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.