The Disappearance of Childhood
reviewed by Marvin Lazerson - 1983
One of the nice things about Neil Postmans The Disappearance of Childhood is that it recalls our childhood understanding of how the modern world came to be. We all remember Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable-type printing press, which democratized knowledge, propelled the triumph of Protestantism over the medieval Church, aided in the creation of the nation-state, and enhanced individualism and the spread of capitalism.
For those of us who became historians, the old school lessons weighed heavily. We came to understand, and tried to teach our students, that listing the effects of the printing press was not the way to comprehend the past; that technological determinism was a poor way to understand the world; that politics and economics, class conflicts, religious commitments, accidents as well as patterns, meant that the machine never stood autonomously, working its way over space and time.
Neil Postman tells us we were wrong to be so worried about contextual complexity. The world is really much simpler than that, at least in terms of understanding the relationship between adulthood and childhood. We can, as we once did in school, go back to Gutenberg and his printing press. Postmans argument is straightforward: The printing press created a new definition of adulthood based on reading competence, and, correspondingly, a new conception of childhood bused on reading incompetence (p. 18). Accepting Phillippe Ariess view that the idea of childhood did not exist prior to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Postman attributes the medieval lack of distinction between adulthood and childhood to illiteracy-the inability to read and write. Since knowledge in the medieval world was transmitted orally and visually, it was available to everyone, at any age above infancy.
In contrast, knowledge transmitted through the written word is knowledge available only to those who can read. Reading, Postman writes, is the end of permanent childhood. . . . Because reading makes it possible to enter a non-observed and abstract world of knowledge, it creates a split between those who cannot read and those who can (p. 13). The written word is the collector of valuable secrets (p. 13). In such a world, to be an adult implies having access to cultural secrets codified in unnatural symbols. In a literate world children must become adults [by learning to read]. But in a nonliterate world there is no need to distinguish sharply between the child and the adult, for there are few secrets [since knowledge can be seen and heard], and the culture does not need to provide training in how to understand itself (p. 1.3).
The elaboration of childhood from the fifteenth century on, Postman argues, was thus a spinoff from the establishment of literacy as the essential condition of adulthood. By definition, those who could not read were not adults. Since children did not know how to read, they were expelled from the adult world [and] it became necessary to find another world for them to inhabit. That other world came to be known as childhood (p. 20).
All of this takes us back to the printing press, which transformed the way knowledge was transmitted. The proliferation of the written word meant that learning became book learning, and, in the tight circle Postman draws, that meant learning to read. The transition from childhood to adulthood was thus the process of learning to read; it was also the basis for the expansion of schools as the primary institution in that transition. Summarizing, Postman concludes: From print onward, adulthood had to be earned. It became a symbolic, not a biological, achievement. From print onward, the young would have to become adult, and they would have to do it by learning to read, by entering the world of typography. And in order to accomplish that they would require education. Therefore, European civilization reinvented schools. And by so doing, it made childhood a necessity (p. 36).
In the twentieth century, all of this has changed. The changes began earlier with the telegraph, which made knowledge immediate, and then accelerated with the flow of technological innovationsthe rotary press, camera, telephone, phonograh, movies, radio, televisionthat, taken together, represented an uncoordinated but powerful assault on language and literacy (pp. 72-73). The irony, Postman claims, is that the communications technology was breaking down the distinction between the literate and nonliterate as Europeans and, even more so, Americans were simultaneously undertaking extraordinary efforts to extend print literacy to more and more people. The distinction between childhood and adulthood was being undermined by the technology that followed the printing press. But not until the advent of television was the full force of that technology felt.
Television has caused childhood to disappear: If we consider broadcast commercial television as we presently know it, we can see in it, quite clearly, a paradigm of an emerging social structure that must disappear childhood (p. 75). Postman offers two primary reasons for this. First, television makes information accessible regardless of ones ability to read and write. It is an open-admission technology to which there are no physical, economic, cognitive, or imaginative restraints. The six-year-old and the sixty-year-old are equally qualified to experience what television has to offer (p. 84). Television effectively breaks monopolies of knowledge based on literacy, and it does so without requiring that individuals go through the painful process of learning abstract language and sequential logic. Television tends to make the rigors of a literate education irrelevant (pp. 78-79).
Second, television unlocks adult secrets and offers them to an undifferentiated audience; it makes public what has previously been private (p. 83). Television does this because it requires a continuous supply of novel and interesting information to engage and hold that audience (p. 82). The need to sell television means that all cultural secrets are subject to purchase-sex, atrocities, failure, consumption. Television requires that everything hang out. Indeed, to gain as wide an audience as possible, television must do whatever it can to blur any distinction between adult and child; no one should be turned away because the material is inappropriate. In effect, Postman blends technological determinism with the spirit of capitalism, although he seems perversely reluctant to face up to the latter. Television eliminates the need to be literate, and thus the basic distinction between the world of childhood and adulthood. Capitalism compels the media to escalate the disclosure of once adult secrets (and, by extension, class, racial, and gender secrets) to everyone.
The result, for Postman, is the simultaneous disappearance of adulthood and childhood as we have known them over the last three centuries. One no longer sees childhood; Shirley Temple has been replaced by Gary Coleman. Adulthood looks like childhood; the Ivory soap commercial challenges us to distinguish between a forty-year-old mother and her twenty-year-old daughter. Adults jump up and down like children cavorting at a birthday party on Lets Make a Deal. And on and on. Postmans description of what television does to our sense of ourselves, our world, our commitments, is numbing. But his insistence that the medium is the message, that the technology itself is what determines our lives, is misleading, simplistic, and distorting. It ignores the evidence he uses to discuss television. His argument is that the technology means that information is provided to the masses through pictorial images that technologically require the political and economic decisions that degrade adulthood and deny children childhood. Postmans technological determinism leaves no political out. All we are left with are those parents who struggle to help their children have a childhood by limiting the amount of exposure their children have to television and by monitoring carefully what they are exposed to, and to provide them with a continuously running critique of the themes and values of the medias content (p. 153).
The suggestions are good ones, though, as Postman points out, they are difficult to attain with much consistency. But they are also apolitical, dependent on the autonomous family, on parents who privately struggle to overcome the oppressed world that surrounds the family. In the end, Postman presents us with a re-creation of the haven-in-a-heartless-world theme of the nineteenth century. Good parents have to protect their children from the outside world, this despite the extraordinary evidence Postman and others have marshaled to suggest that parents acting alone cannot do very much.
The dilemmas of commercial television reflect many of the same dilemmas that confront all our childrens institutions. Not all families are affected in the same way: class, race, and gender, as well as the configurations of individual familial groupings, shape childrens relationships to schools, child care, health and welfare institutions, and the media. Without talking about these issues, The Disappearance of Childhood takes on all the attributes of a media-hype: Sell a catchy title, simplify and repeat the same thing, intersperse the message with commercials (called anecdotal evidence), and put the disclaimers in small print (footnotes). But then Postman would agree. He too has become a victim of technology and capitalism.