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The ideal function of any capitalist activity"? The troubled times of child precocity in the 20th century

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It has become commonplace to note the presence of market imperatives, unquestioned consumerist values and an emphasis on efficiency, productivity and future employability in contemporary Western education. In this context, it would seem logical that children who are quick to learn, or develop certain skills early, would be perceived as a particularly valuable resource. And indeed child precocity has become increasingly associated to dreams of productivity, and its associated rhetoric has migrated somewhat, in the course of one century, from political idealism to economic pragmatism. Yet the precocious child does not, as Barthes would have it, fulfil exactly ‘the ideal function of any capitalist activity’. For one, reality calls: precocious or gifted children do not always respond well to expectations of fast achievements. Furthermore, the controversies around the acceleration and ‘optimization’ of time around precocious children testify to the difficulty for adults to consider childhood along the Tayloristic timelines offered to them by neoliberal ideology and policy. The figure of the precocious child crystallizes tensions around child time, a time to be condensed and budgeted in order to best prepare for a competitive world of scarce resources, but also a time to be stretched, qualitatively spent, privileging relationships, explorative play, and emotional growth.

This talk is part of the Homerton Seminars series.

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