Friday 12 August 2011

After Puritanism

I've just been rereading "After Puritanism" (1929), a collection of long essays by largely-forgotten journalist and writer Hugh Kingsmill (1889 – 1949). As I write this post I'm amazed to find it's been reprinted by Faber - see here.

In one essay he describes the transformation of the British view of children which took place either side of about 1850 from a Puritan one (in the correct meaning of the word) to a romantic, Victorian one.

Essentially the Puritan view is that we are born wild and wicked and so can only become civilised through good parenting and education; the romantic, Victorian view is that we are born sweet and innocent and only become wild and wicked through bad parenting and education.

The recent disturbances in UK cities (which the BBC is now calling the English disturbances though frankly any complacency in Wales about these matters would be very unwise) have brought out the usual moralising, snorting and deluded nostalgia for an earlier, more disciplined era, mainly articulated by politicians and journalists neither of whom have a very good recent record of moral probity.

But it is more interesting that, when you examine it carefully, the current commentary on the behaviour of young people is still firmly wedded to the romantic, Victorian notion of childhood - sweet little kiddies corrupted by evil influences including criminal parents, gang leaders, etc. There seems little sign after 160 years of any swing back to the Puritan idea that simple inattention by parents and others will lead young people into serious trouble because that is their natural inclination if unchecked.

Have we forgotten our own childhoods? I don't recall any evil influences in mine but I'm pretty sure I would have become seriously out of order if left to my own devices.

Of course we should crack down on any criminality by children and adults alike but paying closer attention, using mentoring and similar services to provide the necessary moral steering where parents are failing to do that, would go a long way towards reducing crime (and, indeed, mental health problems) among young people.

A sugar-coated, sentimental view of childhood inherited from the Victorians combined with self-righteous fury that it could be so corrupted by external influences isn't helping us to find solutions.