'How to Love a Child' 100 Years On: Janusz Korczak’s Work Re-Examined
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100 Years On: Janusz Korczak’s
Work Re-Examined, center
A new English translation of Janusz Korczak’s most cherished pedagogical works has appeared, proving he is still one of the most relevant writers today. But is he also too radical?
Rarely do we come across a situation where someone’s whole life has been so eclipsed by their death. This is the case of Janusz Korczak (born Henryk Goldszmit, 1878-1942), an innovative pedagogue, emphatic caretaker, prolific and inspirational writer, as well as insightful thinker. His death, along with the children from his orphanage in Treblinka extermination camp, had effectively obfuscated many of his other roles and faces. Ritually depicted as ‘heroic’ and ‘self-less’ (something Henryk Grynberg has once called ‘the greatest insult to his noble soul’), this death turned him into a legend and a martyr, leaving the work of his life – his true legacy – out of the picture.
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The new book of translations of Korczak’s most important pedagogical works runs a chance of changing this perspective. Perhaps it will help present him to wider audiences as the innovative pedagogue and brilliant writer he was, as well as highlight that he was an author we can still learn from.
Korczak – the new edition
The two volume edition How to Love a Child gathers works selected from Korczak’s massive literary output (the Polish edition of his entire body of work is currently on its 20th volume and still counting). These two volumes bring together some of his most cherished works in new translations, including the eponymous essay How to Love a Child as well as the powerful brochure The Child’s Right to Respect (in Volume 1). But included are also lesser-known works like Humorous Pedagogy and Rules of Life, which show Korczak as a writer addressing both adult and children audiences at the same time. These are accompanied by a selection of articles and letters (in Volume 2) and end with Korczak’s wartime diary, which on its own is an important document of the Holocaust – and a brutal coda to his valuable life.
How To Love a Child: a manual without prescriptions
Surely, Korczak’s most famous work, How to Love a Child, is a paradoxical book – with a possibly very misleading title. Its first part, consisting of roughly 100 pages, and subtitled Child in the Family, was written by a still young (Korczak was around 40 at the time) but already experienced doctor, pedagogue and caretaker at an orphan facility in Warsaw – during the moment when Poland was on the brink of regaining independence in 1918. Contrary to what the title may suggest, the book is no guidebook to rearing or bringing up a child using love. As Korczak writes, it offers no readymade answers: ‘I don’t prescribe and prohibit anything’. ‘My task is to spark vigilance,’ he writes elsewhere. In fact, as he puts in the preface, the aim of the book rather lies somewhere else:
There Are No Children, There Are People: Janusz Korczak the Educator
Whenever you begin to dream the thread of your own thoughts, having set the book aside, the book is achieving its intended aim. If you are quickly flipping through the pages, you will be scanning for formulas and prescriptions, sulking over how few there are – know that if there are suggestions and pointers, they have occurred not just in spite of, but contrary to the author’s will.
In fact, one of the most frequently recurring phrases in this manual of the art of childrearing seems to be: ‘I don’t know’. This pertains both to the position of the doctor/educator writing the book and to that of the parent in regard to the child. Acknowledging this perspective is, according to Korczak, the only valid perspective and the departure point for one’s real relationship with the child. As each child is different, it is only your attention and openness to the experience of parenthood that can make room for wisdom. The latter cannot cannot be acquired at any cost (not even at the cost of the best child-rearing manual).
How to transform oneself: Korczak as psychotherapist
Rather than a manual, the book is in fact a series of meditations, at times depicting scenes from the life of a parent (which, one needs to admit, was primarily a mother in Korczak’s day) designed to make the reader think about their own experience and rearing practice. Surprisingly often, these texts put the feelings and attitude of the caretaker in the spotlight – their often subconscious assumptions and prejudices, hidden expectations and emotional approaches toward the child, their lack of patience and irritation which inadvertently come up – Korczak brings all of these to the surface, analysing and questioning them.
Thus, reading Korczak forces one to question their motives in one’s relation to the child, to look at your behaviour as if from the outside. This may at times feel like a strange equivalent to psychotherapy. In fact, it is perhaps this psychotherapeutic dimension that explains why the book has never really been read (and possibly another reason why Korczak’s legacy as a pedagogue has never made it into the mainstream). It’s simply hard work.
What Korczak seems to be demanding is, nothing more and nothing less, but a change of your approach, a confrontation with your own emotions that demands work on them, the result of which is a more unprejudiced attitude to the child. That’s why Korczak’s writing voice may at times sound like that of some kind of spiritual master in the Eastern style (which he partly was too – see his interest in theosophy and the Indian philosophical tradition), calling us to be present here and now with the child – establishing an equal relationship, a caring one that would not be encumbered with our anxieties and expectations. At times, we may feel that this voice of the spiritual teacher speaks not only about our relationship with the child, but rather our relationship with the world:
Janusz Korczak: Legacy of a Writer & Teacher
We search for signs, longing for foresight and certainty, in restless anticipation of that which is to come, while ever more neglecting that which is.
Janusz Korczak, A Children’s Right to Respect
Korczak the writer
Meanwhile, Korczak the writer is known primarily as a children’s author. This is due to the one time great popularity of his children’s novels, like King Matt the First (1923), Bankruptcy of Little Jack (1924) and Kaytek the Wizard (1935, translated into English only in 2012). Each of these was much loved by children, while it also familiarised them with important aspects of the modern world: its politics and economics, and responsibility for one’s deeds as a part of society.
And yet some of the pedagogical writings collected in the volume show another aspect of Korczak the writer. Such works as The Rules of Life (1930) or Humorous Pedagogy (1939) show him neither as a pedagogist nor as a children’s author, but rather as a voice addressing both adults and children. As scholar Olga Medvedova-Nathoo explains in her informative afterword:
Kajtuś, Kaytek, Korczak - Interview with Antonia Lloyd-Jones
This perhaps is the very result of the author’s search for form – literary device, helping him bring the adult closer to the child’s position. Korczak as if appeals directly to to children, but in fact, confers with adults – only in the name of the child. At the same time, he writes about children as if he were under their watchful eye.
This reveals something important about Korczak and shows him as a very self-conscious writer – one whose writing, as Medvedova-Nathoo explains, ‘is not limited to a discourse with his fellow colleagues, but first and foremost with the public at large, so as to overcome the indifference and ignorance of adults towards children.’ She continues:
Korczak’s language is life itself. It is a language that is not purely didactic, but philosophical in its undercurrent and clear on the text surface, one that gravitates the reader’s attention.
This of course is a big challenge for a translator.
The rights of children and youth today?
Emma Gonzalez (C) with other students during the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC on March 24, 2018. Photo by Jim Watson / AFP
Reading Korczak today is certainly not merely a historical trip in time to the realm of pedagogy from the first half of the 20th century. In many ways, we still live in the same world he lived in, where ‘the quantity of illegitimate, abandoned, neglected, exploited, depraved, and abused children is growing’. This, sadly, has not changed.
But whereas many of Korczak ideas have over the years become, at least in enlightened liberal circles, more or less mainstream – like the idea that a child should never be hit or that any forms of punishment are essentially counterproductive – other more radical ideas of his still await their time or are only slowly starting to gain relevance today.
For one, Korczak was one of the early proponents of the concept of children’s rights. Seeing a child as a fully-fledged person with inherent rights, he called for ‘a Magna Carta’ of children’s rights as early as 1920. This call anticipated the 1st International Declaration of the Rights of the Child in Geneva in 1923, and in a way found ultimate realisation in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which was eventually passed by the United Nations in 1989 (on Poland’s motion).
And yet a deeper understanding of Korczak’s call for children’s rights and the real empowerment of children and youth is perhaps only gaining new footing today – when children and youth really start to speak out for themselves and start taking active part in political life. Instances of such change could be seen in the massive youth movement against open access to weapons in America (following the Florida shooting of early 2018), with young people (like Emma Gonzalez and many others) organising themselves in protest and demanding their rights during large rallies. Elsewhere, the way the Swedish 15-year-old Greta Thunberg ‘skipped classes’ in 2018 to make public appearances at important political summits on climate change can be seen as another example of this change coming.
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Greta Thunberg full speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference
So far, these are only glimpses of what potentially hides in the real emancipation of youth – but they are also a concrete realisation of the abstract idea of children’s rights (the very abstractness that Korczak was so sceptical about). Korczak repeatedly described children as a social group that is neglected and handicapped. He called them ‘the race of children, the nation of the little-grown, the class of serfs’ and demanded their emancipation. He also demanded that children get their share in what mankind has reaped and what it happilly divides among adults.
Children and youth, he wrote in 1924, ‘represent the one third of mankind,’ and continued:
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We have to remember this so as to understand what the child deserves: They deserve not what we wish to give them or intend to bestow on them from on high. [...] Had we really understood that children have the right to the third of everything [..], never would we be so unimaginably stingy. We would never make savings at their expenses.
How much is their inheritance, how should it be divided, have we dishonest caregivers not deprived them of it, expropriated it?
It’s unfortunate that this is becoming relevant only at a time when – due to to ecological and political crises – we begin to see that this inheritance will be primarily negative. Not a wealth to share, but perhaps a problem to deal with.
It would be tempting to believe, like Korczak did, that a child will play a vital role in a ritual revival of mankind. For now, it would be useful to think how to give them more tools to speak out for themselves and engage in politics. (Korczak’s insistence on organising the children’s community at his orphanage as a democratic republic, with all of its institutions and procedures, may be a hint here).
Too radical for today?
Despite all this, implementing Korczak today, as Olga Medvedowa-Nathoo argues, may actually be harder than ever before, ‘as it is more difficult to build harmonious relationships between children and adults, and among the children themselves’:
The child slips from adults’ view for various reasons – let’s call these at first the world of ‘smartphonia’. Who hasn’t been witness to such a spectacle? Children living in worlds apart, in social isolation of virtual reality; paradoxically, more aged than generations before them but less aged for their age than ever.
The example of smartphones and, by extension, contemporary media also shows that some of Korczak’s ideas seem as distant as ever – still ahead of their time, despite the passage of time. That is the case of The Little Review, a weekly newspaper founded by Korczak in 1926 where children were both producers and consumers of the content (the reader of the new edition of Korczak’s works will find articles pertaining to this radical project). The idea that children are capable of producing content that’s both entertaining and responsible and react in responsible ways seems rather unthinkable today… Despite the available tools, offered by the media of the digital era, children today are fed with ready-made entertainment designed by adults who know how to sell things, hired by profit-driven companies. Let us hope that there’s change coming here too.
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On the new edition
The two volumes fill an important gap in the English reception of Korczak. As Olga Medvedeva-Nathoo mentions in her foreword, Korczak’s pedagogical works were hardly accessible to the English reader, as the only English language anthology of Korczak was last published in 1967, in Warsaw – in limited numbers and without the necessary commentaries, and has long been out of print. The whole project, co-ordinated by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, took almost five years to complete and was a great logistic undertaking and labour of love, particularly for editor Anna Czernow. Helpfully, the translations come with footnotes explaining the historical context, as well as a short foreword and informative afterword by Medvedeva-Nathoo.
Also, the fact that these works have been translated by some of the best English-language translators of Polish literature only highlights the special status of Korczak both as a writer and pedagogue, and hopefully will contribute to establishing his due place in the canon of Polish literature – that of the brilliant and inspiring writer he was.
Essential Korczak: Inspirational Quotes from the Polish Master of Children’s Rights
Janusz Korczak, How to Love a Child and Other Selected Works, Volumes 1 & 2
Translators: Sean Bye, Danuta Borchardt, Marta Dziurosz, Alissa Leigh-Valles, Benjamin Paloff, Julia Sherwood & Anna Zaranko
Editor: Anna Maria Czernow
Selection & foreword: Olga Medvedeva-Nathoo
Project co-ordinators: Dr. Anton Grunfeld & Jerry Nussbaum
Published by Vallentine Mitchell, London / Chicago, Il.
Premiere: 1st November 2018
Hardcover, 2 vol, 334 & 358 pages
The publication was initiated & co-ordinated by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, with support from the Polish Book Institute & the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Feb 2019