Academic theory for the very young

A number of my academic books are stored in L’s bedroom, both because they were there first and because there’s nowhere else to put then. As she learns to read, this leads to increasingly complex conversations. While she’s not yet trying to read the books, she is already able to read some or all of the title of some of them and ask what the book is about. The first was one she thought was called ‘Medieval history’, but was actually Malcolm Lambert’s ‘Medieval heresy’. (I hadn’t taught her to read the word ‘medieval’, she has obviously just absorbed it by osmosis). Since she’s being brought up as a Christian, it was reasonably easy to explain that heresy was ‘believing wrong things about God’, and I even had as the follow-up answer (since she’s asked this before), that, for example, some people didn’t believe that Jesus was really God’s son. (I have not yet got onto the far trickier topic of what separates non-believers from heretics, but that theological point will doubtless come along a bit later).

Today, she had moved on, to Mary Douglas’ ‘Purity and danger’. I attempted to gloss purity as meaning ‘very clean and beautiful’, while L pointed out that she knew what danger meant. She then asked whether the book was telling you about what things were dangerous and what you needed to do about them (on the analogy of a first-aid booklet). I said no, it was about the different things that people all round the world thought was dangerous. L wanted me to explain exactly who thought what was dangerous, but I replied that the book was full of complicated ideas. Undeterred, she wanted me to tell her one of the ideas.

I then had some inspiration and started telling her Mary Douglas’ idea of dirt as being things out of place, and how dirt could be thought of as dangerous. An example from her recent gardening experience (horse manure on the pavement though of as dirty and nasty and possibly full of germs, manure on the garden thought of as a good thing for the plants), and there we were. ‘Purity and danger’ at least partially explained for a five-year old.

Of course, there is a lot more to the book than that and some of the concepts I don’t think I could get across. But it did get me looking round my academic collection with new eyes. What books were they that I could explain at least vaguely to L at the moment? And, perhaps even more importantly, were there any I really didn’t want to have to?

It is quite revealing to suddenly see books in this light. Michael Clanchy’s ‘From memory to written record’? Straightforward. Marcel Mauss’ ‘The Gift?’ A doddle. L’s been to enough birthday parties to know all about reciprocity and obligation, even is she doesn’t realise it yet. Freud’s ‘Introduction to Psychoanalysis’? I would probably stick to saying that was about how people’s minds work. And, shorn of their sexualised details, the basic idea of the ‘Freudian slip’ and dreams having meanings are quite comprehensible to a bright five-year old.

What about Gerda Lerner’s ‘The creation of patriarchy’? The concept of ‘patriarchy’ can certainly be simplified down enough (why men are in charge of things and boss women around), but I’m not sure that she would yet realise that patriarchal societies exist. (After all, she is living in a primary-school world where most authority is held by women). Although I haven’t yet tried it (and I’m not planning to at the moment), I think it would be possible, if time-consuming, to explain to L at least the concept of gender, by getting her thinking about say, ‘what boys/girls/men/women can do’, as against ‘what boys/girls/men/women should do’.

There remain some books, however, which would stump me. I’m not sure there is anything in the ‘Introducing Lacan’ book I have that I really understand myself, let alone can explain to L. And I can’t explain Marc Bloch’s ‘Feudal society’, without feeling an imagined Susan Reynolds at my shoulder giving me dirty looks. (For that matter, I’m not sure I could explain ‘Fiefs and vassals’). I also have Aline Rouselle’s ‘Porneia’, which I hope is on a shelf sufficiently far up that L won’t notice it for a long time (and is also in the decent obscurity of a foreign language). Fortunately, I don’t have a copy of my own of Mark Jordan’s ‘The invention of sodomy in Christian theology’. Still, at the current rate of progress, I may well end up as one the few scholars potentially able to write ‘Foucault for the Primary School Child’.


3 thoughts on “Academic theory for the very young

  1. Some books will never have a lot of readers, or need to be explained in detail even to other scholars. I’ve read Fiefs and Vassals and am a great Reynolds fan, but I wouldn’t press it on anyone. It’s for those who are compelled to read it.


  2. Lovely. When visiting friends who have children, I am fascinated by what they pick up on and latch on to. I should imagine that Bob Moore’s ‘The Formation of a Persecuting Society’ might be a good one to explain.

    Your comment about Susan Reynolds struck a chord. One of my recent special subject seminars saw my students trying to pick their way through the minefields that are various supposed post-Conquest (Norman) revolutions. I swear Susan Reynolds was lurking in the corner waiting to pounce!


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