Dr.  David Harley

In the course of my professional interaction with parents, I have frequently been confronted with accounts of children’s behavior and attitudes that they find difficult to process.  Parents are often threatened by the looming age of sixteen, the age at which a child becomes imbued with all of the rights of an adult but of course none of the responsibilities.  At that age, so children threaten, I can do whatever I want, and you can’t tell me what to do.  But equally alarming is the fact that not only do children believe this but so do their parents.  Underlying this is the assumption on both sides that children have rights and no responsibilities and that parents have numerous responsibilities legal and self-imposed and the same rights as their children.  The child that simply refuses to comply with adult authority or household rules still believes that his parents have the duty and responsibility to provide money, food, shelter, and clothing.  These obligations are not seen to have any reciprocal obligations precisely because they are viewed as rights.  These assumptions are problematic enough but now it seems that many parents have come to share the same beliefs.  In some households, this results in a level of severity where parents and other siblings feel that they are being held hostage by a terrorist. 

Early in my career, I would encounter the occasional example of teenage terrorist syndrome among 17- and 18-year-old.  With time these examples included 15- and 16-year-old.  In recent years I have encountered numerous examples involving boys as young as 9 and 10 where parents have admitted to having no control whatsoever over their son and feeling utterly powerless.

Whereas such cases are obviously on the extreme end of a spectrum of behavior, there are various shades of grey leading to the black and arguably the majority of children could be placed on the spectrum even if it is still shading to grey.  Moreover, the lack of respect for parents and adults in general, though not universal, is certainly on the rise and can no longer be considered uncommon. Looking at it from the perspective of how they would have behaved at that age, many parents find it unfathomable that their child or others behave in such a manner.  How is it that a 12-year-old boy will talk to his parents or other adults as if they were idiots, use four-letter words and regard his rights and authority as being equal to theirs?   Looking for explanations, excuses or reasons parents are invariably left at loss.  Their first thoughts are, “but I would never have spoken to my parents like that” quickly followed by the thought “but my parents would have never tolerated me speaking to them in that way”.  So what therefore is missing from the equation?  If I respected my parents and they felt empowered, why am I not respected and why do I feel utterly powerless.  All too often the resulting sense is that I have done something wrong and that I have failed as a parent.  Since it is my failure, it, therefore, cannot be my son’s fault. 

There have been real changes over a comparatively short period of time that have taken place with respect to how the young regard themselves as well as how they regard adults.  Equally, there have been significant changes in terms of how adults view themselves as well as how they and society view the young.  These changes have taken place in almost imperceptible degrees over time to suddenly materialize as being increasingly significant social issues.    As is the case with many changes, they also give rise to tipping points where the impact is suddenly and dramatically experienced. 

As an example of these changes, the disappearance of the term “grown-up” from our current vocabulary is significant as children by and large do not regard themselves as growing into anything as they are already there.  They will not become adults as a developmental category do not exist, there are only older kids.  Adult, therefore, simply ’means’ older kid.  Adulthood is only a matter of degree based upon age, not a difference in kind.  As is increasingly fashionable among the social sciences, this then becomes subject to being viewed through the lens of oppressed and oppressor.  If you regard yourself to be on equal footing with adults, then the relationship ceases to be one of parent and child and merely become one of a power imbalance.  Resistance to parental authority becomes a matter of principle and restrictions imposed by adults become acts of oppression.  Resisting your parents becomes almost a matter of moral obligation and coupled with the assumption that what is not known does not exist the experiential divide becomes irrelevant.  There is nothing to advocate on behalf of ageing as ageing is equated able with rotting and decay on a biological level and obsolescence on a technical level.  Newer is better —- unquestionably.

It might be said that children are presenting themselves as adults but equally that adults are presenting themselves increasingly as children.  For as age becomes more something to be denied, suppressed and hidden, the more implicit in those actions is that fact that there is nothing good, positive or admirable about it.  Rather than embracing age and maturity, society becomes locked in a cult of youth.  Therefore, it has become more common for adults to look, dress, speak and act out in front of children in ways that earlier parenting beliefs would have considered to be unacceptable.  Children have become increasingly exposed to parental interactions that would have been kept between adults, hidden from children or rarely even engaged in at all.   The lines have in many cases been blurred and we are left to examine how and why this has happened.  The implications notwithstanding, it is important to understand what the existing situation is within the context of its development and causes.  Additionally, it is necessary to re-examine and to some extent free our normative assessment of childhood from within the rubric of our own personal experience.

In furtherance of this, I would like to draw attention to the book currently being reviewed.  Neil Postman was a prolific author of books on and about education and social issues until he died in 2003.  His works are characterized by their ability to hold interest and an easy-to-understand presentation.  Like the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, he had the ability to present complex topics in a succinct and direct manner not allowing language to impede expression.  Postman’s publications remain not only pertinent but also prophetic of issues that have only gained in concern and momentum.  The Disappearance of Childhood is an excellent example of this for being published now almost 40 years ago, its relevance has increased with time.   The author’s ability to identify trends and important existing and emerging social issues have been further vindicated.   What I will argue in the balance of this paper will be that the non-existent childhood of medieval society that Postman posits, is perhaps with us today and for the same reasons.  A non-literate medieval society focused on visual and oral modes of communication and knowledge and where all adult behaviors intimate and otherwise are in full view sounds alarmingly familiar.

The book currently under consideration examines the concept of childhood from a historical perspective as a means to reframe our present ideas.  There is a tendency to assume that the views or customs of the present have always been held and that our norms represent a finished or fixed state.  Of course, this is not true.  Presently held norms give way to time and become past norms.  Judged in this context, the illusion of having reached a fixed destination rather than a landmark along a journey easily collapses in the light of historical perspective.  However, that perspective can only be achieved by a knowledge of the history of ideas and social practices.  As such, the current views of childhood need to be so framed to better understand the assumptions that support them as well as the contrast that exists between one age and another.  The assumption that there has always been a concept of childhood is clearly false and so its absence or presence can only be regarded relative to the conditions and circumstances of the time.

In the opening chapter entitled “When There Were No Children” Postman begins by presenting the fact that the difference between adult and children’s crimes is rapidly diminishing.  Stating that between 1950 and 1979 serious crimes committed by children younger than 15 has increased by eleven thousand percent.  Views of what is considered to be problematic youth behavior have had to shift accordingly.  Problematic youth behavior may have been once regarded as skipping classes for a cigarette.  Now this includes suicide, assault, robbery, murder, and rape.

If the nature of youth crimes has now merged with adult crimes as Postman argues, so too has the appearance of the young merged with that of adults.  Young girls in the 12–13-year age bracket are continuously presented in advertisements and visual media as “knowing and sexually enticing adults, entirely comfortable in the milieu of eroticism”.  It is acceptable for very young girls to wear makeup and to wear mature or even provocative clothing.  Indeed, the differences between adult and children’s clothing has gradually disappeared.  Adults dress as teenagers and teenagers dress like adults.  As Postman argues, the concept of childhood itself is gradually fading away:

“Everywhere one looks, it may be seen that the behavior, language, attitudes, and desires —- even the physical appearance —- of adults and children are becoming indistinguishable.  No doubt this is why there exists a growing movement to recast the legal rights of children so that they are more or less the same as adults.”

Historically, the Greeks appear to have had little sense of a distinct period of childhood and the first appearances of any sense similar to our own appears during the latter part of the Roman Empire where the idea that children require special nurturing, schooling and shielding from adult ‘secrets’ (i.e., sex) emerged.  With the fall of Rome and Europe’s descent into the Dark Ages, this disappears together with literacy.  The loss of literacy had wide-reaching effects:

“…in a literate world children must become adults.  But in a non-literate world, there is no need to distinguish sharply between the adult and the child, for there are few secrets, and the culture does not need to provide training in how to understand itself.

   That is why, as Ms. Tuchman also notes, medieval behavior was characterized by childishness among all age groups.  In an oral world there is not much of a concept of an adult and, therefore, even less of a child.”

Even among the very small portion of the population involved with writing and books, the fixation on the decorative presentation of texts such as was practiced in medieval monasteries is suggestive of a focus on the presentation of the letters and words rather than on the content of the text.  In this manner the reader read in words rather than through words and as such was not genuinely literate in the accepted sense of the word. 

In a non-literate oral society, the age of seven takes on importance:

“Because that is the age at which children have command over speech, they can say and understand what adults can say and understand.  They can know all the secrets of the tongue, which are the only secrets they need to know.  And this helps us to understand why the Catholic Church designated age seven as the age at which one was assumed to know the difference between right and wrong, the age of reason.”

And again:

“The word child expressed kinship, not an age.  But most of all, the oralism of the Middle Ages helps us to explain why there were no primary schools.  For where biology determines communication competence, there is no need for such schools.”

So, throughout the Middle Ages, there was no concept of child development, sequential learning, schooling as a preparation for adulthood or modesty.  Close living quarters and the absence of privacy meant that children witnessed all manner of activities without any accompanying sense of shame or embarrassment.  This would include normal bodily functions, sexual intercourse, childbirth, abusive and rowdy behaviors.

“Immersed in an oral world, living in the same social sphere as adults, unrestrained by segregating institutions, the medieval child would have had access to almost all of the forms of behavior common to the culture.  The seven-year-old male was a man in every respect except for his ability to make love and war.”

It is also interesting to note that the depiction of children during the Middle Ages in contemporary paintings shows them not as children but as little adults. Surviving paintings of Mary and the baby Jesus, all show him as a small man.  The cherubic depictions of baby Jesus do not emerge until the Renaissance.  How interesting it is therefore that the artist depicted not what was actually there but rather superimposed what he ‘saw’ upon the canvas unless of course, we are to believe that children have actually undergone a physical change of that magnitude.

The concept of childhood, Postman argues, came about as the result of the fact that “…a new communications environment began to take form in the 16th century as a result of printing and social literacy.  The printing press created a new definition of adulthood based on reading incompetence.  Before the coming of that new environment, infancy ended at seven and adulthood began at once.  There was no intervening stage because none was needed.”

In Chapter 2 entitled “The Printing Press And The New Adult” Postman begins by stating: “The aim of this chapter is to show how the press created a new symbolic world that required, in its turn, a new conception of adulthood.  The new adulthood, by definition, excluded children.  And as children were expelled from the adult world it became necessary to find another world for them to inhabit.

That other world came to be known as childhood.”

It is all too common now to take printing for granted and to underestimate the social impact of the printing press and moveable type.  This is a profound mistake for:

“The printing press is nothing less than a time machine, easily as potent and as curious as any one of Mr. H.G. Wells’s contraptions.  Like the mechanical clock, which was also a great time machine, the printing press captures, domesticates, and transforms time, and in the process alters humanity’s consciousness of itself.  But whereas the clock, as Lewis Mumford contends, eliminated Eternity as the measure and focus of human actions, the printing press restored it.  Printing links the present with forever.  It carries personal identity into realms unknown.  With the printing press, forever may be addressed by the voice of an individual, not a social aggregate.”

What I would like to propose here is an extension of Postman’s argument to include specifically the effect of television screens, computer screens and phone screens in terms of their impact on human consciousness and self-consciousness.  This impact, it could be argued has been no less than that of the printing press. 

Screens now take up a rapidly growing portion of everyone’s time both at work school and at play.  The advent of television as a primary form of adult entertainment has substituted images for the written word and by providing images to a passive recipient has undermined the process of imaging through words that are indicative of genuine literacy.  It is now difficult if not impossible to even imagine the enthusiasm of Victorians sitting around reading poetry and their delight in the sound and rhythm of words.  Or the fact that people have recounted being overwhelmed with emotion after reading William Blake’s “The Tiger” and even feeling faint as a result of its effect upon them. Clearly, the impact of words has given way to the impact of images. 

However, if general literacy is in decline so too is vocabulary.  Fewer and fewer words now make up the vocabulary of the average person.  George Orwell’s 1984 had the limitation of vocabulary as one of the primary vehicles for mind control in his totalitarian state.  The objective of each edition of the “Newspeak” dictionary was to reduce the number of words to reduce thought.  Hence “doubleplusgood” used three simple terms to avoid a new complex term.  Sophisticated ideas require a language capable of fine distinctions in meaning both in terms of putting words to specific meanings as well as being able to communicate them to others. Hence, simplifying language becomes equivalent to simplifying thought.

Along with the inability to express complex ideas through the access to a vocabulary up to the challenge, there is also the potential lack of any desire to do so.  If language can stimulate the intellect, it can, when appropriately dumbed down, do the reverse.  One of the underlying arguments in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New Worlds is that human beings can voluntarily give up their freedoms in exchange for ease and pleasures.  Control does not have to be exercised through coercion or threats but can arguably be more effectively exercised by diverting behavior along the lines of pleasure, comfort and security.  The use of the drug ‘soma’ is employed in Brave New World to control emotions and bring about a feeling of well-being.  Huxley’s argument is that it is easier to engineer human emotions through chemicals than it is to change their circumstances to change their emotions. 

If happiness and feeling good are the ultimate priorities in life, then it is irrelevant how those states of mind are achieved.  Emotions, therefore, trump intellect.  Sex is entirely removed from reproduction in Huxley’s depiction as is family and parenting.  Sex is equated with nothing other than pleasure and takes on the character of athletic performance or activity.  Children are produced in laboratories and monogamy is considered as being antisocial.  Controlling emotions along the lines of pleasure negates the need for force or violence.   Emotions can be controlled through social conditioning and drugs, arguably more effectively than through coercion and force.  The cost of social order in both Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias is individualism and the ‘nobility’ of man.  In the first instance, it is removed by fear and torture.  In the latter, it is removed by ease and comfort.

As literacy declines, it can be argued that people will increasingly tend to feel their way through life rather than think their way through it.  Cognition is structured through language as language is structured through cognition.  Emotions attached to images are not.  It is suggestive to realize that the primary therapeutic models with any demonstrable results dealing with mood and emotional disorders rely upon stressing the importance of thinking through actions and reactions relative to the goals that are sought to be realized.  In brief, people are feeling more and thinking less and if rising mental health issues are to be accepted at face value, that would seem to accurately reflect this trend.  If people need to think more to have control over feelings and impulsivity, the rise of mental health issues that respond to therapies stressing this would imply the growth of the former as a result of a deficit of the latter.

With regards to children’s exposure to all ‘private’ matters of adult behavior, there is little doubt that a large portion of children are exposed to explicit pornography through the internet and social media to a level, extent and detail that would make the medieval child’s level of exposure pale in comparison.  The effect of this in terms of desensitizing them by presenting the carnal as normal further depicts sexual activity devoid of love and responsibility surrounding reproduction.  If a medieval child was unshielded from his parents’ sexual behavior and bodily functions, the current child’s exposure to pornography and violence through online and other visual imagery is clearly off the chart. 

In terms of dress and deportment, adults wear jeans, t-shirts and running shoes largely indistinguishable from teenagers.  There is no longer any clear dividing line of dress between children and adults nor is there any clear dividing line between music and vocabulary.  Ageing is not presented as part of a process but rather as a pattern of decay.   There is little doubt that our culture worships youth and that growing old is clearly perceived as a bad thing.  As such, the visible evidence of ageing must be resisted as much as possible.  The natural cycle of life is being denied as there are no perceived advantages attached to either age or maturity.  To return to the behavior and attitude of modern children, what is old is outdated.  The VHS tape is replaced by an ultra-high-definition disc and it is not even necessary to argue that the newer something is the better it must be. 

So-called advances in modern educational practices have given way to the decline of literacy.  A few years ago, it was decided that with the advent of computers the long-cherished skill of handwriting could be abandoned.  Therefore, the teaching of cursive writing was abandoned and along with this, there emerged the growing diagnosis of dysgraphia among school children and a decline in fine motor skills.  Poor writing was addressed by the introduction of personal laptops with word recognition software.  This software was conveniently accompanied by spell check and grammar check functions.  Literacy expectations were reduced, and many textbooks were introduced with increasing numbers of pictures and bullet form text culminating in some cases with the introduction of graphic novels in English classes. 

I have in my possession a copy of a publication of Hamlet in a series called No Fear Shakespeare.  This is a graphic novel that was and is still used in some public high schools as part of modified English courses.  Here the famous speech by Hamlet upon discovering Yorick’s skull is reduced to “ Alas, poor Yorick!  I knew him well Horatio —-a fellow of endless humour and excellent imagination.  He carried me on his back a thousand times and now how disgusting he is!”  These lofty sentiments are expressed through 5 picture frames.  I leave it to the reader to do their own comparison with the original.  A review of textbooks over the last few decades shows the increasing use of illustrations, charts, graphs, colour and reduced text.  The textbooks are clearly more visual in presentation with fewer complete sentences or paragraphs.  It may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words but are thousand words worth a picture?

If bullet form prose is replacing paragraphs, there is equally evidence of similar tendencies in commercial messaging, news coverage and entertainment.  It is assumed that audiences have a very limited ability to concentrate or focus.  Newscasters at one time read the six o’clock news from a desk facing the audience.  Now they move around a newsroom or engage in heated discussions with co-presenters in short staccato-like sentences while a weather report and stock market numbers run on a ribbon at the foot of the screen.  The ongoing assumption is that the audience’s attention cannot be held unless there is constant stimulation.  Nothing too complex and nothing too long-winded in terms of context or explanation is permitted.  The result can only be superficiality.

Whereas the Middle Ages might have bestowed some dignity to age and experiences as being sources of guidance and knowledge for those who were younger, the modern age provides access to anything you need to know through a smartphone or computer.  It is not therefore necessary to ‘know’ anything if you can access it directly through technology.  Your phone becomes an extension of your brain.  It is carried in your pocket and is always accessible.  To most people today, it has become an extension of themselves.  Through its screen and abbreviated text messaging many feel so connected that its removal can result in increased levels of anxiety and stress.  Indeed, massaging vocabulary might be seen as the current form of Orwell’s “Newspeak” but self-imposed within the framework of Huxley’s world of comfort, pleasure and convenience.  Indeed, all indications are that vocabularies are shrinking at an alarming rate and a full 4 out of 10 Americans are currently functionally illiterate.  However, perhaps it can be argued that with emojis all of our emotions can be adequately expressed without words and words like handwriting are unessential in the new world order.

In the 1930s the British philosopher C.K. Ogden proposed that an ultra-truncated version of the English language that he called ‘Basic English’ could be constructed with 850 words.  Equally, it might be said that we can survive on a diet of potatoes and earthworms.  The question then becomes “Why would we want to?”  The implications of such a restrictive vocabulary combined with reduced literacy skills and dependence upon visual images are profound.  In Huxley’s dystopia, nobody but the savage in his story wants to read Shakespeare.  However, even if other members of this future society were to read him, they would not only not understand the vocabulary but would also be incapable of referencing the feelings, sentiments, thoughts or experiences.  When sexual activity is reduced to pleasure and athletics, separated from reproduction, and mandated to be public rather than intimate, how could one possibly understand Romeo and Juliet?  Clearly, just as emotional, and cognitive reality can be reduced to the level of the language available, it is equally true that a reduced emotional and cognitive reality requires less language to be available.  Given that there is a kind of feedback in place between language and experience where experience can generate vocabulary and vocabulary can generate experience, if this feedback is interrupted, then limited vocabulary will limit experience just as limited experience will limit vocabulary.

And so, in the conclusion of this discussion around the disappearance of childhood, 40 years ago a noted anthropologist by the name of Ashley Montague came to the university where I was on staff.  He was most famous for writing a book that was to form the basis of the movie The Elephant Man.  A vestige from an age past, he presented as a tall elderly aristocratic Englishman with the finest of accents and personal presentation.  Not surprisingly, he had known Aldous Huxley well.   The talk was attended by only about a dozen of us.  I had seen a small announcement of the talk that he was to give called Neotony and the Modern Age.  Obviously, this must-have scared off prospective attendees.  During the session, he defined Neotony as a return to a womb-like state and his thesis was that human beings were now developing backwards both in terms of their desire for independence as well as their ability to think and act independently.    I supposed that his argument could be taken to be not just that adults were regressing to children but that indeed we were all regressing further to a fetus state.  Let us hope that he was wrong.