Neil Postman, a former NYU professor perhaps most noted for his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published in 1985, on the pervasive manner of television into our lives and our ways of communicating had previously written a book exploring the concept of childhood. The Disappearance of Childhood was originally published in 1982, but was revised and republished in 1994. Today’s post reviews that edition of the book and discusses the ways that the notion of childhood has been conceived in our minds may be eroding.
Postman spends about the first half of the book explaining what childhood is and how it has developed throughout history. The biological stage before the onset of puberty is one way to define childhood. However, Postman looks at the stage as what separates children from adults. He announces the separation between children and adults to be based on knowledge and education. Before the invention of the printing press, few people could read and there was little reason for a formal education. There was no need for a childhood and children were treated essentially as adults. Not until the Enlightenment period in which society grew more educated did children’s issues become prevalent and the modern-day concept was born.
Over the next few decades it would seem that children were in the golden days. Children were suddenly being viewed as people who needed to be protected from the harsh realities of the world, but also instructed in how to survive. Of course, protections from hard labor and the best treatment was reserved for only the wealthy classes. In more modern times, children were required to gain an education in order to be responsible citizens.
This seems to be where the trouble begins however. For generations there had been a split between children and adults that could be seen in how they dressed, how they spoke, and what activities they engaged in. However, the transmission of information by the radio and even more by the television began to break down this invented barrier. Postman shows many examples of how TV is responsible for blurring the lines between child and adult. Things like music videos with sexual innuendo that are imitated by 4-year olds, or the way that the same programming is interesting to a 40-year old as would be to a 10-year old serve his purpose.
TeacherJay was fascinated with the book and had been wondering about these very concepts for some time. While not necessarily thinking this is a negative aspect of our evolving society, he has noticed that children seem to be acting like adults more and more. Trying to resist the argument that he is just seeing the “kids today” as different due to a clash between generations, TeacherJay had been looking for other writers to support the idea and found it in The Disappearance of Childhood. Perhaps the most fascinating notion is that Postman’s last updates came from the 1994 edition – before the rise of the internet. It would be interesting to hear what he would have to say about how the “global village” has changed our perceptions.