Dr. Patrick Ryan




During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I took a series of social service positions. I taught fire safety for children for the Minneapolis Fire Department; I taught truant youth at an alternative school; I was a counselor at a group home for disabled youth; I helped chronically unemployed and disabled adults find and keep jobs. During these years, I began to wonder about the meanings commonly given to words like opportunity, responsibility, entitlement, liberty, equality, and justice. I wanted to better understand how social policies interact with a larger political culture. 






Algonquin 2017

I decided to explore these questions through graduate studies in social policy history and earned my doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in 1998. My doctoral work was conducted under Michael Grossberg, and my dissertation explored how modern social policies transformed growing-up working-class in American cities between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. After graduate school, I worked for a year as an educational policy analyst with a Cleveland-area think-tank, before joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Dallas in 1999. 

In 1998, I helped Kris Lindenmeyer found H-Childhood, a network dedicated to the historical study of childhood that currently connects thousands of scholars world-wide. H-Childhood fostered the communication necessary for the founding of the Society for the History of Children and Youth (SHCY) in 2001. SHCY holds biennial conferences drawing between 180-220 papers dealing with the historical study of childhood. It has been held in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Sweden, and Australia. SHCY founded The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (JHCY) in 2008. JHCY has hundreds subscribers and publishes peer-reviewed articles quarterly. 

As the history of childhood was becoming a field in its own right, in 2003 Alan Pomfret persuaded me (and later Sally McNamee) to join him in building a program in Childhood and Social Institutions (CSI) at Kings University College in London, Ontario.  Founded in 1999 as a program in "Childhood and Family Relations," by 2005 the CSI program at Kings had become (perhaps) the first four-year, undergraduate program focused entirely upon sociological, political, legal, and historical approaches toward childhood. The program was elevated to the "Department" of Childhood and Youth Studies (CYS) in 2021. It offers alternatives to biological determinism and bureaucratic instrumentality - as those assumptions and commitments continue to frame mainline educational and medical thought. It advocates openly for a humanistic recognition of children as persons, and pursues a critical examination of policy and law. 

Becoming part of an interdisciplinary childhood studies project at Kings College altered my research agenda in two ways that added significantly to my initial training as a social policy historian. I began to read more rigorously within interdisciplinary critical theory, and 2) I focused on using the history of ideas and law to sketch a larger narrative of childhood. The consequences are apparent in my subsequent essays in The History of Education Quarterly, The Journal of Policy History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Paedagogica HistoricaEducare - Vetenskapliga Skrifter, Bildungsgeschichte – International Journal for the Historiography of Education, and the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. All of these essays play with the tensions between a humanistic approach toward childhood and youth, and the critique of humanism offered by Michel Foucault`s theses on power and his conceptualization of discourse. I continued to pursue these questions in an on-line series for the Society for the History of Children and Youth (SHCY) called "Childhood: History & Critique" (CHC). These multi-media essays led to reconfiguring SHCY's website into a magazine format in 2017-18, and the launching of over 160 SHCY features modeled on CHC between 2018 and 2023 - when I served as SHCY Editor.    

My interest in the dynamics between power and knowledge has developed over many years, and it frames my 2013 book - Master-Servant Childhood: a history of the idea of childhood in medieval English culture (Palgrave MacMillan). The book is an interdisciplinary synthesis that offers a new understanding of childhood in the Middle Ages as a form of master-servant relation embedded in an ancient sense of time as a correspondence between earthly change and eternal order. It insists upon the `historicity` of childhood - the idea that our sense of it is determined historically. The book challenges the misnomer that children were 'little adults' in the Middle Ages, and corrects the prevalent misconceptions that childhood was unimportant, unrecognized, or disregarded. It argues for the value of studying childhood as a structure of thought and feeling, and as an important avenue for exploring large scale historical changes in our sense of what it is to be and become human.

I have recently completed Childhood and the Law in Canada for LexisNexis, and hope it will be published near the end 2024. This book contextualizes six leading or exemplary cases in Canadian law covering paren patriea, the best interest of the child principle, custody and access law, international family law, corporal punishment, child abuse, sexual violence, children's evidence, the duty to report, vicarious liability, negligence, and the Indian Residential School litigation.

I look forward to returning to a long-term project called Childhood and the Governmental State in America. This is a study of law, labour, poverty, and education in the late-19th through the mid-20th centuries. It examines how childhood and youth became the primary arena for government through disciplinary techniques and population management.

I am Chair of the Department of Childhood and Youth Studies at King's College at Western University - Canada. 

Contact: pryan2@uwo.ca