How children teach us about classics

Saturnalia is now officially over, but not on Antipodean Odyssey, where we plan to stretch our sense of Saturnalian surprise over the long Australasian summer.  Saturnalia was a festival where the ordinary rules of life were turned upside down; in that spirit, here we have a thoughtful piece from Susan Deacy (Classics, Roehampton), on what children can teach us about classics.  Susan is a classicist especially interested in issues of gender, sex, violence, disability and social justice.  In the Our Mythical Childhood project, she’s exploring how classical myth can work in the autistic classroom.  Her work shows us the practical and activist aspects of a classical education, bringing it out of elitist enclaves, and into the world.  — Elizabeth Hale

How children teach us about classics

I was mulling over which of several rediscoveries to write about as my Saturnalian Surprise. It has been hard to choose as there have been so many but one has won out, encouraged by something I read yesterday in Joanna Paul’s chapter in the newly published Wiley Blackwell Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology.

Here Jo quotes a comment made by Sheila Murnaghan that points to one of the challenges posed by our quest to chart the role of classics in children’s culture. We are all engaging as Our Mythical Childhood researchers in just how transformative and how empowering and how hope-inducing classical myth can be for children. But, how these myths are being received is via the adults who write themselves and how these authors construct children and the child reader.

Sheila Murnaghan says:

‘children’s literature is written by adults, whose work inevitably answers to adult agendas and addresses not so much real children as adults’ constructions of children.’[1]

Reading this got me thinking about something that has surfaced several times over the past year. This is that it is not always (ever?) possible to predict or, invariably, control how children will receive the literature written for them by adults. This has come across from experiences that Sonya Nevin has mentioned coming out of her experiences using picture books for young children in her pre-school class.

And I had an experience that chimes with this earlier this year when I was taking part in an event at my institution, the University of Roehampton, for young women at secondary schools whose pupils might not invariably consider Higher Education. My role was to welcome groups of girls into the Adam Room, in Grove House, an eighteenth-century villa that is part of the university campus. And in particular I was there to introduce them to a chimneypiece panel depicting – well, this is where my Saturnalian Surprise begins.

The Hercules panel in Roehampton University's Adam Room
The Hercules panel in Roehampton University’s Adam Room

To me, as a classicist with Herculean interests, it is an artefact depicting a myth with classical precedents that was much received, including for children, in the eighteenth century. Hercules encounters two women who offer him two alternate paths in life. One offers hard work and danger. The other one offers a life of abundance and ease. My eye has always been drawn to the man in the middle, Hercules, caught in his choice between the women and their paths – his face turned to one (‘Hard Work’/’Virtue’) and his body turned the other way, to ‘Indolence’ or ‘Vice’. But what the girls, unburdened with classical knowledge, saw tended to be something different. Their gazes were drawn to the two women and to how each of these was making a play for the man. They were not uninterested when I introduced the identity of the man in the middle, especially as they could relate this to what they know of Hercules from the Disney film. But it was the women – and their gestures and their uses of their bodies and their gifts to enhance the man – that interested them.

My Saturnalian Surprise contribution then is this: for all that we as classical receptionist and children’s literature specialists might think that we know a mythological work or artefact, and for all that we might devise excellent ways to use the piece in question to help inform, educate or empower children, we should be open to the possibility that the users will receive the material in ways that speak to their own experiences and in ways that might take us by surprise. Children learn when they encounter myth. We can learn too – from children.

For more on me and my activities in relation to Our Mythical Childhood, the best place to go is my blog on autism and mythology. Here I refer regularly to the Adam Room chimneypiece.  —  Susan Deacy

[1] Murnaghan, Sheila. “Classics for Cool Kids: Popular and Unpopular Versions of Antiquity for Children.” Classical World 104, no. 3 (2011): 339-353. Cited in Paul, Joanna. “The Half‐Blood Hero.” A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology, eds. Vanda Zajko and Helena Hoyle, Wiley Blackwell 229-242.

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