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Neil Postman [1931-2003]
Neil Postman on the Disappearance of Childhood
By Frank W. Elwell
Postman’s social theory returns again and again to the theme of technological change driving changes in structure and culture. He repeatedly asserts that irrespective of the intentions of the users (or the owners), technology always has unintended consequences, that these consequences are both positive and negative, and that these consequences are rarely evenly distributed throughout the society. Postman calls this the “Frankenstein Syndrome” in which technology is developed for a limited and specific purpose. “But once the machine is built, we discover—sometimes to our horror, usually to our discomfort, always to our surprise—that it has ideas of its own”(1982/1994: 21).
Inevitably new technologies cause changes in institutional structures as well as ideas, ideologies, beliefs, and even habits of thought. This, Postman asserts, is generally true of technology; it is especially true of communications technologies. For Postman, the prime movers in sociocultural change are technology and consequent changes of the division of labor; combined, these forces change social structures and ultimately the very character of the men and women who inhabit the society.
In perhaps his most provocative book, The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman attempts to explain why the dividing line between childhood and adulthood is rapidly eroding in contemporary society, and why the social role of the child may well disappear in modern industrial society. His contribution to this topic, he points out, is not in documenting this erosion; many observers have remarked upon the disappearance in the past. Rather, his contribution is in explaining both the origin of childhood itself as well as the reasons for its decline. Specifically, Postman posits that both the rise of the social role of the child and its consequent decline is rooted in changes in communications technology (1982/1994, xii).
The invention of the printing press and the spread of a print culture is the primary causal agent in the rise of childhood. Replacing print culture with an electronic medium in which imagery is the main conveyor of information is the primary agent in its decline (xii-xiii). In a world dominated by oral tradition, Postman states, there is not a sharp distinction between children and adults. In such a world, childhood ends at about the age of seven when the child has mastered speech. At the age of seven “the medieval child would have had access to almost all of the forms of behavior common to the culture” (15).
Save for sex and war, medieval youth would fully partake in adult life, sharing in games, work, play, and stories. The culture did not have need or means of keeping information away from youth. There were few secrets between the generations; upon attaining the age of seven the youth fully entered the adult world. Because it was an oral culture, Postman asserts, there was no need to prolong the socialization process so that youth can master reading and esoteric knowledge beyond the immediate local culture; thus no need of educational institutions in which youth are segregated from adults and age graded so that they can master both reading and be gradually exposed to the harsher ways of the world; no well-developed concept of shame because all have ready access to oral information. With the invention of the printing press in about 1450 and the spread of literacy, the “communication environment” rapidly changed.
Literacy gradually became a great divide among people; to become literate was to become a fully functioning adult, to engage in a new world of facts, impressions, and opinions beyond the local milieu (28). More than this, Postman says, “typography was by no means a neutral conveyor of information.” Rather, printing changed the very organization and structure of thought. “The unyielding linearity of the printed book—the sequential nature of its sentence-by-sentence presentation, its paragraphing, its alphabetized indices, its standardized spelling and grammar” promoted “a structure of consciousness that closely parallels the structure of typography”(30 & 32).
With the spread of literacy, young and old began to live in different worlds; one now had to achieve adulthood by mastering literacy and the habits of mind it promoted. To do this, Postman adds, required the development of institutions to provide this education, which makes the creation of childhood a necessity (36). The relationship between the spread of literacy, the development of schools, and the growing conception of childhood as a part of the life cycle is incontrovertible.
Over the next few centuries adults took more and more formal control over the socialization of youth, setting forth more stringent criteria for the attainment of adulthood (39). The concept of childhood spreads with mass literacy and schooling and eventually reaches the lower classes as well. To facilitate this formal learning, youth were required to undergo the strict discipline of the schoolhouse, to sit quietly in neat rows, hands folded on the desk. “The capacity to control and overcome one’s nature became one of the defining characteristics of adulthood and therefore one of the essential purposes of education, for some, the essential purpose of education” (46-47).
At the same time, the family gradually became organized around childhood and schooling, and both the family and school promoted the idea of discipline and restraint of bodily functions. Citing Elias, Postman adds that a clear distinction was drawn between private and public behavior. Shame and embarrassment became associated with sexual behavior as well as other biological functions. There developed a whole vocabulary of words deemed too sensitive for the ears of children. Adults “began to collect a rich content of secrets to be kept from the young: secrets about sexual relations, but also about money, violence, about illness, about death, about social relations”(48-49).
This monopoly on the control of information and experience to the child was maintained by a print culture in which age graded exposure to more in-depth and complex information was carefully monitored and controlled by the family and by the school. This monopoly was easily maintained in that basic reading itself was difficult to master and literature dealing with adult themes and privileged knowledge was of sufficient complexity to deter children entry until they had undergone years of training in reading, vocabulary, and syntax (79). “The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning” (72).
But with the advent of electronic information, particularly when television was introduced directly into the home, this monopoly crumbled. Television, Postman points out, is a visual medium that requires no training and is available to be viewed and understood by all. “In learning to interpret the meaning of images, we do not require lessons in grammar or spelling or logic or vocabulary. We require no analogue of the McGuffey Reader, no preparation, no prerequisite training. Watching television not only requires no skills but develops no skills” (79). The barriers between adulthood and childhood are eroded; there is no longer the possibility of segregating information from the young. All are exposed to the adult world—murder and mayhem, lust and titillation, greed and consumerism—through television melodrama and comedy, talk shows, game shows, news shows, “reality” shows, and commercials (80).
These shows are running on hundreds of stations twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most are competing for a wider audience and much of this competition consists of coming up with new and novel situations, information, and images to attract and hold that audience. Thus television constantly seeks to push the envelope by depicting all manner of human behavior, ideas, and lifestyles. Nothing is held back, all have access (82). And without secrets or any sense of shame, Postman adds, childhood must necessarily disappear. Groups are largely defined by the exclusivity of information and knowledge that their members share, Postman says, and adults no longer enjoy such exclusive knowledge (80).
To say that television has significantly changed the socialization process of youth is also to make the claim that it has changed the meaning and form of adulthood as well. It is in The Disappearance of Childhood that Postman first broaches the themes of electronic media changing the character of adult intellectual and emotional capacities, emphasizing emotional responses to political candidates, consumer products, and social issues as opposed to rational interest, logic, reflection, and reason (50, 63, & 98).
The electronic media reduces the complexity of any subject to simple slogans; politics becomes trivialized to personality and images. More generally Postman asks, “What is the effect on grown-ups of a culture dominated by pictures and stories? What is the effect of a medium that is entirely centered on the present, that has no capability of revealing the continuity of time? What is the effect of a medium that must abjure conceptual complexity and highlight personality? What is the effect of a medium that always asks for an immediate, emotional response?” (107). More generally still, Postman asks “What is the effect on an entire culture of a society that has given full reign to technological progress?” It is to provide answers to these questions that drives all of Postman’s writings (145-146). We will explore this theme further in a future Short Essay.
For a more extensive discussion of Postman's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Postman, N. (1982/1994). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Random House.
Postman, N. (1984). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking Penguin Inc.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Postman, N. (1995). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Random House, Inc.
Postman, A. (2003, October 8). Eulogy for Neil Postman. New York.
To reference Neil Postman on the Disappearance of Childhood you should use the following format:
Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Neil Postman on the Disappearance of Childhood,” Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Postman1.htm
©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at rsu.edu