Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman

Neil Postman presents an interesting theory as to why the concept of childhood is disappearing.  He takes the reader on a historical trip back to the Middle Ages where no culture of childhood existed.  Children were treated as small adults.  Small, helpless adults that bigger, stronger adults were at liberty to take advantage of.  They were expected to work like adults and serve those stronger than themselves.  They were not protected from adult themes, such as exposure to sexual situations which they either witnessed or at times were forcibly involved in.

According to Postman, the concept of childhood began with the invention of the printing press.  The ability to read created a division between adults and children because adults were now keepers of information that children did not have access to.  Not only did the printing press create a class of children, it also created a class of adults, something else that did not exist previously.

As a result, starting with churches, schools were raised to create a literate society.  Instead of children being sent straight to work they now were expected to spend their youth learning how to decode symbols and deduce meaning from them.  This exercise opened them up to a universe of concepts and ideas that developed their own intellectual capacity.  Society began producing abstract thinkers.

It's interesting to note that it was first Protestant churches that began the widespread use of schools before the Catholic church which was very much embedded in the practice of reverencing images.  Imagery in the Catholic church was a powerful tool in teaching congregations Biblical history and principles. Icons and other images as paintings, statues etc.. were an integral part of worship.

Nevertheless, Catholics soon got on board and are responsible for schools worldwide and can also be credited for spreading literacy and as a result, childhood.

Literacy produced a culture of children because it produced adults.  Adults now possessed abilities and knowledge that children didn't have and children were expected to spend their childhood acquiring these abilities in order to become functioning adults in a society that was now shaped by a largely educated demographic.

That is not to say that literacy was immediate and it took some time to trickle down to the poorest communities.  However, church schools weren't respecters of people and both Catholic and Protestant churches planted schools worldwide in every neighborhood poor or rich.

Eventually, this was taken over in Europe and North America by the government.

Now the turning point:  After describing the rise of childhood, Postman then writes on its disappearance.  

Postman traces the disappearance of childhood to the development of technology, primarily, television and music.  Themes and materials that previously were the domain of adults are now a part of a child's world. 

First of all there is the diminishing of the intellect.  Television requires no decoding, no interpreting, it is a completely passive exercise.  No skills are needed to watch TV.  There is no such thing as remedial television watching or classes that need to be taken in order to develop the ability to watch it.  Instead of reasoning and analyzing, instead our emotions are manipulated by images and music that tell us how to feel about those images.

Most devastating of all, is what children are exposed to through television and popular music.  Once upon a time,  no one questioned the innocence of childhood or that children should be protected from certain aspects of life.  Adulthood was needed in order to carry the load of information required by certain subjects.  

The information that children receive about sex and other life themes though media has robbed children of this innocence.  Parents buy music for their children that have graphic sexual content.  They allow them to watch movies with language and violence that  were once considered factors that children needed protecting from.  This has all but disappeared from our culture. 

And it shows.  More and more shows are presenting younger and younger actors engaged in adult themes, including sexual activity.

But it's not only childhood that's fallen by the wayside.  It's also adulthood.  The average character in popular movies, TV and books is single and has the social skills of an adoloscent.  It used to be that thirty was the new fifteen.  Now it's forty. It shows in our culture.  How many people prefer pursuing their own happiness as defined by "My relationships, my career, what I want to do with my life and it doesn't involve the oppression of being tied down to a marriage partner and even less to children." The rantings of a five year old from the mouths of many adults today.

Postman's book does not hold an optimistic view for our society where he believes technology has deprived the majority of people of basic adult skills for becoming thriving, functional and productive members or our society.  

 Perhaps a neo middle age serfdom is not so far  off with an ever growing poverty class and elitist wealthy class. The inability to reason for oneself certainly will make the masses easier to control.  

Resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. (p. 152).

My own view is not so pessimistic as Postman's for the reason that I have faith based on the promises in the book of Revelation.  

In the meantime I will be doing my own "rebelling" against the culture by reading good books rather than watching sitcoms, preferring the Wall Street Journal to 24/7 TV news and training young children to think logically.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting book that contains a lot of insights.

    With that it does sound like Postman may be taking some problems and extrapolating them too far. I agree with many, but not all, of the cultural criticisms that you mention that Postman makes, especially in regards to television.

    With that I do think that there are some advantageous to our modern culture. I see a lot of young people who are critical thinkers, who read real books and who are not selfish. I think that the young adult generation of today may be doing better then my generation did. (I am 48).

    I also think that while a few people will choose not to enter into traditional family relationships, it will always be a minority.

    1. It does seem that Postman does what many authors do when trying to make their point. They draw a straight line and cut out any extraneous facts that don't support his conclusion.

      While I think he makes some excellent points, I also believe there's a lot more to the subject than what he says.

      However, having taught in the public school system for many years I must say that I am finding children's and especially college students at the University I work at- ability to think through why they believe the way they do to be minimal. It's mostly about how they "feel" about things rather than logically arriving at a conclusion.

      TV works primarily through manipulating emotions through images. People leave a movie acquiring opinions about a subject without understanding why they now think that way.

      Doesn't have to be that way, but people need to guard against it. But, as a friend of mine once told me, he doesn't watch a movie to think just be entertained.

  2. I’ve never really considered the possibility of this happening, but I often bemoan the fact that children no longer play.
    I’ve been rebelling against the culture for a few years now (without even knowing it!) I hardly ever watch films, much preferring to read.
    This certainly sounds like an interesting read.

    1. Hi Barbara! I am also a rebel against the culture. Who has time for TV (or much TV) when there's so many brilliant books to read? And I include children's literature with that. Last night after reading your blog I ordered Marjorie Torry's Alice in Wonderland. I can't wait to get it.

  3. Lots of food for thought in the book, your review and the comments..... thanks. :)


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.