The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, published in 1982. 177 pages.
It has taken me several weeks to read this relatively short book mainly because I got sidetracked, not only by the runaway cultural train that we’re all witnessing, but also by a sudden and overwhelming curiosity about the late Neil Postman; who he was and what he was all about. What I found is that he is a man who, like so many sane secular commentators, parked right outside of Truth’s house, but failed to finish the leg of the journey that would take him through the front door.
One thing Postman does extraordinarily well is lay out the historical development of childhood as we commonly understand it today. By today, I mean the image cultivated between the years 1850 and 1950 as exposited in The Disappearance of Childhood.
“The period between 1850 and 1950 represents the high watermark of childhood. In America, to which we must now give our exclusive attention, successful attempts were made during these years to get all children into school and out of factories, into their own clothing, their own furniture, their own literature, their own games, and their own social world. In a hundred laws children were classified as qualitatively different from adults; in a hundred customs, assigned preferred status and offered protections from the vagaries of adult life. p.67″
Before this, Postman laid the groundwork for his argument that prior to the printing press and widespread literacy, children didn’t experience the shelter and protections from adult life that they enjoyed after those developments. Postman argues that children were not only were exposed to hard physical labor but also to ribaldry and all things adult-like. This was because childhood’s boundaries were not determined by literacy, but by verbal acuity which reaches maturity at a much earlier age than literacy education as we understand it today.
There’s room for a robust conversation about the happy medium, if you will, between childhood as we know it, complete with its own language and accouterments, and a healthy overlap between the lives of children and adults. Postman sees the overlapping of childhood and adulthood mostly through a negative lens, and when viewed from his vantage point, he’s right to see it that way. He frames most of these negative developments from a snapshot which has grown increasingly vivid with each technological advancement. Somehow the printing press is omitted from judgement, which only Postman could explain. I hope to find out if he did as I continue to read more of his work. While most scholars trace the disembodiment of communication back to the radio, Postman asks us to consider that it really began with the telegraph. A question attributed to Thoreau addressed the issue and was expounded on 120 years later:
“A hundred and twenty years later Marshall McLuhan tried to address the issue Thoreau raised. He wrote: ‘When a man lives in an electric environment, his nature is transformed and his private identity is merged with the corporate whole. He becomes “Mass Man”. Mass Man is a phenomenon of electric speed, not of physical quantity. Mass Man was first noticed as a phenomenon in the age of radio, but he had come into existence, unnoticed, with the electric telegraph’.
In my opinion, McLuhan, whose metier was hyperbole, is far from exaggerating the case here. The electric telegraph was the first communication medium to allow the speed of a message to exceed the speed of the human body.” P. 69-70.
I would argue that the printing press fits this bill, but as a man of literature, Postman is unable to appreciate the distinction.
My fascination with the overlapping phenomena of technological advancement and the destruction of geographical community (a phrase which would have been redundant 100 years ago), is causing me to omit the true thrust of Postman’s argument, which really hinges on the advent of television as a mass medium and the breathtaking speed at which it transformed the way we live and interact.
Postman’s thesis, and I agree, is that a picture may “be worth a thousand words, but it is in no sense the equivalent of a thousand words, or a hundred, or two.” He presents the argument that television has the potential to put our minds to sleep. This is where it differs from the printed word. Though the printed word can also contribute to Mass Man as a phenomenon, it doesn’t put the mind to sleep.
As it relates to the disappearance of childhood, Postman offers a very interesting argument for why these moving pictures with targeted entertainment formulas contribute not only to the “adultifying” of children, but to the rise of the “childified” adult. His cultural references are outdated since the book was written in the 1980s, but no matter. In 2020, the references have leaped from the screen and are now a part of daily life. Who among us does not know these people, except they aren’t characters on a television show?
“Laverne, Shirley, Archie, the crew if the Love Boat, the company of Tree, Fonzie, Barney Miller’s detectives, Rockford, Kojak, and the entire population of Fantasy Island can hardly be said to be adult characters, even after one has made allowances for the traditions of the formats in which they appear. With a few exceptions, adults on television do not take their work seriously (if they work at all), they do not nurture children, they have no politics, practice no religion, represent no tradition, have no foresight or serious plans, have no extended conversations, and in no circumstances allude to anything that is not familiar to an eight-year-old person.” p.126-127
To this, I have two responses. The first is welcome to the modern/postmodern era! The second is an indictment of Postman’s secular worldview. Much as a feminist is all for unbridled sexual autonomy until a 16 year-old boy competes and wins in a sporting event that should have merited her daughter a chance at a collegiate athletic scholarship, Postman cannot acknowledge that the practice of religion and extending of traditions across generations is tethered to accountability to God and man. It’s also inextricably linked to the understanding that for moral values to have substance, moral law must support them, and all laws have a Law Giver.
Childhood, as an intrinsically valuable stage of life, came of age with Christianity’s spread across the West much in the same way as female dignity was born at the Samarian well. Once we decided that every man should decide for himself what is right, there was nothing left but the destruction of all things good, true, and beautiful. Including the innocence of childhood.
The book itself, however, is excellent. It presents a powerful case and offers lots of opportunity to contemplate the fruits and limits of modern living.
4 out of 5 stars
Oh, yes! The syllogism:
If man determines his own values
Which are subjective rather than objective
This fluidity renders everything worthless ~me