Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss. . Ethics and politics in early childhood education. Oxfordshire: Routledge Falmer.
The genius of this book lies in its capacity to deal with challenges to the doctrines of early childhood education and to deliver us a well-argued, concise analysis of some alternative understandings of the 'services' that children experience in the form of various institutions of education and child care. Dahlberg and Moss have entered in to the debate surrounding the instrumental nature of many of these services and have shown that by using post-structuralist theory, and by locating these encounters with early childhood in an ethics of care, that we can move away from a technical and instrumental approach and reinvigorate discussions about early childhood.
This book is particularly appropriate in the current political climate in Australia as there has been much discussion about the 'postmodern curriculum' as well as outcomes-based education. In the context of early childhood education, there is great value in moving away from an instrumentalist approach in which children are treated as solutions to future economic and social problems such as: shifts in the labour market will be dealt with by teaching how to use computers as early as kindergarten; in a competitive environment children must learn basic reading and math skills as early as possible and be measured on the amount that they learn; the 'leading' technical practice that results in children being able to demonstrate their capacities along these lines will be the most useful for governments and policy makers. Dahlberg and Moss ask us to question all of these assumptions and approach the experience of early childhood from a different angle. So just what are they asking us to do?
Dahlberg and Moss are suggesting that we approach early childhood education in such a way as to allow for a number of possibilities that instrumental, and indeed liberal, approaches may not allow. The possibilities that they discuss begin from the foundation that the institutions as the sites for technical educational practices are contested. This means that we should be questioning the assumptions of preschools, child care facilities, kindergartens, primary school grades, and so on. We ought to go further and develop our ideas beyond an instrumental notion of what needs to be done in a technocratic way to 'produce' people of value in liberal democracies. Dahlberg and Moss question the institutions as the only loci for childhood experience, and question the values that drive these institutions as well. In the Australian context much of the current discussion has centred on the idea of the 'postmodern curriculum' in which students are encouraged to be critical of the material they are learning and students are taught a particular view in which to 'deconstruct' the kinds of messages they receive in their daily lives from a variety of sources including the news media, television advertisements, religious leaders, political leaders, and the textbooks they are meant to be learning from in educational institutions. Dahlberg and Moss are not talking about a debate of this kind when they refer to poststructuralism and postmodern ideas. Their claim is more profound, and thus more difficult, in that they are asking us to reject the simple and simplistic classifications that we are fed by our policy-makers and technocrats. They are asking us to question the very ideas that drive us to accept simplified classifications of what it means to be a child, of what it means to educate, of what it means determine how much education or what kind of education a child has received, and to get us to move away from the technical answers. The reason they argue that we need to do this is that there is great danger in simply shrugging our shoulders and saying that the experts will handle the outcomes and we simply look at the criteria based on outcome statements. This approach will take us away from ethical considerations and political problems that exist when there is a responsibility for others. Dahlberg and Moss are asking us to take on that responsibility in the contemporary world.
So there is a demand in this book that places a great responsibility on the adults in the worlds of children: the demand is to critically examine the conditions for childhood. We all participate in those conditions, whether directly or indirectly, but it is certain that we all have something to do with this development. Thus the debate here is not about what kind of 'postmodern' or 'poststructural' reading we seek to employ when we examine particular texts, it is about a radical questioning of the institutions and values that surround children on a constant and daily basis. This is a book that should be read by anyone who has a connection to early childhood education, and indeed by anyone interested in childhood and the wellbeing of children.
Dr R.J. Imre
University of Notre Dame Australia