Thursday, April 15


The Disappearance of Adulthood (or, perhaps, the Recrudescence of Adolescence)

"...back when there were children and there were schools..."

--Dr. Anthony Esolen

Continuing our postmortem (begun some months ago in this post) on the late Neil Postman's curious sociological text The Disappearance of Childhood, we turn now to the author's contention that childhood today has effectively vanished. It is important to note the author in fact wrote this book in the early eighties and mostly restricts his commentary to the cultural phenomena of that most peculiar of decades, the 1970s (id est: disco, polyester, and Watergate), effectively the sleazy late adolescence of the culture of puerile idealism that characterized the fourth quarter of the sixties. When the book was republished in the mid-nineties, right before the Internet lurched onto the scene, Postman felt no need to reassess his conclusions, it is important to note. Postman traces the collapse of childhood in his era back to Samuel Morse, of all people, he of the telegraphy and the anti-Catholicism (and the gorgeous daughter known to all habitues of the Metropolitan Museum from her portrait as the American Muse.) Well, actually he traces it back to the movies and television that eventually flowed from Morse, so it is somewhat less silly a point.

Still, like his conclusion childhood was "invented" by the Renaissance as an outgrowth of the printing press and the general spread of literacy, this is all a little too clever by half. As we discussed before, the Middle Ages certainly had a general conception of childhood, even without the threshhold requirement of general literacy, and even then, the cossetted, vacuum-sealed childhood he uses as the exemplar of the type would have been unrecognizable to all but the most sheltered of boys and girls, and belongs more to the Rousseauian sentimentality of the eighteenth century than anything before or after. Certainly Huck Finn would have been rather surprised by it.

Still, his point is worth considering. The general growth of literacy, in his conception, had imposed a longer period of schooling on children, and placed a more necessarily definable line between childhood and adulthood in the post-Renaissance period. One may question if that line existed in most quarters, though with different signposts (apprenticeship, Confirmation, physical prowess, etc.), but certainly in a few more privileged quarters childhood did become more sheltered and exclusive, if only because of the extension of upper-class comfort to the middle classes, a phenomenon he essentially ignores. Education, in this environment, came primarily from parents and teachers, and was clearly hierarchically defined, in Postman's opinion. One may rightly question if Postman has ever met any children before when he makes this assessment as surely children before Morse had their playground gossip, their prurient half-heard tales from older brothers and sisters (with wildly inaccurate speculations on the anatomy of the opposite sex), or from a misread encyclopedia or contraband penny-dreadful. So, the problem is not so much that electronic media disturbed this pristine hierarchical pedagogy, as it simply bored holes in a sieve that has always been more than a little leaky. It has always been so, I am sure.

The same is to be said of his contention that the invention of the telegraph and the television changed news. Ever since the invention of the broadsheet, news has been a commodity, and certainly gossip has always been the "news from nowhere" that is so exemplified from the sourceless, incessant broadcasting that Postman considers characteristic solely of modern media outlets. "While not necessarily wholly new, certainly it has increased radically in the past century, even more so with the coming of the internet and the blogosphere. It is the easiest thing now for a child to circumvent the parental and pedagogical net placed around them; no doubt Postman would boggle at the thought of toddlers surfing the internet, though I gather that is not too far from the truth nowadays. As someone who only learned to type in eighth grade, this is quite astonishing. Continuous coverage" means simply in the interests of satisfying the yawning maw of ratings, any taboo must be thrown out. And of course now you can get hot and cold running smut every hour of the night as well.

His analysis of television itself is also worth careful consideration. He sees it as a pre-literate medium--one needn't know how to read, or even think much, to really appreciate it. Its programs are limited to a half-hour or at most a full hour, and are turned into a hash by the series of bright and shiny non-sequiturs known as commercials. No wonder, one must conclude, we have trouble thinking critically today. He also comments on the problems of educational television, which do not cultivate the sort of concentration required to absorb a concept--something I can heartily agree with from my own experiences. Sesame Street mostly baffled me. I'd watch five minutes of animation composed of swirling hearts and someone singing Amor, Amor, Amor, and I'd think to myself, "What the heck was that?" (This is especially embarassing on my part as about 3/4 of the family members I spent most of my time around were native Spanish speakers!)

However, where he falters is where he claims that TV content is somehow a reflection of this infantilization. TV kids are "adultish" because people find this amusing and cute and unusual, not because it is a reflection of society. TV adults are "childish" because it is also funny. (Though I sympathize with him when he comments the only adult on television in this day and age is the finicky Felix Unger. I am also slightly frightened.) I would also question his contention that TV advertisements are anti-capitalist because they appeal to the emotions rather than engaging in a free exhange of goods and services, as it sounds like something only a man who has never had to try to sell something would say. (This, and his contention commercials are in fact a species of pseudo-religious literature--"The Parable of Ring Around the Collar"--is less strange than it sounds, but also seems like academic silliness for silliness's sake as well, and is not really worth digressing about here.)

Also, while perhaps more programs are watched by children and adults alike (like, say, the old Muppet Show), frequently the adults and kids laugh at different things. And, while the airwaves are lousy with kiddie sitcoms (an adult genre, in theory) they are just as loud, hyperactive and annoying as any oversugared little squirt could love. (Though I will grant on those occasions when I have had to sit through watching kid-coms on TV, I was exhausted and probably hallucinating mildly from exhaustion brought on by bouts of the flu or food-poisoning--and thus too tired to change the channel--so I could well be wrong here.)

The problem is his central thesis requires on assuming a sort of childhood dependant on a certain type of pedagogy and the witholding of certain secrets, like the mysteries of sex and death. Childhood is hardly dependant on that, nor historically has the Adult Conspiracy (as the old Nickelodeon show Pete and Pete, which would probably cause Postman's brain to overheat with its knowing slyness, might put it) been very good on keeping a lid on such things. Otherwise we wouldn't be hearding kids into confessionals at age 7.

Postman's adultish child is not so much an adult as a brat with too much information syndrome, and indeed, some cultural developments he cites to support his thesis, like the overscheduled, cutthroat world of little league actually seems to represent a strengthening of the hermetic bubble of childhood against the encroaching darkness of kidnappers, gangs, and crime.

However, he is definitely on to something when he speaks of the childish adult that our society has bred--the forty-year-old in sneakers, who has become even more common now than at the time of writing. Being an adult is no longer the fine thing it was in times past is hard to doubt, if only if one stands up Tom Cruise next to Cary Grant. Yet, I am not sure this has to do so much with television, which was still in its squeaky-clean, wobbly infancy (Leave it to Beaver, etc., as opposed to the sassy sitcom kids of later years) when these future childlike adults were presumably in diapers. Indeed, it seems more of an exaltation of childhood that can be blamed for such antics--the generation of the Sixties having been raised on the indulgent Dr. Spock as well as Theodore Cleaver. No wonder they had little desire to throw off childish things when they came of age, with that sort of upbringing. This is the ultimate growth, not of Morse playing with electricity, but with the Rousseauian apotheosis of childhood that is exemplified by Spock and now seems to have reached its apex with a nearly total abdication of parental authority among adults--whether to the state, the school, pop culture, or to nobody in particular, I'm not sure.

The result is not so much, though, a childish adult (as the youth culture of the Sixties didn't sit around playing with Legos, but with one another), but an elderly adolescent. Now everything seems to fall into place--what we have here is a puberty that starts about 8 and ends around forty in the fortunate, and with death with the rest. Adults acting like kids on TV are still funny because it is an anomaly. An adult acting like a huffy teenager is another thing, and actually would hardly be noticeable as abnormal today.

Adolescents flip awkwardly between being a child and desiring the freedom of adulthood. Given our age's mantra of "choice," that our culture's denizens can decide if they're thirteen or thirty every day of the week should come as no surprise. (I suspect Dr. Postman would have a field day with Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute if he were alive today--both adolescents of a sort, and characteristic of the faux-family environment that plagues many contemporary workplaces; and he could probably get a multivolume work out of Lorelei Gilmore and her Hello Kitty Waffle-Iron.)

Postman considers this development of the childish adult a bad thing, and while I dispute the causes of this outgrowth, and even perhaps some of its name and substance, I agree with his troubling assessment. It is especially chilling, thirty or forty years on that pretty much with the exception of Pope Benedict XVI and the Queen of England, most of the world is ruled by overgrown children in suits (and not even overgrown, if one factors in the relative heights of Kim Jong-Il and Dennis Kucinich). He offers no solutions, and certainly would probably consider my own view of the world to be rather medieval, but for me it comes down to the rediscovery of those hard and antiquated facts of honor and gentle authority. Mothers must be mothers, fathers must be fathers and not hesitant friends with car-keys. Yuppies must remember children are people, not projects or fads or substitutes for pets. Old men should demand to be called Mister, not Bob or Bill. Families--not insurance companies, or offices, or banks, or Caesar--must be families. Repentant hippies must face up that a little pseudo-hypocrisy never did much harm--"how can I tell little Muffin not to smoke you-know-what when I lit up every day when I was sixteen?" It is not their own personal integrity that backs them up here, but that of a whole civilization, or the ragged remainders of it, anyway. And while I'm certainly not going to stop chucking at The Muppet Show (which certainly has its grown-up jokes, sly or otherwise), maybe we could all watch, say, something in black and white with men wearing hats a bit more often. Or maybe just read.

In other words, man up (and woman up), people.

That being said, please don't bother me right now to start the crusade, it's milk 'n' cookie time and I have to draw the line somewhere.

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