Historians of childhood have heralded British political philosopher John Locke as the first modern pedagogue to promote a child-centered education that recognized the unique traits and developmental stages of childhood. Two recent books on nineteenth-century American childhood by Patricia Crain and Allison Speicher suggest an alternative way of understanding Locke’s significance—he was the first modern pedagogue to popularize the metaphor of the child’s mind as an empty page awaiting inscription by life experience. Neither Crain nor Speicher directly discusses Locke’s theory of the child as tabula rasa, but both authors contribute to an appreciation of the identification of children with technologies of literacy that have emerged since Locke dominated thinking about children and childhood in the mid-eighteenth century. The historicization of metaphors for children’s learning reminds us that we do not necessarily get any closer to truths about children simply because our...

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