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 ˆ’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 popular entertainment and pitches both news and advertising at the intellectual level of ten-year-olds.
Neil Postman, an important American educator, media theorist and cultural critic was probably best known for his popular 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. For more than four decades he was associated with New York University, where he created and led the Media Ecology program.
He is the author of more than thirty significant books on education, media criticism, and cultural change including Teaching as a Subversive Activity, The Disappearance of Childhood, Technopoly, and Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century.
Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), a historical narrative which warns of a decline in the ability of our mass communications media to share serious ideas. Since television images replace the written word, Postman argues that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment. He also argues that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only top-down information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning. He refers to the relationship between information and human response as the Information-action ratio.
Interesting, and not terribly encouraging. I wish there were a 21st-century update. Writing in the early 80's (updated in 1993), Postman observes that children are being treated like little adults, and adults are beginning to act like children. Pubescent girls are held up as sex symbols in advertising; children's games (hide and seek, hopscotch) are disappearing and being replaced by professionally organized sports leagues; grownups wear jeans and sneakers to the office and pepper their speech with teenage slang.
To explore this, he traces childhood as a social phenomenon beginning with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century and the rise of widespread literacy, which created a world of adult "secrets" contained in books, to which children could be initiated only slowly as they learned to read. Literacy is not natural to humans, Postman argues; it takes self-discipline, the ability to sit still for long periods and concentrate and practice. Before moveable type, almost no one could read well, and knowledge was oral. After moveable type, fluent reading became an adult skill, and the world of adults became separate, while the world of children developed its own culture, language, and style. Children became seen as a special group requiring protection, and that protection included special clothing, special places (schools), and sheltering from certain kinds of knowledge (such as particular words and sexual knowledge).
The breakdown began with electronic communication, which made knowledge transmission more rapid, and Postman sees it as complete with television, where images entirely replace the need for literacy. Watching TV requires no skill nor even a decent attention span. (And this was 25 years ago.) A child watching TV can know everything about the world that an adult knows--sex, violence, commercialism, dirty words.
Postman saw a possible hope in computers, which, he noted, took skill and a kind of language to program. This was before Windows and the World Wide Web. I wonder what he would say now? It seems to me that everything he observed in 1981 has increased exponentially. Little girls are getting bikini waxes and 5-year-old boys go to soccer camp. More 18 to 35-year-olds watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN, although one could argue that, these days, CNN is the Cartoon Network. There are kickball leagues for 40-year-olds, who apparently have nothing better to do. Is this disappearing childhood or flattening maturity?
If Postman is right about the reasons for disappearing childhood, then I think he may be right that it is inevitable. The question is, is there a way to protect children? We know what the medievals did not--that the minds and brains of humans between the ages of 7 and the mid-twenties are vulnerable; that they need certain kinds of nurturing; that they are not ready for adult decision-making or emotional independence. And yet we are asking them to take on just that kind of responsibility.
1. Neil Postman is my foremost favorite cultural critic and Ideas Man. He is not a progressive and he is not a conservative; he is just a refreshing mix of big ideas that I don't hear anywhere else and could certainly not have thought up myself. I don't experience him as preaching from a place of dogma or some sinister self-serving agenda; he seems to have been a genuine humanist. What a loss that he isn't alive today to help us contextualize the hyper-connective age in a more historical context. I keep wishing he'd written about the internet before he died in 2003. I am a groupie of a dead man, what's to say. I'm looking for a rebbe who still breathes, but in the meantime, I am a Postmaner Hasid. If only I'd been there when he was alive... Honestly, I'd probably have dismissed all his analysis as Luddite old-fashioned pessimism. Now from the grave (or wherever he rests) cries a hoarse voice: I told you so!
2. Is childhood disappearing? The overall premise of the book makes Postman seem nostalgic, quaint, too narrowly focused. Yes, adults and children dress more similarly, adults wear sneakers and eat junk food and kids watch all sorts of TV, but the line between PG13 and R is very clear and children are much more protected than ever before. Courts deal with juveniles much more generously since this book was written and as a culture, we consider children to be mentally undeveloped. If anything, we are overly protective of the youth and do not allow them the kind of autonomy they once had. I'm not sure this very prediction was borne out. Not that I'd disagree that we've lost direction with what we want of our children, but it's not that we ask of them to be adults. One star off because I'm unconvinced.
3. Progress. Is developing technologically necessarily progressing? Or as Postman quotes Thoreau; an improved means to an unimproved end? This is something I've been thinking about a lot. Is our cultural myth that we are progressing actually merely a myth? If so - what are the implications of speeding ahead when it might not be in the direction of Eden? Some glimpses of the future offer hints; global warming, fragmented attentions, a growing population with more concentration at the 1%, and other grim possibilities that might really surprise us.
4. What has thou wrought, you graphics-based age? Postman complained thirty years ago that the image based media platform is reducing all serious conversations to entertainment. He was stunned that a Hollywood actor was in the White House. He was very troubled by how broken up media bits destroyed the opportunity for serious conversation and thinking. Who can disagree now with the reality TV star in the white house, and his dishonest spokesman getting a cozy bit at the Emmys? Clearly the medium of image-based news changed what we are hearing and how we think.
5. I'm especially impressed by how Postman sees the "consumerist" and "capitalist" culture; mostly as a machine that operates on an irrational appeal to emotions. He argues that we have stopped being as rational and logic as we once were, and that we communicate now in emotional appeals. He calls this emotion over reason a religion. He uses the commercial for a cleaning product as an example. The commercial shows a couple out to dinner, embarrassed because the wife didn't clean the husband's shirt well enough and they are getting looks for the grotesque stain. We are all to feel bad for them (the emotional element). Cut to a new scene; voila; relief! There is some sort of household detergent! We watch with relief as the woman uses it, and by the next time the couple is out on the town, they hold their heads up high because all those stains are gone, thanks to said detergent, which you can buy in stores now. Postman asks; what arguments did this company make to prove that its product is superior to the one blamed for the shameful stain? Did they show their ingredients, bring some science, make a clear illustration that theirs is a better product? No; instead, they make an emotional appeal to our sympathies to the suffering of stubborn stains. The pitch follows the pattern of religious miracle making; first there is an emotional need, then there is a mysterious miracle (in this case, the detergent) and then voila; we are cured from the affliction! This analogy of consumerism to religion tickles me to no end, because I'm really not a fan of either, and I think they very much deserve each other.
6. We have lost our collective value system; something larger to aspire to, like a better country or to serve a deity. What do we now educate our kids for? Unlike in the past, when it would be for greater purpose of perhaps serving god or becoming a well prepared member of society, we have lost a purpose. To resort to saying education is for employment, is, according to Postman, the most uninspiring and unproductive of motivations. The result is that children are raised without strong value systems or purpose. Postman feels that children are losing something; this drove him to formulate the whole theory behind the book. We can disagree that childhood isn't disappearing, but we can't exactly say that modern society has any vision for its young, short of teaching it to participate in the dog-eats-dog world.
Hmmm. So many things to chew over. I once read on the blog of a Yiddish writing-Hasid, a comical description of how much Jews love questions, because to us, it's not the answer that counts; it's the asking questions. Nu, then this book has many, and they're good ones.
I like Postman. I think I've read most of his books. I’ve learned that I frequently agree with what he writes. He is a critic and has won the National Council of Teachers of English George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language (1986). Okay, I know, awards don't always signify, but in this case, I have no doubt he earned it. He writes with a clarity and conciseness I struggle not to envy.
The theme of The Disappearance of Childhood is that our culture is hostile to childhood. I think Postman makes a good case for his position. Despite the seemingly negative title/subject, it’s far from a depressing book. For even while our culture might be hostile to childhood, as Postman writes tongue-in-cheek in his Introduction, ‘children are not’.
Thankfully, I read this book when my own children were still fairly young and it served as a warning to me of all I could do as a parent to guard and protect my children’s precious innocence for as long as possible. So in that respect, I consider this book a blessing...and not just this book, but his other books as well.
As usual, Professor Postman makes some solid points, way ahead of his time. However, this work falls a bit short of his previous works in losing his arguments through extended ranting. It's a short read, though, and worth the fewer than 150 pages it is.
"If one cannot say anything about how we may prevent a social disaster, perhaps one may also serve by trying to understand why it is occurring." (p. xiii)
"To use White's metaphor, the printing press opened a door upon which European culture had been anxiously knocking. And when it was finally opened, the entire culture went flying through." (p. 25)
"But with the printed book another tradition began: the isolated reader and his private eye...Reading is, in a phrase, an antisocial act." (p. 27)
"...shame is an essential element in the civilizing process. It is the price we pay for our triumphs over our nature." (p. 48)
"Pictures do not show concepts; they show things. It cannot be said often enough that, unlike sentences, a picture is irrefutable. It does not put forward a proposition, it implies no opposite or negation of itself, there are no rules of evidence or logic to which it must conform." (p. 73)
"The printed word requires of a reader an aggressive response to its "truth content." One may not always be in a position to make that assessment, but, in theory, the assessment can be made - if only one had enough knowledge or experience. But pictures require of the observer an aesthetic response. They call upon our emotions, not our reason. They ask us to feel, not to think." (p. 73)
"The literate person must learn to be reflective and analytical, patient and assertive, always poised, after due consideration, to say no to a text." (p. 77)
"Watching television is like attending a party populated by people whom you do not know." (p. 83)
"Civilization cannot exist without the control of impulses, particularly the impulse toward aggression and immediate gratification." (p. 85)
"To put it bluntly, as far as TV is concerned, in the United States there is not one sixty-year-old woman capable of being a newsreader. Viewers, it would appear, are not captivated by their faces. It is the teller, not what is told, that matters here." (p. 104)
"The point is, of course, that all events on TV come completely devoid of historical continuity or any other context, and in such fragmented and rapid succession that they wash over our minds in an undifferentiated stream." (p. 105)
"...television commercials are a form of religious literature." (p. 108)
"Print means a slowed-down mind. Electronics means the speeded-up mind." (p. 116)
"Felix Unger of The Odd Couple, who is depicted as having an adult's appetite for serious music and whose language suggests that he has, at one time in his life, actually read a book. Indeed, it is quite noticeable that the majority of adults on TV shows are depicted as functionally illiterate, not only in the sense that the content of book learning is absent from what they appear to know but also because of the absence of even the faintest signs of a contemplative habit of mind." (p. 127)
"Why submit children to the rigors of professional-style training, concentration, tension, media hype?...What we have here is the emergence of the idea that play is not to be done for the sake of doing it but for some external purpose, such as renown, money, physical conditioning, upward mobility, national pride." (p. 131)
"The strongest argument against divorce has always been its psychological effect on children. It is now clear that more adults than ever do not regard this argument to be as compelling as their own need for psychological well-being." (p. 138)
"But it cannot be denied that as women find their place in business, in the arts, in industry, and in the professions, there must be a serious decline in the strength and meaning of traditional patterns of child care. (p. 151)
Малко е тъпо да питаме какво е детство и от кога го има нали? Та нали всички сме били деца? Да, ама не съвсем, поне според автора на "Изчезващото детство".
Нийл Постман се опитва да докаже, че през по-голямата част от историята на човечеството идеята за "детство" не е съществувала така, както я възприемаме сега, че на децата е гледано като на дребни, глупави възрастни и че чак последните 200-300 години появата на печатното слово в ежедневието разделя рязко човечеството на можещи и неможещи да четат, съответно да функционират пълноценно в модерния свят, да осмислят и обсъждат идеи, по-широки от непосредственото им обкръжение и т.н.
И, пак според автора, появата и широкото разпространение на "картинни" медии (телевизия) започва да подрива тази разлика, правейки децата по-еквивалентни на възрастните в разбирането и навигирането на света.
Докато идеите на книгата безспорно са интересни и заслужаващи замисляне, авторът определено, поне според мен, изпитва трудности да ги докаже. Никак не помага фактът, че той разглежда като "човешка история и съвремие" само западноевропейската цивилизация и не включва в разсъжденията си нито човека преди "цивилизационния" период (откриване на земеделието преди десетина хиляди години), нито коя да е друга култура.
От гледна точка на масовото разпространение на електронните медии (след написването на книгата) сами можем да си правим изводите дали детството изчезва, дали възрастните стават по-инфантилни или децата по-оправни, дали се засилва или намалява разделението между субкултурите и обществата на децата и тези на възрастните.
In this book, Neil Postman argues that (a) childhood is a social construct, not a biological fact and (b) childhood is disappearing because of television and modernity in general. The former is debatable but defensible (his exclusive focus on Europe/America leaves significant holes in his argument), but the latter is just ridiculous. It has been 30 years since this book was originally published, and as someone who went through childhood in the period since, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Neil Postman's alarmism was misplaced. The problem, I think, is his very definition of childhood. He defines childhood as a period in a person's life when they do not have adult knowledge. If adults cease to prevent children from accessing adult knowledge, by for instance letting them watch adult-oriented TV shows or learning about sex, then they are by (his) definition not children anymore. Honestly, this just doesn't make any sense. I have to wonder if Neil Postman ever actually met any real children. If he had, I think he would have had a different definition for childhood. I understand his point was to criticize TV, but to say it has made childhood disappear is just ridiculous.
Postman considered this his most important work, and I am inclined to agree. I prefer it to his much more well-known Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I found somewhat underwhelming (whaddya gonna do if you've already read Huxley/McLuhan/Ellul/Kaczynzki?). The Disappearance of Childhood is prescient, and even more urgent today.
The thesis is a direct moral application (as all of Postman's work is) of Marshall McLuhan's idea that "the medium is the message." That is to say, it is the material-phenomenological nature of communications media that determine the psycho-social effects on humanity, and not their content, or what they are "about."
Postman's thesis is, simply, that print media created "childhood" as an identity category, and electronic media--& above all, television--is in the process of taking it away. Because I said "identity category," you might think it's just a matter of moving conceptual sets around to reclassify things, while the underlying social phenomena underneath ("human nature") remains more or less the same.
But that's not how human culture works.
You could debate whether modernity "invented" or "discovered" childhood all the livelong day. You could also try and figure out whether Wittgenstein's (actually Jastrow's) famous rabbit-duck is a rabbit or duck, if you want to.
Modernity "discovented" childhood. Or it "incovered" it.
As he admits, Postman's book could with as much justice have been called The Disappearance of Adulthood. In the Middle Ages, there was a much greater continuity--or indifference--between the two. Children were little adults, and adults were big children. Once literacy began to spread, reading ability became the dividing line between them, generating a world of adult mysteries on the one hand and a world of childhood innocence on the other. (The peak of this mentality is perhaps William Blake's poetic sequences "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience.") One former meaning of "child" is "adult illiterate." Print culture also created the public school system, crucial in the formation of the child identity.
In contrast to the years of drilling in sequential, linear thinking that literacy requires, television can be assimilated almost immediately by humans of almost any age. If the medium is the message, then the effect of a television program is the same no matter what stage of mental development you're at. TV induces the same mental habits in old and young.
What's more, it profanes the adult mysteries. Postman's examples are plentiful & convincing, if dated. It helps that the situation is even more advanced now. For my money, far more disturbing than exposing kids to "adult situations" is how Postman notes the increasing disappearance of children qua children from television and film. Remember, this is 1982. It's gotten so much worse. (The show that came to my mind immediately is one I actually like watching with my own family: Bob's Burgers. The three children in that family are all voiced by adults--as most kid's characters are--but more importantly, are essentially shrunk-down adults in personality.)
It's not just child precociousness. It's child crime. And it's not just adult childishness. It's perversion and corruption.
Postman briefly looks at the "youth rights movement," which he claims has two conflicting elements: one that wants more state intervention to protect children from the failing institution of the family, and one that seeks to "liberate" children from the oppressive force of all institutions. The latter actually openly challenges the idea of the "child," as a person incapable of autonomy, and Postman believes that this view is simply an acceleration (as so many forms of political radicalism now are) of the already-dominant tendency in the culture that television has made.
In my opinion--both sides are. The former at its worst is an arrogantly intrusive bureaucracy which only increases capitalist alienation. (For an analysis of this dynamic & its roots, see Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.) The latter at its worst is, quite frankly, a trojan horse for pedophilia. (The latest attack on children's identity comes from the trans rights movement. Just the other day, I heard some activist on NPR talk about what a stumbling block it is to accepting the idea of "trans kids" that we tend to view children as essentially different from adults mentally, unable to determine their own identity. I'm not against trans people by any means, but I see how their cause can be weaponized, possibly for something sinister. It's just a short step from saying that a child has full understanding of their sexual and gender identity to saying that they can consent to sexual acts.) In reality, the two sides may well converge--into an arrogantly intrusive and alienating bureaucracy that is a trojan horse for pedophilia.
Postman shows that the medieval nonrecognition of the child as a category often extended to "play" with the "privy parts" of young people. He also shows how we are coming full circle to the medieval view (or lack thereof).
Criticism (perhaps a limitation of McLuhanism in general): there ought to be an examination of other factors in the total social environment, rather than just one medium. For instance, it's still not clear to me why literacy by itself should be responsible for the occultation of sex. I forget the source, but I recall reading somewhere about how most non-elite children until the modern era had of necessity to sleep in the same room as their parents. Certainly most would have spent their days with animals of various kinds, who are at all times less discreet than their human counterparts. So it stands to reason that urbanization and the growth of middle-class housing arrangements had at least as much an influence in this aspect of childhood. And these in turn are owed to the same general economic trends that gave us the printing press.
Is this where McLuhan shades into Marx?
He also makes a misstep--although he admits this is speculative--in imagining that computer technology might reintroduce the division between adults and children because of technical demands for their use. But, first of all, that's not how computer literacy works. You don't have to master or even learn basic coding skills in order to use social media or shop online, and thus be schooled by internet media. Second, to the extent that special skills are required, they are the exact inverse of print media in that they favor the younger generations over the older.
Perhaps this will the vehicle of the vaunted "child liberation." (Though not the historical child analyzed by Postman. Perhaps he erred in avoiding discussion of a later-developing identity category: the adolescent or teen.) Perhaps Aleister Crowley was correct--having done his uttermost to help bring it about--that the new Aeon will be that of the "crowned and conquering child."
I gave this book 4 stars because even though I disagree with how Mr. Postman came to many of his viewpoints, I agree with many of his conclusions. His position on how the media of today has destroyed the family and childhood was fascinating.
Whether the reader agrees with the author or not, this is a compelling examination of the history of what western civilization thinks of as "childhood", its present and future trajectory and why we should care. My five stars indicates that I feel this should be a MUST READ for all.
The copy I read was from the library. Now I must get my own copy and mark it throughout.
As a personal post script, upon reflection I think the main difference in the way my husband and I were raised is that he had a television in his home and I did not. Because my home lacked a television it was rich in reading, conversations, and imaginative play. I think the effect its absence had on my parents was even more significant to the home atmosphere. My father introduced to us music from many cultures, art games, and topics to discuss. His mind was ever alive with thoughts and he was always looking for ways to engage us in the world which was beyond our horizon.
The author builds much of his case around what television does to erase the boundaries of childhood, which is why I mention this at all.
I can also now say I am grateful that there were more years without television than with it as my husband and I raised our children. He had worked in a television news room before we met and during our early marriage and had himself become jaded about newscasts in particular and television programming in general. I had never established a habit of television viewing during and after my college years. After reading Postman's book I can see in retrospect that our family life and now my children's adult life is markedly different from many of their peers, and in a good way.
This book spends its time talking about the rise and creation of the concept of childhood, and then about it’s slow dissolution, all as a concept.
So childhood as concept doesn’t really develop until the 1800s, and Postman ties it to the rise of literacy, the rise of education, the flattening of mortality rates, and through the stabilizing of life to the point that children take on specific and precious roles in the lives of adults.
So the dissolution of childhood is where this book gets hazy. I don’t disagree that childhood is a weirdly fragile part of life, and Postman’s definitions of that preciousness and fragility is not at issue. But he reaches some faulty and flawed conclusions from this analysis based in a kind of cultural conservatism that he says he doesn’t agree with, but defends. To be clear, when he says that the moral majority has defined and worked toward the preservation of the innocence of children, he’s so wrong, he can’t even begin to understand it. They don’t care; they are control freaks and fascists, not concerned citizens. But more than this, he never quite defines the “harm” of the problem in so many of the “secrets” of adult life that he discusses are being the defining difference between adult life and childhood.
I rediscovered and reread this little gem of a book in going through my shelves attempting to bring some order to them. I read it when it was originally published in 1982, at a time when our three children were respectively 12, 8 and 4, and its message seemed especially important and relevant. Mr. Postman advances the idea that the existence of a true childhood was not possible in medieval times and before, and only became possible and important with the invention of the printing press and the acceptance of the need for universal education. Further, he argues persuasively that the invention of telecommunication in all its forms (and this was even before personal computers and iphones!) has brought on the degradation and loss of childhood as a separate and formative time of life. The evidence he introduces amply supports his view. One need not have children to read and learn from this dispassionate and devastating analysis. Nothing has happened since 1982 that would allay Mr. Postman's fears. This book is as timely now as when it was written. Highly recommended.
I was on a good reading streak this year when I picked up Postman's book. For someone who is very critical of TV, Postman must have spent a lot of time watching TV in order to reach some of his conclusions. The book is very dry; while very thin, it is not fun to read and it took me a long time to get through it. There are some ideas and historical data, which are interesting, but at times Postman sounds like that uncle who one struggles to get away from; the one who complains about how children are not children any more. Of course, that complaint is at least 2,000 years old - some of it appears in the Bible. The fact that he relies entirely on American and European data for his thesis doesn't help. Overall, I found this book disappointing considering the hype. I am glad that I read it 30 years after it was published so that I wasn't swept along with the alarmism that runs through it.
This book focuses on the unintentional disappearance of childhood due to a major shift from a typographic dominate culture, to a pictographic dominate culture. Postman’s objective evaluation on this major cultural shift is fascinating. His ability to forgo opinion and present facts is admirable. Although this book is not totally void of Postman’s opinion, he offers a rational, objective, and unique perspective on the negative affects of our current, “image driven,” society.
He spends the first 1/3 of the book detailing the rise and decline of childhood; how to define childhood and why it came to be.
I did walk away from this book confident that teaching my children to read and process information through written code (letters) is of invaluable importance. Literacy is one of the great accomplishments in our society.
I think Postman is a modern prophet. This book was wonderful, but not quite as good as his other books. I think this book is less about childhood than it is about technology and TV, which he covers more fully elsewhere.
"Kültürümüzün çocuklara ihtiyaç duyduğunu unutmak anlaşılır bir şey değildir. Fakat çocukluğa gereksinimi olduğunu unutmaya yönelik olan yolun daha yarısındayız. Anımsatmada israrlı olanlar, soylu bir görevi yerine getireceklerdir."
Good Heavens! It's been almost 30 years since the last edition and we have unprecedented amounts of child abuse, the graphic novel is the current thing, and the state of our education system ... varies, to say the least. Welcome to the new middle ages/dark ages/pre-enlightenment era.
"The traditional assumptions about the uniqueness of children are fast fading - For adults, play is serious business. As childhood disappears, so does the child's view of play."
Postman undertakes an impressively extensive research into the creation, the peak and the disappearance of childhood. The concept of childhood has changed in meaning over the years, as modern inventions drastically changed our way of life. Postman points to the rise of widespread literacy, technology and the new social values in our modern society as the culprits for this change. Childhood has lost its identity in a world where there are increasingly fewer ways of keeping the secrets of adulthood hidden from children. Postman looks into the definition and evolvement of childhood and ends with some provocative questions about his finds.
This is a little different from his other works that I have read so far. No less enjoyable and incredibly well-written. In The End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman has a clear opinion that is woven through his work and he also presents plenty of options on how to fight, for example, the rise of the entertainment value in education or the loss of teaching critical thinking. At the start of this book, he confesses to not have any answers on how to fight this disappearance and at the very end, he even says he isn't sure whether that it is in our best interest. He has managed to map out the history of childhood in a very impressive way. It is odd to read how we are exposing our children to such different things now, like TV. It has become rather normal but I had never considered what kind of psychological effect TV-shows and the depiction of children on TV could have...
Postman put forward many patterns that brought about the current predicament that I could never have identified myself. He says himself that though he has no solutions to offer, he finds it important to write it down so perhaps someone else can be inspired by his work and come up with something. As always, Postman manages to point at the double-sidedness of progress and technological development in a way that makes the flipside look downright horrifying. This book leaves me with plenty of food for thought. I am once again impressed and, upon finishing this book, immediately ordered another one of his works.
Television is killing your children -- conceptually. In 1985, Neil Postman penned Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he, building off of the lesson in Technopoly that technology changes our culture without our knowledge, examined television’s malevolent effects on political, civic, and religious discourse. The Disappearance of Childhood, published in 1982, is an earlier form of this argument, and one which focuses only on the effects of television on childhood. In it, he asserts that childhood is a social construct, not a biological fact; that it sprang into being with the advent of the printing press and the need to instill widespread literacy; and that the rise of easy-accessible information through the television (and by extension for modern readers, the internet) has killed the innocence of youth. Although its historic claim about childhood is dubious, concerns about the diminishment of modern childhood remain valid, and the connection between the two, the idea that technology is not value-free, but in fact shapes us as we use it, is as fascinating as ever.
Postman's initial bold claim that childhood is an invention of the middle ages is staggering in its audacity. With hundreds of thousands of years of history behind us as a species, we cover the globe in a seemingly infinite mosaic of sharply different cultures. Yet for all this diversity, there is not one semblance of childhood as special outside of medieval Europe and the cultures it influenced? To be sure, there are avenues of thought that make the thought understandable: modern children have far easier lives than their predecessors of any age. The demands placed on children in earlier epochs meant they had to participate in the life of their household, on the farm or at work, early on. But does this translate to nothing about children being regarded as special at all? The claim is simply too broad to go down easily.
That a side, this preview of Amusing Ourselves to Death, which casts childhood as the first victim of the communications revolution that later claimed public discourse, education, and our peace of mind, remains noteworthy. That revolution, writes Postman, spelled an end of childhood as a special time in which children are protected from the burdens and full knowledge of the world, allowed to frolic in leisure outside the schoolroom, while inside it being good students learning to navigate their literary world. Before widespread literacy, writes Postman, knowledge was primarily transmitted orally, and children learned the secrets of the world fairly easily. After the printing press made written communication the primary means of cultural transmission, however, not only did the knowledge being transmitted become 'secret' in that one had to learn to read to take part in it, but literary culture so broadened the intellectual capacity of the human race that the ideas being discussed became far more complex. To learn the world meant committing to a course of training and study, and that meant school. School was the potter's house in which young clay was molded into tall, strong vessels of knowledge. and ready for the responsibilities of adulthood.
The coming of mass communication, especially the television, ruined all that. While once courses of study were designed so that people -- children -- were gradually introduced to adult ideas as they grew older, the nightly news now exposes children to the adult world all at once. Within twenty minutes, young minds can witness the horror of war, be subjected to lessons about how buying things leads to happiness (and how being ignorant of the right shampoo will mean being forever alone because women recoil from dandruff), and learn a host of interesting words like 'incest' and 'erectile dysfunction' to ask mom and dad about. Because television requires virtually no prior knowledge, no training, no work to be entertaining or 'enlightening', adults who spend much of their leisure time basking in its blue glow will be rendered infantile, easily manipulated and incapable of sustaining their attention in anything worthwhile. Although most of the book is a serious treatment of technology and society, toward the end Postman sounds a teeny bit crotchety.
Although The Disappearance of Childhood has a questionable start and loses focus toward the end, the pages between raise a question worth considering for modern parents. Regardless of Postman's historic claims, both parents and child psychologists entertain worries today about 'age compression' or 'kids getting older younger'. Though Postman muses in 1982 that computers might be a saving grace for literacy, if they continue to require programming language to set up and use (thus requiring another kind of focused education) a recent article by The Atlantic wondering if it's unhealthy for toddlers to spend so much time on smartphone applications indicates that such hope is absurd. Although Postman was primarily concerned with television, the internet makes TV look innocent. There's virtually no knowledge concealed from a child with a search engine and a curious mind, and the knowledge revealed won't just be a line of text: might well constitute a graphic video. Knowledge is a powerful asset, and the danger that today's children are being exposed to too much, too soon, warrants attention.
A blog I frequently read on the intersection of faith and technology has made mention several times of Neil Postman, and I finally decided to check out one of his books. The thread running through most of his commentary is that technology is a Faustian bargain: it adds something to our lives, but always comes at a price. Sometimes that bargain is apparent from the outset, but most frequently the trade-off only becomes known years or generations later, and usually in ways the inventors never expected or anticipated.
In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman looks at this hypothesis through the lens of our historical understanding of the idea of childhood. Up until the 16th century, childhood didn't really exist. It was only after the invention of the printing press that society began to see children as separate, distinct people with unique needs because for the first time information was unavailable to them, and only became available as they gradually learned how to access the information. Childhood then experienced a "golden age" from about 1850-1950, and then showed signs of fading, and continues to fade. Postman does an admirable job of tying this to the rise of television as the primary means of communication. He's not some anti-television crusader, but instead shows that the way a reading culture processes information and stratifies society is distinctly different from the way a television culture does. And in addition to a disappearing childhood, one also sees a disappearing adulthood as adults become "childified."
This was a fascinating read, and at about 150 pages a fast one, too. Postman is an engaging writer with some very intriguing ideas. My only quibble with the book is that I would have liked him to flesh out some of his arguments with more anecdotal stories and evidence. Many times he'd mention something and then move on when I would have liked to hear more support. Of course, this is also what kept the book short and readable.
Although this isn't really fair, I would have loved to have some sort of updated appendix from him. The book was written in 1980, and Postman died in 2003. It would have been so fascinating to hear what he thought about the rise of the internet, reality TV, the trend of adult bands making kids' music, hand-held phones with internet access in the hands of children, the rise in child crime, the obsession with "To Catch a Predator"....the list goes on and on and I found myself making mental notes as I read and wondering what he'd think.
In an age where technology is often seen to have an unending upside, it's both refreshing and troubling to read a reminder that it always comes at a cost.
Fascinating book making the claim that the distinction between child and adult has largely disappeared in our world of new media. Postman wrote this a generation ago of the emerging dominance of television and one wonders what he would make of today's internet and social media.
The cultural concept of childhood is, according to Postman, a consequence of literacy. Print media created a world of knowledge and communication acquired through education. Over time certain topics, language, and themes began to be classified as adult and therefore "not for children."
In today's world, television has largely democratized and universalized the world of knowledge and exposure, though inherently not with the depth of print media. So, we have the childification of adulthood hand in hand with the adultification of childhood.
I'd be curious for recommended reading that brings Postman's ideas forward into today's world of social and mobile media.
میگه کودک و بالغ قبلنا یه مرز مشخصی بینشون بوده، تا اون بچه یه سری چیزا رو کسب نمیکرده، به جمع بزرگترها راه پیدا نمیکرده، مثل سواد و ادب و یه سری چیزای دیگه. اما تلویزیون اومده طبقه بندی مطالب رو عوض کرده. هرنوع مطلبی رو در هر موردی به زبان شفاهی درآورده و همه مخاطب اون هستند. همه چیز رو به شوخی و خوش گذشتن برگزار میکنه چون اگه برنامه اینطور نباشه کسی برنامه رو نگاه نمیکنه، و یه سری چیزهای دیگه.
کتاب قدیمی و در مورد جامعه ی امریکاست، یه جورایی الان ما میشه. در باب شناخت بهتر از دوران ما و اینکه بیگ پیکچر رو به ما بده خیلیی خوب میتونه باشه:))
“It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children. But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood.” So ends this writing of media theorist and cultural critic Postman...in 1994. Reading this book didn’t put a knot in my stomach but it confirmed the knot that is already there. I’ve contended enough with my own history and sense of loss of my childhood due to things outside of my control. Today as a teacher I’m confronted not only with the saturation of adult themes introduced to youth, but the incomplete and destructive way with which they are introduced and applied. Most interesting to me is Postman’s love/hate analysis of the political moral majority of his day, fundamentalist. He disparages their idolatrous nationalism, as do I then and now, but acknowledges they were among the only groups seeking to preserve childhood and take their responsibility for nurturing seriously, which I also affirm then as now. Postman starts this bleak treatise with a bleak statement, that he isn’t sure what solution there is to his observations. I’m personally struck that secularists observe certain innate wrongs occurring in society, in increasing measure, but are loathe to consider perhaps, though too often expressed by deeply flawed practitioners, adherence to belief in a creator and seeking to submit to his self disclosure where it can be found would move us toward overcoming the darkest onslaughts of moral chaos. 192 pages or 6 hours of childhood’s decline in the face of a culture guided by moral relativity.
I generally enjoy Postman and his analysis of our electronic age. His best is "Amusing Ourselves to Death," and this work on childhood reflects some of the same themes and analysis. I think he overstates the grandeur of the Enlightenment and understates the intellectual vigor of the Middle Ages. One cannot read St Thomas and see his time as "dark" or "unenlightened." Literacy and childhood as a life stage seem to be linked as Postman argues, but I wonder at how accurate his assessment of Catholic Europe is as he compares it to our time today (at least in its treatment of children). There seems to be some wishful thinking in his gushing appraisal of Enlightenment Europe and the rise of literacy (which culminated in World War I and II and the Communist purges). Postman is a classical liberal but at least he's honest about it. If you've ever wondered why 8 year olds are wearing denim mini skirts that match their mothers then this book will certainly provide some interesting ideas to consider. A great afternoon read or for any leisure time; it isn't overall difficult or complex in its argument.
I'll be thinking about this one for a long time. Postman makes a strong case that the distinctions between adult and child came about after the printing press and are quickly disappearing as we become less literate. Postman shows historically where the idea of childhood came from and then demonstrates the decline of the category.
He makes much about the distinctions between reading books and watching television. I agree with his analysis on this point. I was fascinated by his take on organized sports for children - they are another demonstration of the disintegration of the distinctions between adults and children.
I didn't agree with the author's views about religion. He doesn't make extended arguments regarding religious views, but where he mentions religion and moral issues, I agreed at times and not at other times.
Excellent book. The author clearly lays out the destructive nature of TV and other graphic based media. Not only is he arguing that childhood is disappearing but also adulthood is diminishing. This book was originally published in the 1980s and the evidence that he was correct is daily before us. The popular phrase, "adulting" is a prime example of what Postman calls the, "adult-child." Such things like getting dressed, paying bills, arriving on time are all things that fall under the heading "adulting" (meaning the person doing such things deserves some kind of award or recognition for doing such hard things). Similarly, children are expected more and more to behave as adults and parents constantly complain when their children behave as children.
This book is largely an extension of his other book, "Amusing Ourselves To Death." Both should be required reading for people wanting to have strong families and a civilized society.
Postman is an interesting author because he rightly points out and warns about the destructions happening in our society without admitting (realizing?) it is his own liberal ideolgies behind said destruction. As a point of fact, in this book he laments that it seems only the Moral Majority/Fundamentalists have any concern about these matters.
Quick synopsis: Widespread literacy required multi-year segregated education to teach young people how to read. This enculturated the idea that young humans are different than older humans, creating "childhood." As we move from a text based culture to a image based culture, childhood is disappearing. We don't "hide" adult information in books anymore. We live in the same information universe as our kids. This not only turns kids into miniature adults, but infantalizes adults. Everyone becomes an adolescent, but of varying ages. He closes the book with something of almost of an aside - that parents who want to raise children as children with a hope of them becoming real adults will need to teach them information literacy and treat the home as a "little monastery". This was written in the mid eighties. The situation is much further along, now. Quick, powerful read.
While reading this book I had a constant feeling that something didn't quite fit or didn't quite add up, I couldn't quite pin point what this was exactly though. That was until Postman went to answer the first question in his final chapter. Taking into consideration that there is an undeniable biological aspect of childhood, this book should rather be conceptualised as the "a societal perspective on the disappearance of childhood".
Overall just a splendid investigation of the cultural fluctuation of the concept of childhood over the years.
I read this in close proximity to ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. Amusing Ourselves was about 60 percent of the content of this book, it seemed. Postman’s focus is, again, the cultural debris left by technological advancement. In this case, television and its disintermediating impact on the concept and notion of childhood (breaking down barriers in knowledge acquisition as TV favors symbolic delivery, etc).
Interesting broad overview of development of childhood (no depiction of children in Greek artifacts).
Postman is an incredible social critic - although this probably holds up less well than amusing ourselves to death, it’s a frightening warning about the over structuring and de sensitization of Children’s affairs. Great read
Weaker than the previous two Postman books I reviewed. While the illustration of childhood as a construct arising from the needs of newly literate cultures following the printing press is fascinating, and while it seems true that childhood is changing as a result of our new media environment, it is often unclear which parts of childhood need saving (I really don't think adults eating "kids" snacks is that serious, bro)