Institutionalisation of Childhood: Possibilities and Risks
We are at a historical moment where it becomes urgent to raise the question: What are the possibilities for institutions created for children and young people? The historical process of the institutionalisation of childhood is in a period of intensification, as children enter institutions at ever earlier ages and remain in them for longer periods. This intensification presents great opportunities but also involves many risks since, as Foucault reminds us, everything is dangerous. A particular set of risks are produced from the increasing dominance of a particular discourse about early childhood. The dominant discourse threatens us with what Santos (2004) refers to as 'hegemonic globalisation', that is the successful globalisation of a particular local and culturally-specific discourse to the point that it makes universal truth claims and 'localises' all rival discourses.
What Is This Dominant Discourse?
The early childhood field is increasingly dominated by one particularly strong narrative, an Anglo-American narrative spoken in the English language, located in a liberal political and economic context, and dominated by certain disciplinary perspectives, in particular psychology, management and economics. This narrative has a distinct vocabulary, in which terms such as 'development,' 'quality' and 'outcomes' are prominent. Such terms generate particular problems, questions, and methods. The narrative is inscribed with the values and assumptions of modernity, for example objectivity, mastery, and universality, and with particular understandings of childhood, learning, evaluation, and so on.
The Anglo-American narrative is, if you will, a regime of truth about early childhood education and care as a technology for social stability and economic success. Early childhood institutions are understood first and foremost, as places of technical practice. Their workforce is seen as technicians, and young children as redemptive agents to be programmed to become a solution to certain problems arising from highly competitive market capitalism. This truth regime is highly instrumental and calculative in rationality, demonstrating a will to know or grasp the child by placing her within totalising systems of scientific theory and their attendant technologies and classifications. As a result of the dominant narrative, a public policy is produced which (as Prout observes) emphasises control, regulation, and surveillance (Prout, 2000).
It seems to me that the task confronting critical thinkers in early childhood today is to put a stutter in this dominant discourse, by denaturalising it and showing that it is not a necessity but a choice, or in Foucault's words,
to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see that which is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such ... since as soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult and quite possible. (1988: p.155) An important part of the denaturalisation process is to offer other possibilities, other ways of thinking about institutions and the children within them, and other ways of practicing pedagogical work: in short, to proliferate a multiplicity of discourses.
The Rich Child and Children's Spaces: An Other Discourse
In my work over the last 10 years with a number of colleagues, I have been trying to create an other discourse through imagining an other possibility. I stress 'an' other, since it is important to try and resist replacing one dominant discourse, one narrative of necessity with another. That possibility starts from an image of the child: as an active subject, a multi-lingual creator of knowledge and identity from birth, connected in relations of interdependency with other children and adults, a citizen with rights, overall what Malaguzzi termed a 'rich child.' The possibility continues with the image of a worker who is a learner, a researcher, a critical thinker, and a reflexive as well as dialogic practitioner. This child and this worker come together in an institution understood as a 'children's space,' a forum or public place of collective responsibility and encounter between citizens in a community from which many possibilities can flow--cultural, aesthetic, political, social, ethical, and economic. Some of these possibilities may be predictable and predetermined but many are not (For a fuller discussion of the concept...