Reading Agency: The Making of Modern German Childhoods in the Age of Revolutions

Thumbnail Image

Persistent link to this item

View Statistics

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Reading Agency: The Making of Modern German Childhoods in the Age of Revolutions

Published Date




Thesis or Dissertation


This dissertation demonstrates how active reading and writing became a defining feature of childhood during the age of revolutions. Beginning in educated middle-class families at the end of the Enlightenment and disseminating across European society by the end of the nineteenth century, a series of radical transformations occurred in the ideologies and practices of childhood: as a life stage, it was increasingly positioned as critical to self-formation; adults began to worry about entertaining children in active ways; sentimental attitudes influenced children’s learning; and at the same time, pedagogues and parents emphasized the cultivation of self-discipline. Pedagogical innovations, the development of new book genres and markets, and an increased emphasis on bourgeois domesticity joined to make German-speaking Central Europe a vital site for reimagining childhood. The development of modern childhood has traditionally been understood as a process enacted on youth by adults, but in practice children’s socialization was mediated by young people’s own choices. To better understand the roles children played in transformations of modern life, there is now a need for studies which combine the history of changing sentiments with the history of children’s lived experience. In addition to the ideas and practices of pedagogues and family educators, we also must consider the part children played. Rather than dismissing the disciplinary aspects of pedagogy or overlooking the power of children to influence adults, my approach emphasizes the mutual constitution of agency and discipline in determining how children influenced European modernity. Reading Agency furthermore shows how children participated in inventing the modern self. I argue that the emergence of the active child reader and writer was not simply a consequence of expanding literacy, but, in fact, a key constituent of modern life. The dissertation is organized as a series of case studies in literacy practices—youth periodicals, fairy tales, geographic schoolbooks, children’s letters, and youth diaries—which each demonstrate the complex and socially embedded ways in which children form opinions, exercise power, and make history.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2015. Major: History. Advisor: Mary Jo Maynes. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 410 pages.

Related to




Series/Report Number

Funding information

Isbn identifier

Doi identifier

Previously Published Citation

Suggested citation

Bruce, Emily. (2015). Reading Agency: The Making of Modern German Childhoods in the Age of Revolutions. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

Content distributed via the University Digital Conservancy may be subject to additional license and use restrictions applied by the depositor. By using these files, users agree to the Terms of Use. Materials in the UDC may contain content that is disturbing and/or harmful. For more information, please see our statement on harmful content in digital repositories.