WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2014
Dr. Gertrud Lenzer:
Founding Director, Children’s Studies Center at Brooklyn College
Inspiration for Current Career Path:
Every time I return to this question, the same answers keep coming back to mind --
An insatiable interest from early childhood forward what today appear as precursors of the principles of social justice, equality, and interest in all those historical conditions which lead to major social disabilities. A search for socio-economic and political solutions, a quest to comprehend the historical forces which are controlling the present and the future.
Looking back to those early forces which were to have a consuming effect throughout a life time, should it be surprising to have been a child of war and a child intensely interested with the powers available to a child in the democratic reconstruction of post W.W. II Germany while accepting as it were the historical responsibility and challenge to realize such responsibilities as an individual? It is for this reason that after years of working on the history of ideas and social policies aiming to restructure society, that I turned in the course of the last close to thirty years to the generation of children (from zero to 18 years of age) in all its complexities ranging from such foci as children and the war, children exposed to violence and abuse, childhoods that are marked for a life time by hunger and social inequalities. To attend to this invisible class of human beings, I founded both the “Sociology of Children” as a distinct research section within the American Sociological Association and the interdisciplinary field of Children’s Studies.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? How did you overcome them?
Despite the generally accepted child-friendly attitudes in society and the claim that children are the future, the most astonishing phenomenon is the general invisibility of children in our societies. This invisibility is joined by a widely held sentiment that children are really inferior and do not matter. This attitude is so well camouflaged by the ostensible interest in children and like all stereotypes and prejudices incredibly difficult to bring into the open and challenge it.
What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
I am delighted that I was able to recognize the invisibility of children not only in society generally but especially in the fields of scholarship and research. In the mid-eighties, we had the fields of education and psychology which focused on children and especially child development. There were also the beginnings of the history of children and children’s literature. But by contrast, most of other academic fields did not have a focus on children.
At about the same time the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child came into existence and increasingly full force and our Children’s Studies program chose as its general framework the human rights of children.
I was able to launch the Sociology of Children and Children’s Studies. By now, the Sociology of Children as well as Children’s Studies (often also called Childhood Studies) are solidly represented in the academic world of the United States, Canada, European countries and in many other parts of the globe.
Perhaps the most gratifying development was the establishment at Brooklyn College, the founding institution of both the Sociology of Children and the interdisciplinary field of Children’s Studies, of a growing and most successful new field of academic discourse with hundreds of students wishing to devote their energies to Children’ s Studies and to graduate with a degree in the field. In short time, the Bachelor of Arts degree in Children’s Studies became the third largest major in the entire fields of the humanities and social sciences.
Here as elsewhere, the most astonishing phenomenon was the hitherto unrecognized circumstance that young students are – as it were – “natural” child advocates. This phenomenon can be found in place across the United States and evidently in many other societies as well. In fact, the fields of the sociology of children, children’s studies, child institutes and centers, child research, conferences on any and all imaginable child-related topics have in the course of the last two decades turned what amounts almost to a veritable children’s movement that is sweeping the educational, social and policy arenas. And at the same time, these developments are associated with the incredible growth of child advocacy organizations – on local, country, regional and international levels in recent history.
So the question of pride needs to be rephrased in this case: was it really the work of an individual only or had children emerged on the world scene as a major social and hidden constituency, which in turn prompted and necessitated the ideas for a sociology of children and children’s studies in the first place.
Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?
Perhaps the most influential mentor, Alfred von Martin, was an academician from whom I learned to fearlessly pursue major ideas and projects. But more importantly, since he was an opponent of the Nazi regime whose books were burned and put on an index, I learned from him that the powers that be must be confronted and their negative influence be met at every corner.
What would you describe as a turning point in your life?
The major turning point in my life goes back to early childhood. It was the major political challenges after World War II which prepared the lines along which I was going to travel throughout my life. In the case of the founding of the Sociology of Children and Children’s Studies turning points had to do with research on the Blue Books, the reports of commissioner of Royal Commissions in England, which examined child labor and the conditions of the working classes in Great Britain in the 19th century.
What are your goals for the future?
In the course of recent years, violence against children in the home and institutions has become a major focus of my attention, work and advocacy. The goals for the future are to enhance social justice for children wherever possible and to end maltreatment of children in all forms ranging from abuse and neglect by caregivers, from the foster care systems and runaways (or often even throwaways) to a juvenile justice system which is often dysfunctional and rather than rehabilitating children leads to an increase in their criminalization. Last but not least, my energies will also be devoted to including violence against children in the form of poverty, extreme poverty and discrimination perpetrated by societies in which socio-economic, cultural and ethnic inequalities are preponderant. Perhaps my most important goal has to do with giving children a voice by way of bringing the insights from different disciplines to bear upon a better understanding of them and to participate in the formulation of legislation and social policies which are focused on freeing children from all forms of violence, set up solid foundations of protection for children and to promote the rights of children as human subjects.