Editorial, by Samuel Morard, 22 February 2019

2019 02 22 ED korczak S Morard"Reformers come to a bad end. Only after their death do people see that they were right and erect monuments in their honour" wrote Korczak. This proved to be sadly accurate for the Polish doctor, pedagogue, educator, researcher and writer who died at the Treblinka extermination camp with "his" two hundred children. It's time to revisit the thinking of this pioneer of children's rights.

Born 140 years ago, Janusz Korczak was aware of the enormous burden that social conditions and war placed on children. He believed that by giving them the means to achieve and by raising them in a humanistic and democratic spirit, a better society would be possible. In 1899, he formulated the essence of his philosophy: children are not human beings in the making; they are human from the day they are born. It is for this reason that they are entitled to respect.

In The Child's Right to Respect (1929), Korczak argues that the child must not just be treated as deserving of charity or condescension, but as a person with rights. Faced with the observation that the treatment of children is "Indulgent, rude, brutal – but always indifferent", he denounces the dichotomy perceived between adults and children, who are considered as irrational beings: "As card-sharks we so shuffle the deck as to juxtapose the worst of their hands with the best of ours. How about our own violations and crimes – public and private? How much discord, cunning, envy, slander, and blackmail is there among us? Words which wound, deeds which shame? How many quiet family tragedies where children suffer – the first martyrs? And we dare to blame and accuse?!" This echoes Stoecklin's insistence on the need to admit that, as unfinished beings, neither adults nor children ever reach the maximum of all potentials, which does not detract from the fact that they are sentient beings; complete, entirely human. Korczak calls for respect for all aspects of a child's life: respect for their ignorance and quest for knowledge, their failures and tears, their property and resources, their responsibility and their struggle growing up etc.

The revolutionary actions and reflections of Korczak were a source of inspiration for the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child and for the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, both written at the instigation of Poland. But, did his ideas not predate these legal texts, which - according to Edmond Kaiser - speak of children "in hollow terms, avoiding the proper words to describe them in their essence, their life, their body, their soul, their happiness, their weariness, their suffering, their martyrdom or their death?" Korczak went so far as to consider the spiritual dimension of the human being, which demands; "Respect, if not humility, toward the white, bright, and unquenchable holy childhood." Statues have been erected in honour of this reformer, but have we fully grasped his message?

Picture: Walking Poland Group, flickr / cc

NB: The editorial does not necessarily reflect the opinion of IDE board and team.

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