Monday, February 15


The Disappearance of Childhood?

I have been reading, in one of those fits of academic whimsy that I am sure overtakes everyone at one time or another, a rather strange little book, the late Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood, a 1994 reissue of his 1982 work dissecting the curiously adultish quality of most modern children and the equally odd childishness of most contemporary adults. (Postman, a Marshall McLuhan-ish cultural critic who died in 2003, is best known for his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death, on television.) There is a lot of fodder for thought here, though there are also numerous puzzling gaps to and odd ramifications springing from his thesis; he also lays the blame in equally peculiar places. One might claim that our current spate of adult adolescence lies more in the exaggeration and final end of our age's own cult of youth-worship than in its negation.

One of these difficulties, dealing with his discussion of what might be termed the history of childhood, is his contention there were no children in the Middle Ages. This is not that he claims medieval man emerged fully-sprung from his mother's womb, but that the child was not recognized as a separate category of human individual. There is something to be said for this; there is also even more to be said to his contention we are sliding into the same state today under the infantilizing tendencies of modern media. At the same time the idea seems curiously off somehow. The problem is there is a sizable difference between predominantly childlike adults and adultish children as well as the usual anthropological problem of studying humans like insects, and forgetting they're still quite human.

He cites as evidence the fact no medieval artist seems able to properly draw a baby--making them look instead like little men--and the crude, dirty, shameless behavior of medieval tavern-dwellers who seem to have never heard their mother say, of their loutish actions, "Not in front of little Junior!" He claims that, while the ancient Romans recognized the child, the decline of literacy, and thus the need for formal schooling in the manner we recognize, brought about this curious breakdown of the boundaries between child and adult as civilization ostensibly collapsed.

The problem here, and in his discussion of modern culture, is that Postman seems unable to define whether he is talking about the disappearance of childhood or the disappearance of adulthood (though it would seem the two phenomena are related). His medievals are childish illiterates whose best scholars are so defeated by the intricate stylization of early calligraphy (in contrast to the eminent legibility of Roman script) that they must torturously mumble their way through a text of Augustine like a kid learning phonics. This is not medieval history, this is the plot of the film Idiocracy as performed by the cast of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

While silent reading, when practiced, was considered something of a wonder, the verbal reading of medieval scholars certainly was not the stumbling, fumbling childish attempt he paints it as. Medieval calligraphy was highly ornamented, but certainly could be read by someone who was familiar with the script, as any medievalist could tell you. Could you imagine ten monks huddled around an enormous psalter trying chant and to decypher the letters in that fashion at the same time? Indeed, the Romans practiced verbal reading--the story of St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, reading aloud the Old Testament to himself while sitting in his carriage, suggests as much.

Certainly medieval children were treated more like small adults, at least more so than their Rousseauian 18th century counterparts. (Their elders had more commonsense, for one thing.) But that does not mean they were not loved in a way different from their older peers. To suggest, as he does, citing another auctoritee (if we're going to get all medieval here) on the subject, that parental love of children in the modern sense only goes back to the seventeenth century boggles the mind in the face of the great tenderness of even the earliest icons of the Christ-Child and His Mother, as odd as the little old man-baby might have looked. The entire cultus of the Infant Jesus is a counterexample to such an extravagant claim. The past may be another planet at times, but its inhabitants were not space aliens.

He might have also pointed out, based on the same evidence, that in the Middle Ages that some houses were missing their exterior walls so as to see the scenes within, or that kings slept wearing their crowns, or that the Egyptians had eyes on the sides of their heads, if we are to take artistic evidence that literally. Furthermore, to pretend that medieval schools were a small matter, and no line separated child from adult, is a bit of a stretch in light of the fact the university (Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Salamanca, Bologna) as we know it was invented in this period. Primary and secondary schools were probably of less consequence than today, but to ignore them at all is rather a remarkable gap in his thesis.

What Postman sees as the discovery of childhood during the Renaissance (which he ascribes to the printing-press and the growth of literacy, despite the fact that Gutenberg was rather a johnny-come-lately to the period, which was in full swing in Italy at least fifty years to a century before he put print to paper, depending on how one reckons it) might instead be termed the rise of the middle class, and the ability to apply the more luxuried upper-class notions notions of human behavior to a wider audience. That Erasmus would write manuals on manners for children suggests not that kings and princes behaved like slovenly teenagers during the Middle Ages, but that the peasantry did; and even then, that may be ascribable less to the absence of childhood than the absence of germ theory. Brueghel's shameless scenes of general rejoicing are probably less representative of an adult population acting as if it were on spring break in Brughes than typical Catholic boisterousness and a lack of manners wholly appropriate to their class, rather than their age group.

Certainly, the cosseted and rather silly 19th century notion of childhood was absent in past ages, and much of what happened in the artificial environment of schools happened at one's mother's knee or the equivalent of on-the-job training, but to say that child and adult were indivisible in fifteenth-century Flanders, is rather hard to take. As to his contention that childhood is disappearing today--and that, at the same time, so is adulthood--that is another matter entirely, and deserves another post.

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