Friday, September 20, 2013

The Disappearance of Childhood

The Disappearance of Childhood
©1982 Neil Postman
177 pages

Television is killing your children -- conceptually. In 1985, Neil Postman penned Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he, building off of the lesson in Technopoly that technology changes our culture without our knowledge, examined television’s malevolent effects on political, civic, and religious discourse. The Disappearance of Childhood, published in 1982, is an earlier form of this argument, and one which focuses only on the effects of television on childhood.  In it, he asserts that childhood is a social construct, not a biological fact; that it sprang into being with the advent of the printing press and the need to instill widespread literacy; and that the rise of easy-accessible information through the television (and by extension for modern readers, the internet) has killed the innocence of youth. Although its historic claim about childhood is dubious,  concerns about the diminishment of modern childhood remain valid, and the connection between the two, the idea that technology is not value-free, but in fact shapes us as we use it, is as fascinating as ever.

Postman's initial bold claim that childhood is an invention of the middle ages is staggering in its audacity. With hundreds of thousands of years of history behind us as a species, we cover the globe in a seemingly infinite mosaic of sharply different cultures. Yet for all this diversity, there is not one semblance of childhood as special outside of medieval Europe and the cultures it influenced? To be sure, there are avenues of thought that make the thought understandable: modern children have far easier lives than their predecessors of any age. The demands placed on children in earlier epochs meant they had to participate in the life of their household, on the farm or at work, early on.  But does this translate to nothing about children being regarded as special at all? The  claim is simply too broad to go down easily.

That a side, this preview of Amusing Ourselves to Death, which casts childhood as the first victim of the communications revolution that later claimed public discourse, education, and our peace of mind, remains noteworthy. That revolution, writes Postman, spelled an end  of childhood as a special time in which children are protected from the burdens and full knowledge of the world, allowed to frolic in leisure outside the schoolroom, while inside it being good students learning to navigate their literary world.  Before widespread literacy, writes Postman, knowledge was primarily transmitted orally, and children learned the secrets of the world fairly easily. After the printing press made written communication the primary means of cultural transmission, however, not only did the knowledge being transmitted become 'secret' in that one had to learn to read to take part in it, but literary culture so broadened the intellectual capacity of the human race that the ideas being discussed became far more complex. To learn the world meant committing to a course of training and study, and that meant school. School was the potter's house in which young clay was molded into tall, strong vessels of knowledge. and ready for the responsibilities of adulthood.

The coming of mass communication, especially the television, ruined all that. While once courses of study were designed so that people -- children -- were gradually introduced to adult ideas as they grew older, the nightly news now exposes children to the adult world all at once. Within twenty minutes,  young minds can witness the horror of war,  be subjected to lessons about how buying things leads to happiness (and how being ignorant of the right shampoo will mean being forever alone because women recoil from dandruff), and learn a host of interesting words like 'incest' and 'erectile dysfunction' to ask mom and dad about. Because television requires virtually no prior knowledge, no training, no work to be entertaining or 'enlightening',  adults who spend much of their leisure time basking in its blue glow will be rendered infantile, easily manipulated and incapable of sustaining their attention in anything worthwhile. Although most of the book is a serious treatment of technology and society, toward the end Postman sounds a teeny bit crotchety. 

Although The Disappearance of Childhood has a questionable start and loses focus toward the end, the pages between raise a question worth considering for modern parents. Regardless of Postman's historic claims, both parents and child psychologists entertain worries today about 'age compression' or 'kids getting older younger'.  Though Postman muses in 1982 that computers might be a saving grace for literacy, if they continue to require programming language to set up and use (thus requiring another kind of focused education) a recent  article by The Atlantic wondering if it's unhealthy for toddlers to spend so much time on smartphone applications indicates that such hope is absurd.  Although Postman was primarily concerned with television, the internet makes TV look innocent. There's virtually no knowledge concealed from a child with a search engine and a curious mind, and the knowledge revealed won't just be a line of text: might well constitute a graphic video.  Knowledge is a powerful asset, and the danger that today's children are being exposed to too much, too soon,  warrants attention.

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