How Childhood Can Disappear

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Childhood has been around forever, right?

That de-facto assumption was dismantled in the early 1980s by Neil Postman in his book The Disappearance of Childhood. “Childhood is a social artifact, not a biological category” Postman writes:

“In fact, if we take the word children to mean a special class of people somewhere between the ages of seven and, say, seventeen, requiring special forms of nurturing and protection, and believed to be qualitatively different from adults, then there is ample evidence that children have existed for less than four hundred years.”

In European artwork of the Middle Ages, children are (often) no different than adults –- they dress the same, drink the same, and are shown to be anatomically similar. What many consider to be child abuse was A-OK back in the Medieval day because it wasn’t seen as abuse.

Law book records show that children were hung for crimes, left out of wills, given no unique names, and whatever it was they were called was not carved into their parents gravestones.

But, to be fair, their idea of adult was very different.

In the oral culture of Medieval Europe, once you gained the ability to understand and produce speech (around 7 years old) you were for all intents-and-purposes an adult and became, more or less, aware of the same information as everyone else.

It was a society of craft literacy where only specialist scribes knew the art of reading and writing. The symbolic environment of the time, for most people, was incredibly local and very limited.

Soon that would change.

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EMERGENCE OF CHILDHOOD

Childhood as a social artifact describing those between 7 and 17 emerges after the invention of the printing press with moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century.

The symbolic environment that grows up around this extends far beyond the immediate and local. Books printed in vernacular languages make information understandable and, understandably, this information spreads.

The primary result of this is the creation of a knowledge gap and a means to cross that knowledge gap.

“From print onward, adulthood had to be earned.” Postman writes:

“It became a symbolic, not a biological, achievement. From print onward, the young would have to become adults, 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.”

This new idea, childhood, was “based on reading incompetence” just as the new definition of adulthood was “based on reading competence.” To master the art of reading and writing, three things are needed:

  1. A knowledge of the alphabet
  2. A knowledge of sentence formation
  3. A knowledge of how complex thoughts are linked together through sequential arguments

Unlike the craft-literacy that dominated medieval life in Europe, the revolution of the Printing Press brought in an era of social literacy that became integral to the further evolution of European culture.

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THE BOOK INTERLUDE

Books got a make-over in the decades after Gutenberg.

The use of Hindu-Arabic numerals to count the pages (aka pagination) helped to create an ordered sequence of indexing; cross-referencing and annotations helped create a deeper accuracy; and the invention of punctuation marks, paragraphing and title pages, helped to organize the structure of both the information and our thinking.

“Changes in communication technology invariably have three kinds of effects: They alter the structure of interests (the things thought about), the character of symbols (the things thought with), and the nature of community (the area in which thoughts develop).”

This can weave so deeply into “the structure of our consciousness” that we find it “has been reshaped to parallel the structure of communication, that we have become what we have made.” And what was being made now was a print-based, age-segregated education focused on sequential learning.

This replaced the Medieval oral-based system of multi-aged spontaneous cirriculums and took longer to finish because the skills necessary to master in order to fully participate in the social hierachy were more difficult and the amount of information was larger.

One was no longer an adult at 7, more like 17.

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GROWTH OF CHILDHOOD

The Print Revolution gave birth to the idea of childhood but it didn’t stay a kid forever. Like kids themselves, the idea itself grew and matured over the ensuing years.

Postman charts this by looking at the development of children’s clothes, of children’s literature, and of a more uniquely child-like depiction in art. He also sees it in the state sanctions against family abuse, the inclusion of children in gravestones and wills, and the spread of schooling.

It basically arrives at its current form in the early part of the 20th century.

“Freud and Dewey crystallized the basic paradigm of childhood that had been forming since the printing press: the child as schoolboy or schoolgirl whose self and individuality must be preserved by nurturing, whose capacity for self-control, deferred gratification, and logical thought must be extended, whose knowledge of life must be under the control of adults. Yet at the same time, the child is understood as having its own rules for development, and a charm, curiosity, and exuberance that must not be strangled — indeed, is strangled — at the risk of losing mature adulthood.”

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DISAPPEARANCE OF CHILDHOOD

Just as the childhood idea was reaching its developmental apex a few centuries after birth, the technology which gave birth to it was rapidly becoming displaced by a technology that had the potential to end it.

The symbolic world that begins to emerge in the 19th century with the telegraph is far different than what came before. “The telegraph”, Postman warns “began the process of making information uncontrollable.”

“As the telegraph gave us news from nowhere, it also gave it in unprecedented volume, for quantity of information is a function of the speed with which it can be generated and moved. News from nowhere means news from everywhere, about everything, and in no particular order.”

This represents the first major step in the creation of a new media environment that aids in the disappearance of childhood because it attacks the gradual and sequential unfolding of relevant information.

As the process ramps up, the quantity, type and sequence of information-streams cannot be managed. This leads to a “symbolic world that cannot support the social and intellectual hierarchies that make childhood possible.”

The telegraph and subsequent technologies are part of the electronic revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was paired with what Daniel Boorstin calls the graphic revolution, the “symbolic world of pictures, cartoons, posters and advertisements.” The two of these combined “represented an uncoordinated but powerful assault on language and literacy, a recasting of the world of ideas into speed-of-light icons and images.”

Television only exacerbates this trend.

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THE TELEVISION INTERLUDE

If we assume that the ability to think abstractly represents a step forward, then television is a “cognitively regressive” medium that hearkens back to the use of visuals and iconography in Medieval Catholicism.

Television narrates through images rather than arguing a sequence of ideas.

“the mass-produced image changed the form of information itself — from discursive to non-discursive, from propositional to presentational, from rationalistic to emotive. Language is an abstraction about experience, whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.”

Television collapses the knowledge monopolies necessary to create a gap between the symbolic environment of a child and that of an adult. On top of this, it collapses the means by which to traverse this gap, namely the print-based sequential education.

The overwhelming use of visual narration stunts the mind into a medieval sensibility  while its desire to turn everything into content opens up the private life of adults to any kids watching. This potentially harms their development by giving information when they’re not ready for it.

“Enlightened opinion on child development claims it is necessary for children to believe that adults have control over their impulses to violence and that they have a clear conception of right and wrong … Through these beliefs … children can develop the positive feelings about themselves that give them the strength to nurture their rationality, which, in turn, will sustain them in adversity.”

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WHAT IT MEANS, WHY IT MATTERS

So what does it all mean and why does it all matter?

Childhood arose from the spread of social literacy after the Gutenberg Revolution. It was largely caused by the development of an education system built upon sequential learning that promoted the idea of attaining adulthood through the mastery of reading and logical thought. Its goal was to ensure that literate and reason-driven adults became the ones making decisions in society.

Just as the emergence of childhood also meant the emergence of adulthood, the disappearance of childhood also means a disappearing of adulthood. This elimination has the effect of creating an “adult-child”, a merging of child and adult into childish adults and adult-ish children.

Postman asks towards the end: “What is the effect of a medium that always asks for an immediate, emotional response?”

It can be a troubling thought.

“If the medium is as pervasive as television is, then we may answer in this way: Just as phonetic literacy altered the predispositions of the mind in Athens in the fifth century B.C., just as the disappearance of social literacy in the fifth century A.D. helped to create the medieval mind, just as typography enhanced the complexity of thought — indeed, changed the content of the mind — in the sixteenth century, then so does television make it unnecessary for us to distinguish between the child and the adult. For it is in its nature to homogenize mentalities.”