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 Paula Fass, who helped pioneer the study of the history of childhood, will be installed in June as president of the Society for the History of Children and Youth. (Jack Leach photo)

The 'undisputed leader' among students of children
A pioneer in exploring the history of children, Paula Fass began to examine American culture as a child herself. Today, she leads Berkeley students in considering this population once overlooked by historians

| 18 April 2007

In her popular courses and seminars, Professor Paula Fass encourages students to dig beneath the "topsoil" of American history. Political speeches and public proclamations, landmark laws and policies figure prominently in her reading assignments, to be sure. But the aspect of "history" she's most passionate about is the lived experience of children and how they figure in our collective imagination - thus her extensive historical research on such themes as child discipline, immigrant parents' views on schooling, and childrearing-advice literature.

As Fass incorporates these topics into her much-lauded lectures on U.S. history, students discover, to their amazement, that even childhood "is not a stable thing, but changes over time," she notes. "If they have much younger brothers and sisters, their siblings' childhoods may already be different from their own."

A faculty member at Berkeley for more than 30 years, Fass has seen her classrooms become far more diverse - as measured both by ethnicity and family resources - over the years. She observes her 21st-century students to be "more interesting and better students" than their counterparts in the 1970s, equally good writers (despite buzz to the contrary), but far less inclined to read or use the library. "They don't automatically go to books for self-development or exploring," she laments.

For the first years of her career, Fass wrote on the schooling of immigrants and minorities, the use of IQ tests, the social policies of the New Deal, the social role of television, and the lives of American youth in the Roaring '20s. It was not until the 1990s, while working on a history of child abduction (a project born out of her own fears as a mother), that the history of childhood itself came into sharp focus as the subject she found most compelling - and that, she realized, she had been studying from various angles all along.

Overlooking 'half the population'

"I started thinking very seriously about the role children and childhood play in this society," and came to the conclusion that "we really haven't studied children in a very serious way," she recalls. Suddenly it seemed amazing that historians, in focusing almost exclusively on adults, had effectively been leaving out half the population. "For years," she marvels, "we as historians didn't imagine that childhood had a history."

Fass set out to change all that. "I'm out there really eager to make people aware of this field and its significance," she says. Though she still considers herself a 20th-century social and cultural historian, Fass now puts out "front and center that I work on the history of children, because I think it needs to be done."

A new field of study needs its reference books and touchstone sources. With Mary Ann Mason, professor of social welfare, Fass co-edited an ambitious anthology, Childhood in America (2000), whose varied readings - from Frederick Douglass on the lives of slave children, to the U.S. Supreme Court on juveniles' right to due process, to a relevant passage from The Wizard of Oz - offer what Fass has called a "cubist" view of the subject. Marshalling the expertise of many scholars, she then edited a three-volume Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society (2003) and organized a related conference.

Fass is now the "undisputed leader" of scholars focusing on the history of childhood in the U.S., says David Hollinger, chair of Berkeley's history department. Her new role as president of the Society for the History of Children and Youth (she's to be installed in June) confirms that status.

Her students: 'You understand our experience'

For undergraduate students, Fass remains approachable, despite increasing renown and professional obligations.

"One of the most thrilling experiences that I have," she says, "is when kids come to me, from a variety of backgrounds, and say, 'Gee, you understand; somehow your lectures understand our experience'.. Students tell me all kinds of things . that I suspect they won't tell others."

Born in Germany, Fass' own childhood and life were shaped by some of the most shattering events of 20th-century history. Her parents were Polish Jews, both with children of their own, who were sent to Nazi concentration camps with their respective families. Both miraculously survived, but between them lost five children. After the war they met, married, and had their first child together. When Paula was 3, they crossed the Atlantic, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in the hull of a reconditioned Army munitions vessel; they settled first in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, where Fass started school at age 4 to get a jump on learning English.

A stranger in a strange land, Fass began her study of culture in the United States as a child. "I needed to understand it to become part of it," she explains. "I used to say I had these very long antennae; I became acutely aware of things that, for other people, just rolled off their backs."

Fast-forward to the current day, and her recent publication of Children of a New World: Society, Culture, and Globalization (New York University Press, 2007), which pulls together 25 years of Fass' thinking on children and youth in American history, including five essays written in the new century. She's currently planning a new campus Discovery Course, in which master teachers introduce undergraduates to areas of emerging scholarship. The subject, not surprisingly: the history of childhood. And she's busy reading diaries, letters, and memoirs for a multicultural history of U.S. parent-child relations from 1800 to 2000.

Having struggled to become an American, she says, "I appreciate the allurements of being American, the desire to be an American, and the funny, complex, poignant experience of not being an American." That knowledge will inform her new work on the dynamics of our nation's families through time, both those who have been on U.S. soil for generations and those recently arrived from other shores.