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The Disappearance of Childhood

Neil Postman wrote The Disappearance of Childhood as a study of how children have emerged in culture after the age of the printing press.  The mystique of the written word is the basis for Postman’s postulation that education has separated children from adults.  Only after a child has learned to read is he or she part of the culture.  Before learning to read, a child is in a state of blissful ignorance.

The Disappearance of Childhood

Postman postulates that schools were able to affectively differentiate between the needs of children and the needs of adults. Part of this differentiation was physical separation from adults. Postman gives a historical account of the journey that children have taken in order to develop out of the shame of ignorance and learn the secrets of the adult world. The culmination of all adult knowledge, according to Postman was sexual knowledge.

Childhood to Postman is a state, rather a position within the family or a particular age. Before the age of print, childhood ended much earlier as only 7% of 14-17 year olds attended school, the rest were working adults.  In the middle ages, childhood ended at age 7, when children had a mastery over the spoken word. According to Postman, children are be propelled back to the middle ages and subjected to adulthood too early via television, music, billboards, and computer games. He likens these contemporary ills to the medieval scenes of drunkenness in the streets with chesty women loosely conveying poor morals on society.  There was no childhood in medieval times due the fact that children and adults knew the same information and viewed life the same. 

When the printed word emerged and the industrial revolution ended, childhood returned to America.  Postman states that knowledge, learning and an education became the separating factor between adults and children.  The most important thing in a child’s life was school and feeding the mind and body at an effectively paced rate.  The quintessential time in the history of childhood were the days between 1850 and the 1950’s.  Even with the telegraph, the medium of communication became more important than the message.  Postman notes that now, more than ever in history, the mode of communication is more important than the message.

Television serves as the perfect example of a medium that is not filtered and the message is certainly not as important to society as the mere existence of the medium.  Postman points to Thoreau as a visionary of this concept. Postman writes Television erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood in three ways, all having to do with its undifferentiated accessibility: first, because it requires no instruction to grasp its form; second because it does not make complex demands on either the mind or behavior; and third because it does not segregate its audience.

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