Guest Post: Phillip Buckley on Challenging Nostalgic Visions of the Public School Students of Yesteryear

Phillip Buckley is an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and an interdisciplinary scholar interested in law, rights, childhood, and politics in the context of education. His current work focuses on the relationship between law, childhood, and citizenship. He spent five years in Serbia, Ukraine, and Poland, teaching and working with higher education faculty on various projects related to legal English.

In my article, “Conceptions of Childhood, Student Rights, & the Citizenship Crusade: Meyer, Pierce, and the Pledge of Allegiance Cases,” I examine a set of legal opinions through the lens of childhood. In the article, I argue that the opinions shed light on how judges understood childhood toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. However, this set of cases also provides insight regarding the relationship between public schools and their students over this period. Although not the focus of my article, one of the most interesting aspects of this project has been reading about the sorts of student behavior educators attempted to restrict and what circumstances led students and/or their parents to reject such restrictions. Here, I highlight two examples.

Dritt v. Snodgrass (1877): Fighting for the Right to Party

Over a century before the Beastie Boys proclaimed, “You gotta fight, for your right, to parrr-ttty,” seventeen-year-old Joseph Dritt did just that, suing his teacher and the local school board for “wrongfully, illegally, oppressively, willfully and maliciously, and in abuse of their authority” expelling him for “attend[ing] a party composed of the young people of said town, and participat[ing] in the amusements thereof.” In his complaint, Dritt claimed that “he had a right to attend said party, and that the defendants had no right or authority to dictate to or control him in the premises.” Four of the five judges on the court agreed that the school board had overstepped its authority (with one deciding the case on other grounds). However, for these judges, the policy was problematic because it “invaded the right of the parent to govern the conduct of his child,” not because it invaded Joseph’s right to party. This case provides an example of how judges’ conceptions of childhood may reframe a legal conflict from one that pits the school against the student to one that pits the school against the parents.

Despite this reframing by the Missouri Supreme Court, the facts of the case and the wording of the complaint suggest that it was the student, Joseph, who saw his rights being restricted, not his parents. This conflict, involving a school, a student, and parties, sheds light on the lived experience of children and adolescents at the time and reveals some fascinating details. First, that the school was so concerned about student parties. Second, that the school felt it had the authority to control students’ behavior outside of the school by forbidding students from attending such parties. Finally, that a student resisted this authority and that his parents supported his resistance. In the end, Joseph’s victory preserved the right to party for future generations of Missouri students. More seriously, the decision in Dritt served as justification for future legal decisions that curtailed the authority of schools over students. Interestingly, although the court struck down the policy, neither Joseph nor his parents sought to have him readmitted to the school, so it is unclear if he ever finished.

Pugsley v. Sellmeyer (1923): Fighting for the Right to Use Talcum Powder

The facts included in the opinion in Dritt don’t tell us exactly how concerned Joseph and/or his parents were about Joseph’s right to party. Perhaps their complaint was motivated by the fact that Joseph had been punished (and a desire to recover damages for that wrongful punishment) rather than by a desire to assert that students had a right to party or by a concern that the school was overstepping its authority. In contrast, the facts included in Pugsley v. Sellmeyer, decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court half a century later, are clear. In that case, the student, Pearl Pugsley, was concerned with challenging the following rule: “The wearing of transparent hosiery, lownecked dresses or any style of clothing tending toward immodesty in dress, or the use of face paint or cosmetics, is prohibited.” As retold by the court, Pearl “infringed this rule by the use of talcum powder, and the teacher required her to wash it off and told her not to return again with it on her face.” Undeterred, Pearl returned to the school “a day or two later,” again wearing talcum powder. Upon being told she could not attend school if she violated the policy, “she refused to submit to or to obey the rule, and was denied admission to the school.”

In other words, Pearl knowingly resisted this particular rule and risked punishment for doing so, suggesting that she was motivated by the principle at stake in the case. This is further supported by the fact that the policy was rescinded after her appeal was filed and yet Pearl did not drop the case. (The lower court had agreed that the rule was arbitrary and unreasonable but had nonetheless ruled against Pearl because she had not first gone to the district board with her complaint against the principal.) However, the Arkansas Supreme Court, with one dissenter, upheld the policy as a reasonable means of “promoting discipline in the school” and imparting “respect for constituted authority and obedience…an essential lesson to qualify one for the duties of citizenship.” The dissenting judge scolded the others on the court: “‘Useless laws diminish the authority of necessary ones.’ The tone of the majority opinion exemplifies the wisdom of this old proverb.”

Students’ Resisting School Authority

These two cases, along with others from this period, provide examples of students challenging school rules. They provide evidence against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s assertion in the 2007 Morse v. Frederick (“Bong Hits for Jesus”) case that “in the earliest public schools, teachers taught and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed.” If Thomas’s description of the “good old days” is accurate, Joseph Dritt and Pearl Pugsley were outliers. However, these two cases suggest that Justice Thomas may have oversimplified the history of the relationship between public schools and their students.

CHC Episode 10: By Birth or Consent

CHILDHOOD: History and Critique (CHC) is a series of interviews, commentary, and happenings in historical studies of childhood presented by Dr. Patrick J. Ryan, Kings University College at Western University, Canada.

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audio-file-16Patrick J. Ryan’s Conversation with Holly Brewer, part 1
Patrick J. Ryan’s Conversation with Holly Brewer, part 2

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Transcript coming soon!

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Click to download a PDF of CHC Episode 10
This episode of CHC offers a conversation with Holly Brewer at the ten-year anniversary of her prize-winning book, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority.

By Birth or Consent cover artHolly Brewer placed ideas about childhood and age at the center of the rise of modern, democratic political culture. It seems to me that her arguments about Anglo-American law are consistent Bernard Wishy’s and Jacqueline Reinier’s earlier work relating childhood to American liberal ideas. Clearly, there is a strong connection between the issues raised in By Birth and Consent and those of Corinne Field’s recent The Struggle for Equal Adulthood. See CHC Ep6.

During our discussion, we shared observations about the historical significance of age and childhood. Holly offered several stories about the initial difficulties she faced doing graduate work on children and the law during her doctoral studies at UCLA from 1987-1994. When she was defending the prospectus for her dissertation, Gary Nash said something to the effect of… “You’re right… nobody has asked… whether these political theory debates have anything to do with the lives of real children in the 17th- and the 18th-centuries, but maybe there is nothing to find. Maybe it is just a ridiculous question, and a kind of worthless one.”

Holly asks us to think about why would there be “blindness” on the part of social historians to the shifting, non universal character of childhood. She believes that the habits encouraged by “demographic and sociological techniques” fostered an inability to recognize the practices of pre-modern childhood. I added that current institutions are permeated with age-grading, and that it has become part of how we have attacked other forms of inequity and exclusion – those based on gender, race, class, etc.   Not only has age-grading become the ‘natural’ and invisible hierarchy, but as By Birth or Consent shows, liberal political and legal culture was produced (at least in part) through a new, universal distinction between the consenting adult and the dependent, developing child. Seeing childhood historically might destabilize a cornerstone of modern consensus about what constitutes a free and democratic society.

While discussing some of the detailed arguments within By Birth or Consent, I asked how she handled formalized texts such as legal treatises. What could they have to tell us about childhood as part of a living sensibility and practice for ordinary people? Holly argued that the realms of children and adults, everyday life and formal texts, the ideas of ordinary people and educated elites are “connected at so many different points.” If historians are unstudied in difficult, sometimes arcane discourses and languages they will do “a deeply problematic social history where you’re using modern conceptions [and reading them into] the 17th and 18th centuries, you’re putting our words in place of theirs…” She argued persuasively that a history from the bottom-up doesn’t need to be a history from the neck down.

We concluded by discussing her current book project on slavery, monarchy, and inheritance. Before the rise of a late-18th-century abolition movement, slavery was discussed more widely among the English than most of us understand. She explained that the promotion and growth of American slavery was less a necessary part of the pursuit of yeoman independence, than it was encouraged by the royal absolutism of the Stuart monarchs trying to build a British Empire. This line of argument draws upon the idea that patriarchal forms of inheritance were stronger in early America than historians have typically acknowledged.


Select Articles and Chapters by Holly Brewer:

“Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia: ‘Ancient Feudal Restraints’ and Revolutionary Reform,” William and Mary Quarterly vol. 54, no. 2 (April 1997): 307-346.

“Power and Authority in the Colonial South: The English Legacy and Its Contradictions,” in Britain and the American South: From Colonialism to Rock and Roll (University Press of Mississippi, 2003): 27-52.

“Apprenticeship Policy in Virginia: From Patriarchal to Republican Policies of Social Welfare,” in Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America edited by Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray (Cornell University Press, 2009): 183-198.

“Age of Reason? Children, Testimony, and Consent in Early America,” in The Many Legalities of Early America edited by Christopher Tomlins and Bruce Mann (University of North Carolina Press, 2012): 293-332.

“Subjects by Allegiance to the King? Debating Status and Power for Subjects -and Slaves- through the Religious Debates of the Early British Atlantic,” in State and Citizen: British America and the Early United States edited by Peter Thompson and Peter S. Onuf (University of Virginia Press, 2013): 25-51.


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2014 Grace Abbott Prize Winner Announced!

The committee charged with selecting the 2014 Grace Abbott Prize for Best Book published in 2013—E. Wayne Carp (chair), Steve Mintz, and Ishita Pande—have selected the following book:

Daniel Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II.

The committee says this about the book: Daniel Winunwe Rivers’s Radical Relations demonstrates that scholarly rigor, an exhaustive research agenda, and deep historiographical engagement can be transformed into a powerful social history compelling for broad audiences. Rivers masterfully reveals the historical context for the current spotlight on the modern struggle for family and domestic rights by GLBT people. Moreover, by putting the parent-child relationship at the center of this book, Rivers tells a history, both disturbing and hopeful, that successfully challenges a long-standing assumption that same-sex orientation excludes an investment in parenting. Living under the constant threat of losing custody of their children if their own true sexuality was discovered, GLBT parents fought for parental rights through the legal system, the creation in the 1970s of a nationwide grassroots network of lesbian mothers, and the subsequent national organizations of gay fathers. In the end, Radical Relations is a model for a growing dialogue between the history of childhood, family history, the history of gender and sexuality, and GLBT history.

Rivers is an assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University. He will receive a plaque and $500.​

New Book: Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

James Marten is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Marquette University. He is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including in this series Children in Colonial America; Children and Youth in a New Nation; and Children and Youth during the Civil War Era (all available from NYU Press).

Paula S. Fass is the Margaret Byrne Professor History at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education, and The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. She is the editor of The Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society and (with Mary Ann Mason) Childhood in America (available from NYU Press).

In the decades after the Civil War, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration marked the start of the Gilded Age, a period of rapid economic growth but also social upheaval. Reformers responded to the social and economic chaos with a “search for order,” as famously described by historian Robert Wiebe. Most reformers agreed that one of the nation’s top priorities should be its children and youth, who, they believed, suffered more from the disorder plaguing the rapidly growing nation than any other group.

Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era explores both nineteenth century conditions that led Progressives to their search for order and some of the solutions applied to children and youth in the context of that search. Edited by renowned scholar of children’s history James Marten, the collection of eleven essays offers case studies relevant to educational reform, child labor laws, underage marriage, and recreation for children, among others. Including important primary documents produced by children themselves, the essays in this volume foreground the role that youth played in exerting agency over their own lives and in contesting the policies that sought to protect and control them.

CFP: Child Displacement, Appropriation and Circulation

Workshop: Child displacement, appropriation and circulation: management techniques aimed at children and their families in environments of inequality and violence

1ª Bienal Latinoamericana de Infancias y Juventudes
Manizales, Colombia
17th-21st November 2014

In Latin America, such as in other regions of the world, armed conflicts, dictatorships, political repression, the devastation produced by wars and the development of diverse mechanisms of reproductive government (Morgan & Roberts 2012) have resulted in the displacement and/or separation of numerous children from their birth families. Either through national or international adoption, foster care, and institutionalization or through the appropriation and substitution of their identities, many children have been placed in family, cultural and/or national environments that are different from those of their birth environment. Aiming at different objectives according to the diverse socio-historical and political contexts, such usually coactive practices, in some cases unprecedented, were combined with governmentality techniques (bureaucratic and judicial procedures) and long-standing “life policies” (Fassin 2007) (customary ways of thinking and social ideas on the “protection” and “salvation” of children and their families and/or communities). These were extended and widely accepted thanks to “truth systems” (Foucault, 1978), anchored to (disciplinary) morality standards through which private reproductive behaviors and their public expressions can be governed.

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Nicholas L. Syrett wins Fass-Sandin Prize

Robin Bernstein (committee chair), Melissa Klapper, and Pamela Riney-Kehrberg unanimously selected Nicholas L. Syrett’s article, “‘I did and I Don’t Regret It’: Child Marriage and the Contestation of Childhood in the United States,” to receive the Fass-Sandin Prize for the best article (in English) on the History of Children and Youth published in 2013. Twenty articles were submitted for the committee’s consideration.

Syrett’s essay, published in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (vol. 6, Spring 2013), uses an exceptionally rich and multi-dimensional field of evidence, including legal cases, archival newspapers, and census data, to argue that at the turn of the twentieth century, some minors used early marriage as a way to gain agency over their own lives and in some cases to contest the state of childhood itself. This is an original, counter-intuitive argument that challenges the received dogma that child marriage is by definition exclusively oppressive to youth. The Prize Committee particularly admired the way that Syrett used legal evidence to unearth youths’ perspectives on—and manipulations of—the law. Syrett’s essay is a significant and unforgettable work of scholarship. Syrett is an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado.

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Adoption: Crossing Boundaries

The Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture announces: The 5th International Conference on Adoption and Culture

Adoption: Crossing Boundaries

March 27 – 30, 2014
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida

Call for Proposals: Due August 1/Single Paper Submissions Welcome

ASAC’s biennial conferences feature stories and histories of adoption as explored by writers, artists, and scholars across the disciplines, especially the humanities. Adoptions and the lives of adoptees always involve crossing boundaries, whether the boundaries of families, the boundaries of races, the boundaries of nations, the boundaries of aboriginal peoples and others, the boundaries of communities, the boundaries of law, or all of these borders. This conference takes up these themes and threads, and also encourages other kinds of boundary-crossing: boundaries between disciplines; between adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, and social workers; boundaries between creative writers, scholars, and activists. And we extend our topic across other boundaries by considering similar issues with regard to foster care and assisted reproduction.

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CFAuthors: Social History of American Families

The statistics tell the story of the American family: According to the
U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 marked the milestone when blended families or
stepfamilies became the most common form of family in America; 2,100
new blended families are formed every day in this country; 41 percent
of unmarried couples living together have children living in the home;
over 65 percent of Americans are now a stepparent, a stepchild, a
stepsibling, a step-grandparent, or touched directly by a stepfamily
scenario. Moreover, the Pew Research Center reports interracial
marriages are on the rise in America—in 1980, 3 percent of married
couples were mixed race; today 1 in 12 couples are interracial

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