Children of the Industrial Age Were Taught to Be Mechanically Literate: Prof Elizabeth

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Elizabeth Hoiem is an information sciences professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In her most recent book, “The Education of Things,” she examines how children’s literature and material culture responded to industrialization to establish the class politics of pretend learning.

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – As Great Britain began to industrialize at the end of the 18th century, teaching children not just how to read and write but also about the material world and how things worked was added to the curriculum. In her most recent book, “The Education of Things,” Elizabeth Hoiem, a professor of information sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, examines how children’s literature and material culture responded to industrialization and influenced the class politics of play-based learning.

“Alphabet of Trades” Cotsen Children’s Library (London: A. Park, around 1860). This is attributed to the Princeton University Library.
Around that time, children’s education began to include “mechanical literacy,” or the knowledge of the universal laws that underpin physics, international trade, and industry. Hoiem proposed that children should be encouraged to investigate their environment by observation, manipulation, tinkering, and scientific experimentation in order to gain an understanding of how things work and to prepare for more advanced courses in engineering, science, manufacturing, and economic markets.

She mentioned that she was particularly interested in the concrete resources made to enhance play-based learning. Through the usage of alphabet blocks, letter learning and skill development were merged. Objects displayed in specimen boxes at different stages of the production process illustrated the steps involved in creating a product. They showed, for example, how cotton is gathered from the field and made into fabric.

The Alphabetical Cabinet, Marshall & Co., London, c. 1815. Cotsen Children’s Library. This is attributed to the Princeton University Library.
The ways in which children integrated mechanical and alphabetical literacy differed based on their gender and socioeconomic status. The children of wealthy households who played at carpentry or blacksmithing were doing the same tasks as children who worked for compensation or as a way to learn a trade.

Rich families taught their children a conceptual understanding of global trade as well as a deep understanding of manufacturing processes as the agricultural sector of the economy declined. This kind of education was developed to prepare their children to work for the government, oversee personnel, or develop new policies. Women took courses on these subjects in order to become fashionable, knowledgeable shoppers. She continued by saying that it taught children where they fit in relation to material goods.
“Like alphabetical literacy, mechanical literacy was conceptualized in ways that maintained class distinctions … with a particular kind of mastery over objects reserved for people of property,” Hoiem says in the book’s preface.

She states that many science fiction and manufacturing novels feature children as protagonists who go to mines, shipyards, and factories to see the workers. A young reader might, for example, compare a worker’s instrument, a lever, to his toy to gain an understanding of the physics underlying basic machines.

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