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November 18, 2011

The Disappearance of Childhood

Neil Postman - ISBN - 978-0679-751663

Originally published in 1982, this '94 reprint is still available. It has been recently released as an electronic book. Now deceased, he was a university professor, and one of America's leading social commentators. Looking for something to read t'other day, anticipating a long wait in the doctor's office, I picked up my old copy and took it along. It is a phenomenal book--one of Postman's best, which is saying a lot.

He posits that childhood is a creation of the post-Gutenberg era, wherein the oral culture was gradually replaced by the printed word. From time immemorial there was little to separate adults from children, since all information was available to all people. Only with the advent of mass print capability did the opportunity for first-hand information become available to the common man; scholarship advanced, and lines were drawn separating the informed from the uninformed. "Almost all of the characteristics we associate with adulthood are those that are (and were) either generated or amplified by the requirements of a fully literate culture: the capacity for self-restraint, a tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a pre-occupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order." Childhood was born, and adulthood was advanced and redefined.

The word "child," had referred to offspring; only in modern times did it begin to adopt its present meaning. Up until medieval times, children as we define them, became adults with the mastery of language, usually about age 7. Few went to school; fewer still continued through advanced education. Virtually none were spared the secrets of the adult world and its harsh realities.

With the advent of printing, "secrets" could be limited to adults, and literacy was acquired thru years of training and education. School was designed for preparation for adulthood, and included not only literacy, but the disciplines needed for successful adulthood: personal restraint in matters of behavior, foul language, sexual appetites, etc. As well, a grasp of history, society, morality, logic, reason were associated. Children were protected from the challenges and vagaries of adulthood, which were introduced to them gradually, as they matured, and under specific, guided circumstances. Information was sequestered in places seldom explored by youth.

The electrical media, beginning with the telegraph and culminating in television, changed all of that as it resurrected the oral culture and is burying the literate culture. Television exposed the formerly private concerns, secrets and realities of adulthood. They were again dispensed, wholesale, as it became the dominant source if information. It requires no special talents or training to absorb; it confers no skills, and it "adultifies" content. Worse, it eroticizes children and infantilizes adults. Adulthood, as understood for centuries, is disappearing along with childhood.

Children, as in medieval times, know what everyone else knows. Nothing is mysterious or awesome, and nothing is held back from public view. When challenged, executives brag that today's children are better informed than any previous generation. TV is the "window to the world." While a correct statement, no one enquires why that should be taken as a sign of progress. Television erodes definitions because it requires no instruction to grasp its form, it makes no complex demands on mind or behavior, and it does not segregate its audience. "Having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information, they are expelled from the garden of childhood."

For years, researchers have endeavored to determine TV's impact upon children. Vivid depictions of violence, sex and drugs are front and center, but no one asks to what extent the depiction of the world as it is undermines a child's belief in adult rationality, in the possibility of an ordered world, or in a hopeful future. To what extent does it undermine the child's confidence in his future capacity to control the impulse to violence?

Childhood crime is exponentially more common than before (11,000% increase between 1950 and 1979!) Sexuality and STDs, drug and alcohol abuse are rampant. Musical tastes, language, literature, movies, clothing styles and behavior are all shared with adults. Nothing is uniquely "childish." Even organized sports have replaced childhood play. Favorite programs are the same for little kids, adolescents and adults, and leveling is, as always, down.

"There is no turning back"--and he drew this conclusion before the Internet. "Resistance" he insists, "entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture."

Posted by Curmudgeon at November 18, 2011 11:59 AM