and are enjoying a great deal of enthusiastic experimentation in social, family and educational policies. An enormous amount has been done in pedagogical institutions over the past few years to take into account the changing social conditions and possible deficits that have arisen through the breakup of the traditional family. Child day care facilities have become service providers, offering full-day cover with flexible hours to parents of one-year-olds upwards, and to three-year-olds at the latest. All-day schooling follows on seamlessly. I am not prepared to abandon hope that expectation and reality will be better matched in the future in terms of the buildings and staffing conditions necessary for pedagogically valuable education and full-day care. Here the deficiencies cannot be brushed aside – as is often the case these days – here there must be better financial and staffing provisions for schools. A never-ending flood of school reforms, for example the reduction of time normally spent at Gymnasium (“grammar school”) from nine to eight years, has led to a need for all-day schooling simply in order to cover the curriculum, which has not been reduced proportionately. School days of eight hours or more are now not the exception but the rule, even for the 5th and 6th grades (10–12 year-olds approx.). As to content matter, I suspect that although the educative methods and design of the schoolbooks has changed, their subject matter has not, and includes much useless baggage accumulated over the decades. “Adults commit a barbaric sin, by undermining the child’s creative sphere, stifling it with received empty wisdom and drilling it to fulfil specific objectives that are alien to it,” as Robert Musil wrote in his novel The Man Without Qualities in 1930. I have the impression that, despite all the good intentions, education has not changed enough in this respect. Kindergarteners and teachers have told me that they have a palpable sense of being stretched too far, and the same applies to their pupils. For lack of time the teaching staff are less able to attend to the whole personality of the child who has been entrusted to them, but have to prioritize the delivery of services, namely getting through the syllabus and providing supervision. As a father, I often find the relationship between the pupils and the teaching staff far too abstract. Clearly there is no time for personal questions, about how the holidays went, for example, when meeting the child on their first day back. Our children are integrated into a system of “quality offensives”: of “language competence assessment”, “of “basic competence” and “individual module support”, of “the qualification phase” and “trial stage” and “prognosis teaching” and “learning assessment”; all terms that the Ministry of Education of North Rhine Westphalia has made available to me through its “education portal”. “School of the future – education for sustainability” is the slogan of the current campaign.
In view of this vocabulary and many other similar observations I wonder if we are sacrificing childhood to the functional demands of adulthood and are trying to integrate children into this framework on the same terms as adults. The child psychiatrist Michael Winterhoff has advanced this thesis and has investigated the psychological effects. Up to 50% of all children starting school, he writes, do not fulfil the “readiness for school” criteria. About 30% of nursery school and primary school children are deemed to have behavioural problems. Childhood is an integral part of the perfect organisation of our life and work spheres. With the best of intentions children are cared for, educated and supported by various parties, eat their meals in communal canteens and avail of group homework supervision. Later on in the afternoon they do music or sports in groups to foster their talents, if these extra-curricular activities are not offered by their school. That our children are more heavily integrated into groups than we were may, perhaps, really promote “social competence”. Their personal role within shifting social networks through which they pass in the course of a day is as pluralistic as our society is today. At the weekend, if family circumstances are propitious, leisure time will be organized actively and collectively, and more events attended, made available to even fewer children even more often. We want the best for our children and have created round-the-clock care and a surplus of opportunities and possibilities for training and development, but how far do we recognize that the autonomous life of our children deeply affects us too? Let’s be honest: the childhood of our children is as over-planned as our own lives, tied into the realm of appointments and timetables, efficiency, optimal performance and above all, a world packed with targets.
Our children find themselves in a world designed for them in the way we ourselves find appropriate, indeed, we like to claim it is “child-friendly”. This starts with special baby carriers that experienced parents find completely superfluous and impede close physical contact with baby or toddler, and extends to special furniture that is supposed to grow with the child (but unfortunately will then be ‘uncool’) culminating in child-oriented television programmes and special news broadcasts. As an art communicator and also a father I am often in for a surprise, in the sense that children find precisely what has been especially designed for them, for example specifically arranged in the museum for their age-group, to be decidedly boring; in practice, the supposedly child-friendly but anodyne does not encourage children to get involved. In contrast, there are the “free spaces” that my 84-year-old father recollects when asked about a defence of childhood, along with the minor transgressions that he committed when combing the nearby gravel pit and woods without the knowledge of his parents, “So that we knew practically every tree, every small corner of the area and the surroundings. We played football, basketball and other games we had invented, collected lots of things, and caught lizards and took them home.” This example suffices to demonstrate that the meaning of childhood is constantly changing – and now I am in danger of creating the impression that in former times everything was better. Yet it is a pointless manner of thinking, for nothing can be preserved by hanging on to it and refusing to face the future. The main character Alfred Dorn in Martin Walser’s novel The Defence of Childhood that gave me the title for this lecture exhibits just this over-attachment to a lost childhood. Yet I cannot shake off the feeling that childhood as an asset is in danger and we could do something to defend it.
What could this be: the value of childhood as such? Perhaps we should look more closely at the subjective concept of childhood. I have already noted that childhood is not a completed biographical phase but an approach that accompanies us all our lives. Now please think over for yourselves whether you have personal values that you acquired during childhood, perhaps even values that you only experienced in childhood? Doesn’t the desire to have children derive from these experiences of value? “A notion about the future entertained while growing up was for a child to be part of one’s life later on” – this is how Peter Handke began the narrative of his story for children in 1981. “This idea included nonverbal camaraderie, exchanging brief glances, pulling up a stool, an uneven parting of the hair, and being happily at one whether close together or far apart”. This introductory sentence touches on much of what connects us with childhood, what we connect with childhood, if only the nostalgic desire to be “happily at one”. It includes a sense of the familiar, familiarity with places and given circumstances, with people and their habits, whose presence in our surroundings could be relied upon. We sense closeness and distance: closeness from feeling loved and protected, and distance from enjoying the trust that underpins the confidence to look bravely beyond the horizon with permission. Finally the desire on which all parents can agree is noticeable: to be able to agree with your child nonverbally, as if in a secrete code, based on trust, only accessible to the children in our circle. Trust and a feeling of security are two terms, no, two values of childhood, that for me should not be open to question, even if they might sound old-fashioned to some. I dread to think what consequences follow from trust and a feeling of security being lacking or abused in childhood; for this is what life builds on – a life marked by optimism, hope and love. Some other terms occur to me: carefreeness, joy, dream, play, but also: boredom – as the opposite of event culture. Let us remember that rainy afternoon, the sound of the falling raindrops, the silence in the room, toys lying around staring at us, a well-thumbed magazine and no inclination to tidy up while mum or dad were present but from the sound of it were busy with household affairs. There was no mobile phone, no Internet, no Facebook and also no way of bridging the hiatus and being constantly in conversation. Let us remember how it was to merely be aware of the others’ existence and accept a lack of information that would first be resolved when chatting at one’s next encounter with them. I can remember that feeling of timelessness and as far as I can tell, it was precisely in those situations of subconscious confrontation with myself that I learnt who I was and what distinguished me from others. Isn’t a pause, a dull-tasting state of boredom that is entirely devoid of purpose and significance, not something quite crucial? “To consolidate what has been learnt the brain needs a period of quiet” according to Manfred Spitzer in an essay on new findings in brain research. “This can be through a short nap, but it doesn’t have to be; snoozing, staring at the ceiling, letting thoughts roam about and simply not processing external stimuli – that’s what matters. But this is precisely what life ‘online’ prevents.” Manfred Spitzer is Professor of Psychiatry and director of the Transfer Centre for Neurosciences and Learning at the University of Ulm.
We do not need to concern ourselves with how it would be if we could get rid of the new media that our children and ourselves constantly have at our and their disposal. The quiet of a rainy afternoon is possibly a privilege of old age that has practically disappeared, along with the private sphere. And yet the clamour for a substitute for these pauses, these purpose-free spaces, is getting louder as we realize how important these are. A “defence of childhood” cannot be mounted with a garbled retrospective but is a question of the future of our society. In order to indicate the spaces that might be opened up as an alternative way of experiencing the above-mentioned values the subtitle of this lecture refers to education. For it seems to me that this is assessed in an overly restricted manner if reference is made only to the findings of the PISA study, which as a programme to assess schoolchildren internationally is oriented exclusively towards the subject matter of everyday and vocational knowledge and skills.
When in contact with children one soon realizes that there is something else that we experience in childhood – and probably exclusively in childhood – and that is random curiosity, the openness towards and freedom to choose between all phenomena this world has to offer. Remarkably, fine artists and writers – as the opening quotation by Herta Müller demonstrates – return to their childhood again and again, trying to get to the bottom of these experiences in a “search for time lost”, to reconstruct the world view acquired then: that sustained astonishment about interconnections newly fathomed. There is incredible potential for learning just by allowing oneself to be guided by childhood fantasies, observing without a purpose, making discoveries almost by the way and drawing connections between the entirely disparate. Children have the right to think differently from the way we adults consider to be correct, for in childish play time and effort do not yet correspond. The insights gained are quite the opposite of factual information. The aim is the doing itself, the opportunity to revolve around the core of one’s own personality. This quality of childish play, in which everything is in a state of constant flux, when attributed meanings can be erased and replaced by with others, cannot be measured. It is the purest visible effect of human creativity and offers us the closest approximation to Creation. The famous statement of Joseph Beuys that “every man is an artist” refers to just this ability and at the same time identifies the necessity of creatively managing one’s own life, what Beuys as a sculptor called a “social sculpture”, as the basis of humane society. Thus the questioning of the one-sided nature of our educational concept, oriented as it is towards measuring achievement, seems to me to be more important then ever. Childhood means being full of curiosity, being allowed to discover and dream, to have free spaces and secrets, and to investigate the un-encompassed and unconsidered beyond those ordered playgrounds. The thoroughly designed urban space with supposedly child-friendly furnishing of all inner areas hinders this aspect of childhood. So it is even more important to ask ourselves what niches we can leave open, where the inner core can be experienced and freedom learnt, not the freedom “from” but in the context of the values already discussed as freedom “to”, a freedom that teaches responsibility.
Considering the decreasing role the family plays as a spatial, temporal and emotional private sphere, not only in our children’s lives but ours too, the school in turn becomes all the more important as a communicator of values. Under the current lack of prerequisites in terms of equipment and personnel this task most certainly makes excessive demands on the teaching staff. As we have seen, these values are not to be equated with knowledge that could be tested in course units, but they can be imparted. This is by no means too much to expect of a school as an institution; on the contrary, these values support its claim to deliver all-round education. I am speaking about moments of aesthetic experience – and here I do not mean only encounters with artworks. For the subject matter of aesthetic education – education that is truly long-lasting – can be all manner of things. The focus could be on nature or art, or anything that is in a position to really move us. It can be a perceptive change of view or indeed a single word uttered at the right time, it might be a scent that we recall many years later, a sound that penetrates from the street outside, a sequence of sounds that we have made. An aesthetic experience can be prompted by an architectural detail, a particular doorknob perhaps, the corner of a building, or an appealing substance we would like to touch. Although such experiences do not immediately appear to have a specific function, they are closely connected with values, and it is the sum total of these values that creates a home in which we can take shelter. Probably every one of us made aesthetic experiences in childhood and youth, furnishing us still with a feeling of being at home, which could be addressed here. I would like to offer you an example of this: where in the childhood of our times can formative experiences be made about food and foodstuffs? What has happened to memories of particular meals cooked by specific relatives at fixed times and on particular occasions, that one liked or found unpalatable? Sometimes I have the impression that cooking at home and sharing a meal as a family now only happens in television advertising, which of course only reflects what in society has actually gone missing. The reality of school meals, however they may be sugar-coated, certainly has little time for such aesthetic considerations. You might think this is a rather minor issue and point to established teaching content as being more important and already using up the time available. I assert, however, that we fail our children with regard to their individual identity, their emotional home, if we devalue such aesthetic experiences. We deny them future happy memories, as I and my colleagues at Kolumba realized recently when our restorer brought a tray of homemade plum cake along with him. It is no mistake to speak of cooking as an art and of food culture, for there is more at stake than mere take-up of nutrients: the relevance of the seasons is demonstrated when foodstuffs are handled while the harvest encourages respect for creation. Why not turn the necessity of all-day care for children into an experience of collectively prepared meals and see this as an important everyday learning unit? Why not go shopping together and cook in school – and why is the lack of such measures not even considered a deficit?
I could just as well speak about quality architecture, which I call for in the context of childhood, for the houses and rooms in which we grow up have long-lasting effects, leaving their mark on us. Think for a moment about the extent to which your memories of people are linked to particular locations and how well you can recollect interior spaces if you think of the former inhabitants. The memories are not necessarily happy ones, by the way, but they do shape our minds. In so far as the life of families has moved into the public space, public buildings – especially school buildings – have become even more important than they already were, being where a large part of childhood and youth is acted out. In stark contrast, the state of some classrooms that I in cooperation with other parents were able to renovate at our own initiative, were shocking examples of “building culture”, indeed they were incredibly dilapidated. Fortunately this does not apply to the schools of the Diocese to such an extent, for how should one convey to children in crumbling school buildings and squalid classrooms that one should also assume responsibility for public property?
Before you write me off as a utopian with his head in the clouds, I would like to turn your attention to what could unite us this week in specific terms. For the Archbishopric of Cologne has the benefit of an art museum, its very own Kolumba, that advances into the voids that have arisen and aims to communicate aesthetic experiences to our visitors: experiences of the familiar and alien, of close contact and distance, of encounter and respect, of tradition and timelessness, of beauty and truth. Rooms can guide people and instruct them, the spatial environment can transport visitors into an aggressive or a relaxed mood. At Kolumba we have daily experience of this impact, especially in relation to our younger visitors. We offer them free entry all the year round up to the age of 18 and free guided tours or discussions with the curators for groups of young people accompanied by two to three adult supervisors outside regular opening hours. Ladies and Gentlemen, the supposedly useless surplus value of beauty, of buildings, things or food, is of value to humanity, and we experience and learn to appreciate its worth through aesthetics. A year and a half ago on the occasion of the “Ash Wednesday for Artists” I attempted to approach at this juncture the “aesthetic instant”, that nonverbal first moment of aesthetic experience, concluding with the identification of this moment as a kind of epiphany. The aesthetic instant is an existential experience about being human. We enter thus into the real sphere of art, which cannot be described in words. “I observe with great concern” I once concluded, “that the actual opportunity to acquire insights through approaching art, which I regard as existential, play an ever smaller role in our school under the pressure of performance monitoring; a development, which will end in aesthetic illiteracy. “In the meantime the Czech theologian Tomas Halík who has just been awarded the Romano Guardini Prize wrote a riposte to my text about the “moment of faith”. It seems as if we are speaking about experiences that are of a very similar nature.
“Faith, if I understand you rightly”, Halík writes, “is the ability to treat reality as a form of address: the aspiration to listen, learn and understand, be ready to answer. I am convinced that this is the most valuable (and at the same time most interesting and adventurous) opportunity of all that being human can offer: to live one’s life as a dialogue of constant listening and responding…” Halík speaks of the “birth of faith as an experience of the encounter with God in his loving kindness” and “that God treats people gently and unobtrusively.” In turn it is wise to be “patient with God” and seek out situations of listening, hearkening and paying attention.
“The defence of childhood” is my plea for aesthetic education, because this opens the necessary niches and in-between spaces in which faith can grow in a world shaped by economic considerations. For how should our children experience faith at all in the functional organization of the everyday? Faith requires space and time. “Faith” according to Tomas Halík is not just something but is a happening. It follows that I cannot say that I have faith nor that I am a believer – but only that I believe.” For this to happen as an on-going process we must offer free spaces without goals. In my experience as an art communicator in an institution that eschews all the usual customary organizational criteria expected of a museum, my plea is for an important part of school education to consist of purpose-free learning units, which take into account our children’s readiness to freely experience the world, that takes their curiosity seriously, while at the same time according the teachers much more leeway to respond to the individual needs of their pupils. For me this is connected with the hope that the relationship between teacher and pupil could become more personal again, whether friendly or with a portion of unavoidable friction, taking the collaboration seriously as a dynamic process of lively interaction, as this – in contrast to the family situation – does not really happen in most kinds of child care. By the way, it would be a tragic reaction to the debate about abuse if the teacher-pupil relationship were to become even more abstract, for communicating knowledge and values means building bridges of understanding, it requires “close contact” in a metaphorical sense and authentic role models, it depends on loving personalities. We have a week ahead of us of encountering art as a site of aesthetic education as well as religious experience. Art makes visible the loneliness of the individual and is at the same time the artist’s attempt to overcome this, to break out and to share experiences with the viewer of being dumbfounded. Art renders the invisible visible; it enables us to go on a journey beyond the already imagined, the already familiar; it is the object of an aesthetic encounter, the intensity of which cannot be measured, but it opens up for us experiences of faith. “Can it be” Herta Müller asks at the end of her Nobel Prize speech, in which she looks at her whole biography in terms of the question her mother poses about the handkerchief, “Can it be that the question about the handkerchief was never about the handkerchief at all, but rather about the acute solitude of a human being?” Let me invite you together with my colleagues at Kolumba to address this and other existential questions about childhood with playful curiosity on the occasion of the 28th Pedagogical Week of the Archbishopric of Cologne! I thank you for your attention.
Literature: Philippe Ariès, Geschichte der Kindheit, Munich 1975; Josef Beuys, Ein bisschen Einsicht in die Seelenlange. In conversation with Jürgen Hohmeyer, in: Der Spiegel, 45/1979, p.268ff.; Peter Handke, Kindergeschichte , Frankfurt/ M. 1984; Tomas Halík, Geduld mit Gott. Leidenschaft und Geduld in Zeiten des Glaubens und des Unglaubens, German edition, Freiburg 2010; Tomás Halik, Der Augenblick des Glauben, typescript translated by Gregor Buß, Prague 2010 (later published in the Czech journal salve); Kirsten Heisig, Das Ende der Geduld: Konsequent gegen jugendliche Gewalttäter, Freiburg 2010; Cathrin Kahlweit, Warum Kinder uns nicht Wurst sein sollten, Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine, 26.3.2010, p.16ff.; Georg Klein, Roman unserer Kindheit, Reinbeck 2010; Stefan Kraus, Der ästhetische Augenblick – Versuch über die Sprachlosigkeit, in: Schwarz auf Weiß. Informationen und Berichte der Künstler-Union Köln, ed. by Josef Sauerborn, 13.2009, pp. 8-20; Duane Michals, The House I once called Home, London 2003; Herta Müller, Every word knows something of a vicious circle, Nobel Lecture, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2009/muller/25729-herta-muller-nobel-lecture-2009/(as of 29.07.2020) FAZ-online, 7 December 2009; Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities [1930f.], Reinbeck 1978; Sten Nadolny, Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit, Munich 1983; Manfred Spitzer, Im Netz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22.9.2010; Martin Walser, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, Frankfurt 1991; Dieter Wellershoff, Heinrich Böll. Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 23.7.2010; Michael Winterhoff, Warum unsere Kinder Tyrannen werden: Oder: Die Abschaffung der Kindheit, with the assistance of Carsten Tergast, Gütersloh 2008
Art museum of the
Archdiocese of Cologne
The Defence of Childhood (2010)
A museum in alterity (2009)
Aesthetic Moment (2009)
Art for All (1995)
Museum of Reflection (1995)
History of the Museum (1995)
Art and Architecture (1994)
Idea and Task (1994)