Let me quote G.K. Chesterton and apply the quotation:
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims that are not true.
I thought of this when I read a particular phrase from a quote in an article at this link. The article is about an artist by the name of Sharon Moody ripping off comic artists without crediting them. It's an interesting topic in itself, but what most caught my attention is something of a tangent. This is the quote, from Moody's explanation of her own work:
Ideas I am exploring include the relatively new (in the entirety of human history) concept of childhood...
Is the concept of childhood really new, or is this just a piece of cynical dogma that people repeat without thinking? Both statements could be true, of course. (Note that the quoted phrase claims the concept is new within human history, not within the history of the universe.) I'm guessing that the above quote is referring to the idea that Victorians invented childhood, or at least sanctified concepts put forward by the likes of Rousseau.
I don't actually know whether childhood as a concept is relatively new in human history, but I would like to put forward some information that at least gives room to doubt, and reason to refrain from speaking in such an unquestioning manner on the subject. I could try and trawl through literature for quotes about childhood, such as Shakespeare's mention of the infant and the schoolboy as two of the 'Ages of Man' in As You Like It, but that would take me too long, and I want to go back much further than that, anyway. I want to go back, in fact, to some time around the origins of the human race, something in which the organisation CARTA is very interested. At this link, you'll find a page on their website about fontanelles, which are "membranous areas that have not yet ossified in the developing cranial vault of neonatal and juvenile animals". Basically, the plates in the human skull do not settle and fuse until much later in life than with other primates. This effectively creates a longer period of "altriciality", which is the need to be nurtured, or childhood. How old is this difference between humans and other primates? CARTA estimate the appearance of this difference as follows in how many years ago it might have emerged:
2000 Thousand Years
100 Thousand Years
I'm not sure this justifies the casual assertion that childhood is simply a relatively new social construct in human history.
The following is a passage from 'The Dream Animal', an essay by Loren Eiseley from his collection of essays, The Immense Journey:
If one attempts to read the complexities of the story, one is not surprised that man is alone on the planet. Rather, one is amazed and humbled that man was achieved at all. For four things had to happen, and if they had not happened simultaneously, or at least kept pace with each other, the bones of man would lie abortive and forgotten in the sandstones of the past:
1. His brain had almost to treble in size.
2. This had to be effected, not in the womb, but rapidly, after birth.
3. Childhood had to be lengthened to allow this brain, divested of most of its precise instinctive responses, to receive, store, and learn to utilize what it received from others.
4. The family bonds had to survive seasonal mating and become permanent, if this odd new creature was to be prepared for his adult role.
Each one of these major points demanded a multitude of minor biological adjustments, yet all of this - change of growth rate, lengthened age, increased blood supply to the head, moved apparently with rapidity. It is a dizzying spectacle with which we have nothing to compare. The event is complex, it is many-sided, and what touched it off is hidden under the leaf mold of forgotten centuries.
Somewhere in the glacial mists that shroud the past, Nature found a way of speeding the proliferation of brain cells and did it by the ruthless elimination of everything not needed to that end. We lost our hairy covering, our jaws and teeth were reduced in size, our sex life was postponed, our infancy became among the most helpless of any of the animals because everything had to wait upon the development of that fast-growing mushroom which had sprung up in our heads.
Eiseley was writing in the Forties, and some of this may have dated, but this is the most vivid elaboration of the basic facts on the CARTA page about fontanelles that I know of. If Eiseley's vision here is correct, then not only is childhood as old as any animal that we can distinguish as human, but without childhood there would never have been what we now call human civilisation. Based on this evidence, I will therefore apply an adjusted version of Chesterton's quote, adjusting it so as to be a little more cautious than Moody is in her claim that childhood is a recent phenonemon in human history:
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether, as if they were facts, on a few cynical maxims that are highly questionable.