Nostalgia has made a comeback under COVID-19. In the context of enforced lockdowns, there has been an increase nostalgic activities such as watching classic movies, cooking, and reminiscing with family and friends.
Nostalgia can be defined as a feeling of longing for a better time in the past that no longer exists and may never have.
When not excessive, nostalgia can be a productive feeling that provides a sense of continuity, determination and optimism in difficult times.
As writer Danielle Campoamor explains, “nostalgia serves as a kind of emotional peacemaker, helping us get used to a new reality it is shocking, stressful and traumatic.
But nostalgia can create an overly simplistic image of the past that hampers attention to the present and limits the imagination of a different future.
What is nostalgia for?
As nostalgia often evokes memories of valuable social connections and togetherness, it can also help people cope with feelings of loneliness.
Cultural theorist Svetlana Boym adds that nostalgia is disturbing “the irreversibility of time which plagues the human conditionand proposes a way to use the past to rethink the present and the future.
Some people may even experience an increase nostalgia for the early days of COVID-19, when lockdowns felt like a break from the rush of everyday life. However, nostalgia reflects an overly positive view of that time and centers the experiences of the most privileged or protected in society.
In the current context of COVID-19, the desire to resume a “normal” life can also produce unrealistic expectations and feelings of impatience, frustration and fear.
Innocence and Childhood Toys
Historically, nostalgia can be linked to childhood and the desire to return to a fantasized state of innocence.
Even today, in the dominant Western popular imagination, childhood is apprehended as a time before responsibility, before trouble and violence, and before knowledge of loss and death.
Playful objects designed for children are also driven by nostalgia. As archaeologist Jane Eva Baxter suggests, toys and playthings can say so much about adult childhood desires as they do for the children for whom they are intended.
Teachers remembering childhood
As part of our work, we asked undergraduate students enrolled in teacher education and child studies programs to select an object – a token, toy or tool – that they believed represented childhood.
Participants were invited to discuss their objects in focus groups. A range of items were shared including soft toys, bicycles and binoculars, games and puzzles, drawings and books.
At first glance, these choices may not be surprising. We could also say that they represent normative ideas about child development and the tendency to view children as precursors to productive adulthood.
However, the participants did not simply repeat the norms represented by their objects. They often used them to describe diverse and difficult childhood experiences such as the loss of loved ones, questions about gender and sexuality, times of worry, bullying or failure and how they exercised agency in the face of rigid educational goals.
Pre-pandemic childhoods and toys without technology
As respondents in our study described their own complicated experiences as children, they reverted to nostalgic ideas of childhood when the topic of COVID-19 arose.
In these discussions, technology was a key theme. Specifically, participants highlighted the technology-free qualities of their own objects as being more natural, more innocent, and more joyful than the gadgets they believe dominate children’s experiences today.
On the one hand, there are important reasons for concern technologies designed for children, particularly in terms of privacy, security and consent. Many young people themselves have expressed discomfort with the impacts of technology in their lives.
In the case of emergency online education, teacher training specialist Sarah Barrett further highlights the role of technology in the worsening of social inequalities and the loss of class communities.
On the other hand, children’s creative uses of technologies may not be so different from their uses of material objects and toys. Even if they raise uncertainties, high-tech toys can be outlets for imagination, curiosity and emotional attachment.
What nostalgia forgets
The problem is that nostalgia can cloud such a debate. Pre-pandemic childhood longing can reinforce normative ideas about what counts as a “real” or “natural” childhood, even though these ideas have never included all children.
Nostalgia can therefore overlook the experiences of children themselves, experiences that have always been affected by historical changes, social inequalities and emotional conflictsjust as our study participants remembered.
Given these inequalities, it is telling that many minority children and youth have described the technological shift to online education during COVID-19 as a reprieve from racist, homophobic and transphobic violence in face-to-face school situations.
Because nostalgia creates an overly positive view of the past, it can also distract from the need for structural changes in post-COVID recovery plans within education.
The good news
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that can be felt as sure evidence of an idealized time in the past that we can aim to return to.
However, as educational theorist Janet Miller suggests, it is important “Taking responsibility for all the nostalgic stories we might tell in terms of sheer longing for that often idealized time or place that no longer exists – or more likely, never really existed..”
It might be strange good news to recognize that nostalgia is not proof of how things used to be. If we can keep in mind the impossibility of the idealized promises of nostalgia, and if we can take responsibility for the nostalgic stories we tell, then we may be able to imagine new, inclusive understandings of childhood and childhood. education.