If children were little scientists who learn best through firsthand observations and mini-experiments, how would a child discover that the earth is round—never mind conceive of heaven as a place someone might go after death? Trusting What You’re Told begins by reminding us of a basic truth: Most of what we know we learned from others.
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About the Author
Paul L. Harris is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard University.
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Chapter 10: Magic and Miracles
In this chapter, I ask how children conceive of the past. Do they think that anything happen there or that it is constrained by causal regularities? One way to approach this question is to look at children’s ideas about stories. Because children cannot experience or re-visit the past, they rely on the narratives of other people to learn about it. When do children start to distinguish between stories that are fictional and those that aim to describe what actually happened?
David Hume claimed that a sense of history as a genuinely factual narrative was slow to emerge: “The first page of Thucydides, in my opinion, is the commencement of real history” (Hume, 1742/1987). Subsequent scholarship has tended to support Hume’s contention that writers before Thucydides did not make a clear differentiation between narratives with a fantastical story-line that included interventions by the Gods and those aiming at an accurate, factual history, shorn of superhuman elements. Hume’s remark points to an interesting question about how children conceive of the unseen past. Like the writers of ancient Greece, young children might not distinguish between fantastical narratives with superhuman protagonists and historical narratives with ordinary human protagonists. Older children, by contrast, might be sensitive to the difference between fiction and history and use it to work out the status of a particular narrative and its protagonist.
Past research does indeed suggest that the distinction between fictional and real characters is not easy for young children to grasp. Yet the findings are not consistent. Some investigators report that young children are prone to think that various real figures are just fantasy figures. For example, Morison and Gardner (1978) found that children often judged real figures that were remote from their everyday experience—‘knight’ ‘Indian’ and ‘dinosaur’—as pretend. Other investigators have found the opposite mistake—that children are prone to think of fantasy figures as real. For example, Applebee (1978) asked children, “Where does Cinderella live? Could we go for a visit?” Whereas 9-year-olds often looked quizzically at him, apparently recognizing that Cinderella is fictional, 6-year-olds were not so lucid. If they denied that a visit was possible, they typically offered pragmatic rather than ontological reasons: “... She’ll have to wash up the plates and all the dishes and wash the floor”.
We revisited this question, taking various precautions to make sure that children understood what we were asking (Corriveau, Kim, Schwalen, & Harris, 2009). We gave them two easily distinguished boxes—a box for real people, soberly illustrated with a teacher standing at a blackboard and a box for pretend people, more whimsically illustrated with a flamingo painting on a canvas—and asked children to allocate pictures of well-known people to the appropriate box. Both 3–4-year-olds and 5–7-year-olds—performed well. Figure 10.1 shows that they would put a picture of say Abraham Lincoln into the real box whereas they put a picture of Batman into the pretend box—although older children were more systematic than younger children.
Table of ContentsContents Introduction 1. Early Learning from Testimony 2. Children’s Questions 3. Learning from a Demonstration 4. Moroccan Birds and Twisted Tubes 5. Trusting Those You Know? 6. Consensus and Dissent 7. Moral Judgment and Testimony 8. Knowing What Is Real 9. Death and the Afterlife 10. Magic and Miracles 11. Going Native Notes References Acknowledgments Index
What People are Saying About This
Paul Harris has given us an intricate and beautifully detailed picture of children as budding anthropologists. They don't just learn about the world on their own, but rather from and through 'informants' who provide testimony—which naturally raises issues of trustworthiness. This is a really terrific book from a researcher acutely attuned to children's inner lives.
Michael Tomasello, author of Why We Cooperate
The importance of learning from others was oddly neglected by too many of the 20th Century pioneers of child psychology. In Trusting What You're Told Paul Harris reviews his and his colleagues' beautiful work demonstrating just how entwined culture is with children's development.
Peter J. Richerson, author of Not By Genes Alone