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Nature versus nurture? Children’s ‹nature› in pedagogical discourse and practice, eighteenth to twentieth centuries

Since the Enlightenment, childhood has been identified as a critical formative phase of life in Western thought, and many pedagogical thinkers and practitioners have seen children has the embodiment of humanity’s ‹innate nature›. In turn, discussions of how children become well-grown adults have been accompanied by ‹nature versus nurture› debates, i.e., debates on the relative formative power of inherited versus environmental factors. ‹Nature› played important, yet shifting and at times contradictory roles in these arguments. John Locke, in his treatises Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), imagined children «as white Paper, or Wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases», insinuating that social environment was the primary influence of children’s development. This environmentalist view, dominant as it was during the eighteenth century, was contested in the late nineteenth century, when evolutionary biologists like Karl Pearson held that «the influence of environment is nowhere more than one-fifth that of hereditary, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it» (Nature and Nurture, 1906). Even if the heated and often ideologically charged debates on ‹nature versus nurture› – fought among mid-twentieth-century developmental scientists – have calmed down by now, the ‹nature versus nurture› discussion is an ongoing one. Currently, it is taking a new turn as researchers begin to shift their attention to the inter-dependence of gene and environment.

However, over the last three centuries, not only the ways in which learned debates balanced ‹nurture› versus ‹nature› have been shifting. The very concepts of ‹nature›, ‹nurture›, and ‹childhood› have also undergone significant change, as have the scientific contexts in which the debates were situated. In this panel, we take a longue durée perspective and investigate three specific historical situations dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries to ask how the binary code ‹nature versus nurture› was conceptualized in pedagogical discourse and practice. We explore how scholars and practitioners concerned with child development used different semantics of ‹nature› to describe child development, and how they related ‹children’s nature› to neighboring concepts like humanity, childhood, nurture, and culture. Investigating the plasticity of ‹nature› as a category, we point to the often contradictory and ambivalent historical representations of ‹children’s nature›. We show how these representations, on the one hand, served to undergird specific worldviews, and, on the other hand, very tangibly affected pedagogical practice – and, as such, eventually children’s lives.

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