The New World Should be Built Not Only on Children – but with Children
By Ning de Coninck-Smith
Mathias Gardet and Ning de Coninck-Smith discuss post-World War Two children's villages. Listen to the conversation accompanying this commentary or browse other episodes of the SHCY podcast, here. This essay and the conversation was first published by SHCY in the Fall of 2016.
“I must know more…” was my first reaction, when professor Mathias Gardet from the University of Paris 8 in the meeting room of the General Assembly of UNESCO began his presentation about the children’s villages, born out of the ruins of World War Two. This was a story about children’s self-governance, progressive educational ideas and citizenship across national borders. The occasion was a conference marking the 70th Anniversary of UNESCO in October 2015. In the reconstruction of the world after World War Two education was thought to play a key role, and to UNESCO children’s villages, republics and communities held high promises for the creation of a future child-centered educational system. It was confirmed at the General Conference in Mexico in November 1947.
Where did the ideas come from, and how many villages where there? What did children’s self-governance imply and how did it work? And who were the people behind? These were the questions, which triggered my interest. During a sabbatical month in Paris in April and May 2016 I contacted professor Gardet for an interview, soon to realize that his research into the children’s villages was part of a long academic engagement with the children on the margin and the history of special education in a French historical context. Apart from serving on the editorial committee of La revue de l’historie de l’enfance irrégulière, he is also one of the initiators to the Centre d’exposition: Enfants en justice, located at a former youth correction home at Savigny-sur-Orge, south east of Paris. Visitors can see the reception building with its 18 cells, where the young inmates where left to their own thoughts for the first three days, as well as an exhibition telling the history of the French youth criminal system. The museum also functions as a documentary and research center.
You can read more – and plan a visit - on the website enfantsenjustice.fr
At a time when so many children again are “war-handicapped”, due to the loss of parents, or because they have had to flee together with their families from villages, cities and homelands, the stories about the children’s villages unfortunately gain a new actuality. We might not learn directly from this unknown chapter of the history of childhood and youth of how to handle the current situation. My hope is, that we can learn something as historians – and humans. Something about methodologies, engagement, transdisciplinarity – and the usefulness of transnational scholarship. For these camps and the ideas behind them ranged from the US to Switzerland, from France to Denmark, and from Italy to Spain, from the East to the West. Their number remains unknown, but alone in France there were 55. (See map and photos in Impetus, vol III, no. 8-9, September-October, 1949 ) The ideas were not interpreted identically, the conditions varied – and the disagreements were many. And even though we know much more about the founding fathers – and mothers, than before – thanks to work of Mathias Gardet, and his colleagues Samuel Boussion (University of Paris 8) and Martine Ruchat (Geneva University), we still know very little about how the camps functioned, who the children were, and how they experienced this part of their lives.
The studies of Gardet, Bouission, and Ruchart show the usefulness of working in the archives of the international organizations, as the UNESCO, where many documents are now online (unesdoc.org) – but also with the papers left by groups and advocates of progressive education. Their work challenges a widespread tendency to remain within a national context when writing the history of childhood and youth. But educational ideas travel and were tested, discussed and revised in transnational contexts through a network of people, educators, administrators, experts, philanthropists, diplomats – and in this case also resistance fighters.
To preserve this transnational ambiance, our conversation is partially in English and partially in French. The resumé of our conversation also draws on articles by Gardet and his colleagues and drafts of chapters to a forthcoming book L’internationale des communautés d’enfants.
After a short introduction, I asked professor Gardet to tell us about the children’s communities– where did the idea come from, how many were there – and how did they work – and until when?
Children’s villages have a long history going back to George Junior Republic in the late-19th-century or to Father Flanagan’s Boys Towns in Omaha, Nebraska in the early 20th-century, but the ideas were also tested by various progressive boarding schools in the UK from Bredales, Abbotsholme to A.S. Neill Summerhill School. These experiments were central to the New Educational Fellowship movement, which was born as a reaction to the horrors and manslaughters of World War One. It’s goal was the creation of a child-centered school, based on children’s self-governance and rooted in the new, rising science of child psychology. Several of the founding members of NEF were active participants in the creation of the children’s villages, like the Swiss educator Adolphe Ferrière, the Belgian teacher and psychologist Ovide Decroly, the American educational reformer Carleton Washburne or the the Swiss peace activist and Quaker Elisabeth Rotten.
As a consequence of World War Two, about 13 million children were considered abandoned. Parents had been killed in concentration camps or during bombing of cities, families had been separated on the run, or children born out of relations between German or Russian soldiers and local women, had been left to fend for themselves. The founding stone to the movement of children’s villages was placed at the villages of Trogen in Switzerland in January 1946 – soon 200 children were housed in 8 different national houses - designed by the famous Swiss architect Hans Fischli – together with a surrogate “father” and a “mother”. In the groups the children spoke their own language, but German was the shared language. Understandably, German and Polish children did not get along easily after the war. The educators tried to persuade them that they (as children) were all victims of the same war.
In 1948, the UNESCO called for an international conference on children’s villages to be held in Trogen. The conference had participants from six countries, and the disagreements among the actors became visible. Children’s villages (or "republics") could be completely self-governed with their own city council and money. This happened in Cittavechia in Italy and at the children’s republic at Moulin Vieux in France. However, we know other children' s villages were places where children had very few participatory rights.
For my second question, I wanted to know how Gardet came across evidence of these villages? Could he detect the voices of the children? And can we talk about their voices? Or is it rather voices, censured/shaped by the psychiatric experts?
He stumbled over the villages, when reading educational journals from France, Spain and Belgium. The idea of children’s self-governance was either negative described or hailed in the journal of the New Educational Fellowship movement. The story seemed completely forgotten.
Working in the archives in Switzerland, France and Italy he realized that children’s voices were difficult to hear. In several villages the children produced their own newspapers – inspired by the educational ideas of Celestin Freinet – but they seem more like a “defences of the system” than children’s testimonies. A radio appeal was his best bid on how to get in touch with the former “inhabitants”, who now are very old and many are likely to be dead. The village in Cittavechia has alumni association, who take care of the cultural heritage. Yet, detailed children’s files do not exist as they do within youth reformatories.
My third question related to their successfulness and how much did the children decide themselves?
In many ways pragmatism had to reign, the lack of money and the scale of the problem forced children to participate in their own education as well as in the daily routines – in many ways similar to life in children’s homes and orphanages. At the beginning there was no educational project, it was “a project d’urgence”. Some villages started out as summer camps, where children just stayed on, since they had no other home. In one case, a castle was turned into a camp for Jewish children who had been hidden by their parents during the war.
The educational frame and the reference to the ideas of NEF came gradually. But as mentioned, the cleavages were fundamental to the movement, even though they all distanced themselves from the historical heritage of children’s homes with their strict discipline, hard work and rough environment. I asked Gardet to reflect on how traumatized these children must have been and what role it played in the discussions. He told me that the educators and psychiatrists took two different stands. One group warned against children’s trauma and also that the responsibility of running a village risked doing more harm than good. The other group found it fascinating and promising that the children had survived in gangs and on the streets with hardly any food nor shelter. In their opinion this energy should be drawn upon for their education and civilization. Others claimed that children’s villages created an artificial environment, and therefore made it difficult for children to grow into adulthood. From these debates rose new understandings and definitions of children’s trauma.
The end came in the early 1950s, when the villages – and UNESCO – were caught up in the cold war, and the contact across the iron curtain stopped, while the Americans and Canadians threatened to cut funding if grants were made to children’s communities in Eastern Europe.
A major crisis arose when around 27,000 Greek children, who the Greek government claimed had been kidnapped by the federation of children’s villages – with the support of UNESCO, were placed in villages in Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. There were fewer and fewer war injured to save. As the years passed, more of the children were victims of poverty after the war, rather than the war itself.
The last part of our conversation turns around Gardet's role as co-editor of the journal La revue de l’historie de l’enfance irrégulière and his other activities related to the history of special education. He explained that the journal together with conferences was meant to work as a platform for exchanges between scholars in the franco-phone world and an opportunity to develop not a comparative but a transnational and prosographic approach to the field. He finds it fascinating how ideas travelled through the international conferences during the 19th century, and yet the Northern and British countries seem to differ in their attitude to the children on the margins from Southern Europe. To the north, experts advocated family placement, where institutionalization were the preferred solution to the south. There were expert in the south, too, who claimed that institutions were not the best way to introduce children to their life as adults. Instead they advocated placement in a family with a similar social background.
When asked about where this strong academic interest in the history of the prison system among franco-phone scholars could come from, he mentioned the importance of philosophers, sociologists and historians such as Michel Foucault, Michelle Perrot and Jacques Guy Petit.
Samuel Boussion, Mathias Gardet and Martine Ruchat: Bringing Everyone to Trogen. UNESCO and the Promotion of an International Model of Children’s Communities after World War II in Poul Duedahl (ed): A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts, Palgrave Macmillan 2016.
Gardet, Mathias: Le modèle idéalisé des communautés d’enfants à l’épreuve de la réalité française, 1948-1955. Published on line from the international congress of AREF (Actualité de la recherche en education et formation) Geneva, 2010.
Gardet, Mathias (en collaboration avec Martine Ruchat) : "Le Village Pestalozzi, un modèle de communauté d’enfants pour l’Europe. Entre utopie pédagogique et propagande politique, 1944-1954", in Furrer, Markus, Heiniger, Kevin, Huonker, Thomas et al., Entre assistance et contrainte : le placement des enfants et des jeunes en Suisse 1850-1980, Schwabe, supplément de la Revue suisse d’histoire, 2014, p. 123-138.
Gardet, Mathias (en collaboration avec Fabienne Waks): Une histoire de la jeunesse en marge, Textuel, Paris, 2015.
See also Nicholas Stargardt: Witnesses of War: Children's Lives Under the Nazis, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2005.
About the Author
Ning de Coninck-Smith is professor of the history of childhood and education at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. She has most recently co-edited and contributed to a five volume history of the Danish school system [Dansk skolehistorie. Hverdag, vilkår og visioner gennem 500 år]. Together with Marta Gutman she has edited Designing Modern Childhoods. History, Space and the Material Culture of Children (Rutgers University Press, 2008). She is currently working on a project on the shaping of Danish children’s culture within museums, libraries and theatres during the 1960s and 1970s.
This feature is part of the SHCY Commentary series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth. This commentary came from our Childhood: History and Critique (CHC) series, which included interviews, commentary, and happenings in historical studies of childhood hosted by a team of scholars and edited by Dr. Patrick J. Ryan. The series is published and circulated online by the Society for the History of Children and Youth.