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I absolutely adore reading - my love for books has had a huge impact on my life! I'm going to grad school to be a children's/YA librarian.

The Disappearance of Childhood

The Disappearance of Childhood - Neil Postman, Marty Asher

 

 

From the vogue for nubile models to the explosion in the juvenile crime rate, this modern classic of social history and media traces the precipitous decline of childhood in America today−and the corresponding threat to the notion of adulthood.

Deftly marshaling a vast array of historical and demographic research, Neil Postman, author of Technopoly, suggests that childhood is a relatively recent invention, which came into being as the new medium of print imposed divisions between children and adults. But now these divisions are eroding under the barrage of television, which turns the adult secrets of sex and violence into poprular entertainment and pitches both news and advertising at the intellectual level of ten-year-olds.

Informative, alarming, and aphoristic, The Disappearance of Childhood is a triumph of history and prophecy. (source)

The last paper that I have to write for my course on Technology in the Lives of Children and Youth requires us to read Neil Postman's book, The Disappearance of Childhood, and then use other texts that we've read over the semester to either support or dispute his theories. Essentially, Postman is of the opinion that the institution of childhood is in the process of being destroyed by media technology. Although this book was published in 1982, Postman's theories, if nothing else, are extremely interesting to consider, in light of the digital world that we live in.

 

Prior to reading this book, I felt that the whole premise of the book was, frankly, stupid. We see children running around every day - their mere existence proves that childhood isn't going anywhere, right? But Postman argues that childhood is actually a societal construct. According to Postman, unlike infants and toddlers, there is no major biological difference between children over the age of seven and adults. By age 7, children are able to speak, thus allowing them to communicate effectively, if not yet with a large degree of sophistication, and, if it weren't for societal measures preventing them from doing so, performing most tasks that adults can.

 

So if you first accept Postman's argument that children are biologically no different from adults (which I, personally, don't fully agree with, but I'll go with it for the sake of argument), that means that childhood is a notion that was created by society. Postman argues that childhood was born with the beginning of social literacy following the invention of the printing press - meaning that childhood has only existed for about 500 years. Postman argues that the introduction of the printed book led to widespread literacy, which is true. Obviously, literacy is a skill that must be learned. According to Postman, this led to a separation between children and adults, as children needed to be taught by adults. This resulted not only in the generally accepted value of education, but  also to the introduction of secrets - secrets that adults knew, but children weren't allowed to know just yet, such as profanity and sexuality. Postman argues that prior to widespread literacy, these things weren't secret because they simply couldn't be, and there didn't seem to be a need for them to be secret.  And because children were now seen as inherently different from adults, the concept of childhood was born.

 

According to Postman, just as childhood was born from literacy, it is now being destroyed by digital media. Postman points mainly to television, arguing that because no skills are needed to view television, there is nothing stopping children from watching shows that are not intended for them. He also points to how the media has sexualized and commercialized children, and how subjects that have traditionally been valued in education, such as history, literature, music, and art, frequently lose funding and are considered inferior to subjects that are deemed more essential for career development, namely science and math. This part of Postman's argument is very compelling and I found it fascinating to read.

 

First, let me emphasize that I do not communicate Postman's theories any where near as clearly, as eloquently, or as thoroughly as he does. Hopefully I have at least provided you with the basic concepts, but believe me, I am nowhere near as effective at conveying these ideas as he is, so if this interests you at all, I highly recommend reading the book for yourself! That being said, while I believe that Postman raises some interesting and valid points, I don't believe that childhood is necessarily disappearing, but certainly is changing. We as a society really don't guard children quite as firmly from "forbidden" topics as we once did - and there are some who would argue that this is a positive change.

 

One piece of Postman's book that I found to be most interesting was found in the very last chapter, where he poses a series of questions that came up during his research process and which he briefly attempted to answer. One question was "Are there any communication technologies that have the potential to sustain the need for childhood?" Interestingly enough, Postman selected computers. I was really intrigued by this because, to me, computers embody everything that Postman most attacks. However, as Postman elaborates, he focuses much more on computer programming than on actual use of computers. Postman says that computers could sustain childhood if programming became a skill necessary for success, just as literacy has. But Postman says that computers will fail to do this if people instead choose to use them for entertainment purposes, such as video games. Postman wrote this almost a decade before the Internet came about, so he does not delve into that particular subject, but I think that he would be disappointed with the reasons that society values computers and would be horrified to their contribution to what he sees as the destruction of childhood.

 

Again, I don't know that I agree with all of Postman's theories, but I do think that they're really interesting to learn about and consider, especially in the digital world that we live in. Regardless of what you might think about the future of childhood, it is certain that technology has permeated our lives, and the effects of that in long run have yet to be determined. One thought that kept running through my mind as I was reading this was that this would be a great premise for a dystopian novel (and if you know of any books about a dystopia that lacks childhood, please let me know!), but as out-there as some of Postman's arguments may be, he does raise some valid points. If you have any thoughts on this topic, I'd love to hear them! And again, if you're interested in the effects of technology on childhood, this is definitely a book that you should think about reading!