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NFB Kids

Interview with Brian J. Low

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Are you suggesting in your book that the kind of childrearing practices advocated by Dr. Benjamin Spock ultimately weakened families in Canada and the United States?

The ideas forwarded by Spock did not originate with him of course. They were part and parcel of a parent education project that was enormously well funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, both in the United States and Canada, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Spock was immersed in the principles of this parent education project during his pediatric training at Yale and Columbia Universities, while, in Canada, influential advocates of the ‘modern methods,’ such as William Blatz and Samuel Laycock, were directly or indirectly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Spock came to prominence—and the permissive ideas became attributed to him—after his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was featured on the I Love Lucy show.

In the cinematic micro-society I describe in NFB Kids, these notions of psychologized child rearing are introduced into families in 1946 and soon become universally accepted. At first things go well; but by the late-1950s an unanticipated consequence becomes apparent. As adult control over children diminishes (an expected outcome), children’s influence over other children increases—the peer group becomes a concern in the cinematic society. Moreover, the ‘new generation’ (as they were dubbed by the social theorists who conceived of them) having been permitted to challenge parental authority within the family begin to challenge traditional authority structures within the society itself as they enter adulthood in the late-1960s. In combination with their tendency toward peer-group loyalty, this results in a profound social transformation during the 1970s with yet another unanticipated consequence. That is, the new generation as young adults, having been rearing for independence within the family, experience widespread difficulty in forming stable family relationships of their own. Divorce and alternate parenting arrangements become commonplace and then the mainstream by the late-1980s. So, yes, the kind of childrearing practices advocated by Dr. Benjamin Spock ultimately did weaken families—at least in “NFB Society,” the cinematic society created by the NFB’s archival film collection.

Which leads me to my second questions: “What is NFB society? Is it a mirror reflection on Canadian society?”

NFB society exists within the more than 8,000 films produced by the National Film Board of Canada since 1939. The population consists of motion picture representations of ordinary Canadians at work and play in their everyday settings—in their homes, schools, and communities, for example. The social course of this cinematic population—from clothing fashions and musical tastes to social issues and social relations—has been steadily anchored for more than one half century to the social history of Canada by the mandate of the NFB: “to interpret Canada to Canadians.” By screening films concerning any setting of a particular period, then comparing these with films of the same context a decade later, then with the next decade, and so on, a viewer will observe historical movement in every aspect of this filmic society—just as we do with real society.

Is NFB society a mirror reflection of Canadian society? Not as most people think of a mirror—that is, as a true reflection. But the mirror metaphor is not a bad one for describing NFB society. In classical literature, the mirror neither gives us a true picture, nor an ideal one, but rather, it shows us the movement of one toward the other. That is, when we look in a mirror, we see both what we are and what we ought to be all at the same time. When we look at NFB society, it is the same thing: we see both how Canadian filmmakers perceived Canadians ‘to be’ and what they thought we ‘ought to be,’ often employing a narrative showing us moving from the real to the idea. In the classical sense then, yes, NFB society can be said to be a mirror reflection of Canadian society.

The role of the Rockefeller Foundation in the formation of this mirror reflection seems to me to be an intriguing sidebar to your book. Would you care to comment on this?

Yes. From its very genesis, NFB society was profoundly influenced by the Rockefeller Foundation. John Grierson, the founding father of NFB society, was schooled in the progressive environment provided for him in America by the Rockefeller Foundation, being one of the earliest recipients of a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. The Rockefeller Foundation social philosophy he acquired from his American experience, he incorporated into early NFB society. Soon afterward, the primary socializing structures of NFB society were replaced by Rockefeller Foundation supported structures, and these had a profound effect upon the development of NFB society, as I have already mentioned.

Since it was so influential in the development of NFB society (albeit indirectly), one might well ask what were the intentions of the Rockefeller Foundation? I think the best answer to that question comes from Ida Tarbell’s 1904 expose of John D. Rockefeller Sr., The History of the Standard Oil Company (which is available on-line). From the outset, Rockefeller sought to impose a uniform system, a ‘standard’ system, over the oil industry, which meant eliminating competing systems or co-opting them. In the same way, from the 1920s onward, the foundation that bears his name sought to maintain social and economic order by bringing uniformity to social systems—developing a standard and then eliminating competing systems—including a uniform standard for child rearing that systematically usurped control from parents and communities over the social development of their own children.

Presuming that is the case for Canadian society as well as NFB society, what can be done to change the outcome of the parent education project?

The worst social outcome, as I describe in NFB Kids, that results from this usurping of power from parents and teachers is the increased likelihood of their children being socialized by cinematic media—especially by television. Sadly, I think, there is very little that can be done to democratize the medium of television—however, who can say what new technologies might enable communities to do so some day. On the other hand, it may still be possible to reverse the trend of usurping social power to the cinematic state by reversing the very policies and practices that tipped the balance of the socializing matrix in the first place. I think NFB Kids may be of help in identifying these.

There are initiatives suggested by my book, for example, for revitalizing community and family control over the socialization of children by 1) reversing the trend toward consolidation of school districts—reducing the size of school districts rather than enlarging them, so that smaller communities can have more say over their children’s social education and 2) “on the home front” by rearing an entirely new “New Generation,” one more responsive to socialization by the family and more resistant to socialization by the media. Of greatest assistance in this regard, NFB Kids identifies those parenting practices that the parent education project targeted to weaken parental control and, thus, which need to be reversed to reassert the authority of parents—beginning with that first symbolic struggle of wills between generations, the feeding schedule.

What about on the research side? Where would you suggest other academics interested in either the process or content of this study should go next, and what should they do when they get there?

Comparative studies would be useful, especially of other national cinemas—Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese—but also of extant television material: “CBS Society,” “CBC Society,” “BBC Society.” To anybody who takes up cinemaethnography as an academic pursuit, I suggest they bring nothing to the filmic societies they explore but an open mind. On the other hand, I suggest they read Esteve Morera’s Gramsci’s Historicism first, as it will give them a better idea of how to account for transience in the societies they explore. On the content side, the missing research link is the connection (if it exists) between the Rockefeller Foundation and Hollywood content, especially during the 1940s and 1950s when the parent education movement was in high gear. Elaine Tyler May in her Homeward Bound, for example, makes a shrewd observation about Hollywood’s role in triggering the post-war baby-boom, but she fails to account for how this came about so uniformly among studios. Given the connection between Hollywood brass and Rockefeller Foundation officials of the sort that opened the studio doors for Grierson in the mid-1920s, and given the known scope of the Rockefeller Foundation parent education project, I would think this would be a good starting point in investigating whether the Rockefeller Foundation had a direct influence over parenting matters in the cinematic society created by Hollywood, as opposed to the indirect influence it had in the formation and shaping of NFB society.