Enlisting Children's Literature in the Goals of Multiculturalism
Carpenter, Carole H., Mosaic (Winnipeg)
Following the Canadian government's adoption of the multicultural policy in 1971, the means of achieving the ideal that it established soon emerged as a most perplexing concern. The federal government had acted without a detailed plan, having been prompted either by outright political motives, or by prevailing liberal thought, or by truly humanistic sensibilities or some combination of all three, depending upon which commentator one wishes to believe. Rhetoric prescribed the goal and the legislation empowered some of the means, yet there were no blueprints, no precedents to consider and no exemplars against which to measure results. Even advisory groups did not exist for some years (the Ontario Multicultural Advisory Council, for instance, came into being only in 1979). It would appear that the people's representatives were operating on the premises that multiculturalism was a good idea, that Canadians were good people, that they would make a good thing happen. For many, though, the question remained, how?
One of the means employed -- and the one I wish to explore in the following essay -- was the enlistment of children's literature. My reason for focusing on this area derives not only from the fact that children's culture is a virtually unexplored topic in general theorizing about multiculturalism but also from the way that an appreciation of how children's literature functions to colonize and politicize "minors" can shed considerable light on the dynamics that inform the treatment of other "minorities." In focusing on Canadian children's literature, moreover, and especially by tracing its evolution since the official implementation of multiculturalism, one can see the way that literature functions as a cultural product that both reflects and shapes the culture of those who live it -- and the way that "consumers" or beneficiaries can in turn play a role in the production of culture and its literary artifacts.
Like any other religious, ethnic, regional, linguistic or otherwise identifiable group, children can be seen to share some artifacts, traditions, beliefs, behaviors and the like that effectively constitute a culture -- distinctive though neither entirely isolable nor independent from the larger culture within which it exists. As folklorist Sylvia Grider puts it:
children are separated from the larger society by their age and general
ignorance of adult traditions. In order to become fully functioning, competent
adults they must learn these traditions; or, as we say, they must become
enculturated. But before and during the enculturation process, children have
more in common with each other than they do with the adults who control
them. The response to their shared traditions bonds them together as a
significant folk group within the larger society. (12)
Children's culture thus refers to the dynamic matrix of processes and products that to varying degrees young people experience and share simply by virtue of their being children. This culture comprises three aspects: 1) tangible and intangible artifacts and activities specifically produced for or considered appropriate to children by the surrounding adult world; 2) ideas about children and childhood, particularly as they define child-rearing practices as well as the roles, behaviors and cultural expectations for young people; and 3) children's own culture, being the "secret" or "subversive" world of children (see discussions by Opie & Opie; Knapp & Knapp; McDonnell). The first two aspects constitute a culture of childhood, as distinct from culture produced and/or adapted, manipulated and transmitted by children.
Children's literature comprises part of any literate society's culture of childhood -- the only culture many adults view children as having. Since this literature is primarily produced and bought by adults, the way it interfaces with children's own culture will always be problematic, especially when it is intentionally directed at achieving particular ends. Any appreciation of the role of such literary works in effecting the multicultural ideal must address the question of their genuine impact on children, surely most truly evident amongst youngsters themselves in their own culture, which Kathleen McDonnell terms "the site of what little power and autonomy they have in the adult-controlled world"(31). It is in their child-focused milieus that we ought to look for the ways that children unself consciously demonstrate their inculcation of new ideas and reflect them in their own (rather than adult-directed) thoughts, creations and behaviors. Yet, considerations of the successes and failures of multiculturalism generally ignore the lives that children actually lead, the beliefs and orientations that they themselves have.
Only now are those who have been raised wholly under multiculturalism entering into positions of power in Canadian society and, interestingly, their emergence is coincident with a significant conservative backlash against the policy. While by no means solely responsible for this reaction, Canadians under twenty-five may be its ultimate source in that their intercultural orientation increasingly challenges traditional conceptions held by many Canadians in a way that the discourse of multiculturalism never really has before. Their cultural dynamics are obviously different from those of preceding generations, no doubt as a result of their differing childhoods and the culture they experienced then. As part of that culture, children's literature -- what was available and/or created during the past quarter-century under multiculturalism -- must be accounted for as affecting Canada's modern young people culturally.
Much of the multicultural writing for children belongs to the vast body of realist works produced in the English-speaking world, especially North America, since the sixties. No literature apart from outright ideological propaganda has had a more express purpose than this issue-oriented material which is quite obviously highly politicized. Multicultural children's literature is, in effect, a contemporary version of the manners and morals literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. Accordingly, much of the implicit or explicit preaching in such literature today reflects the strong liberalism in modern culture, but how does it really sit with the young whom it is meant to guide, mould and effectively control? Valuations tend to give precedence to its political correctness and utility in application, with little attention being given to children's own responses to it or even less to questions of its literary merit, a tendency decried by M. Sarah Smedman in her 1993 Presidential address to the Children's Literature Association: "Too often have I been distressed by the loss of the book ... whatever the book, its loss as an entity and work of art to its use as an introduction to a `thematic unit' on the prairie or to a study on coping with the death of a loved one, on the evils of authoritarianism or war or racism or ethnic cleansing" (185).
In determining the responses of children to multicultural literature, Stanley Fish's version of reader-response criticism offers a singularly appropriate avenue since it situates meaning within traditions sustained by communities whereby a literary work is seen as having not objective meaning but rather shared, quite distinctive meaning for particular cultural groups. While Fish's focus tends to be on literary communities and cultural institutions as the interpretive groupings, his argument is even more directly applicable in the case of children's literature, for here we have a distinguishable cultural group that is in the process of accessing the literary communities of the larger culture, and which operates only partially and often reluctantly within its cultural institutions. As Neil Sutherland observed in a study of childhood in Vancouver between the twenties and sixties:
Most of the institutions in which children spent their lives ... had as a principal
goal the socializing of the young into the whole cluster of ways of living that
characterized the larger cultures of which they were a part. At the same time,
however, children had to learn to be children, to become members of both
the almost timeless world of children and their own brief generation within
it .... In learning how to behave towards each other, children absorbed the
knowledge, customs, expectations, beliefs, norms, values and social roles
that governed relationships between them. They absorbed the multitude of
unwritten rules that regulated social behavior. Sometimes this learning
harmonized with what adults wanted of their children; sometimes it appeared
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Publication information: Article title: Enlisting Children's Literature in the Goals of Multiculturalism. Contributors: Carpenter, Carole H. - Author. Journal title: Mosaic (Winnipeg). Volume: 29. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 1996. Page number: 53+. © 1999 University of Manitoba, Mosaic. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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