Now, a few words from someone who can really write.
In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman makes the case that modern childhood, which he considers a good and beneficial thing, came into existence because children needed to be trained differently once the printing press came along and changed the location (and, to a large extent, the definition) of useful knowledge. Postman then observes that in the past fifty years modern childhood has begun disappearing rapidly, and he speculates that the disappearance is due to the increasing irrelevance of printed material.
Postman ends his book with an apology for making such a dire observation without having any sort of remedy to suggest. But he does ask and answer six questions that he thinks might point to a solution. The last two questions are nearly a manifesto for homeschooling:
Are there any social institutions strong enough and committed enough to resist the decline of childhood?
There are only two institutions that have an interest in the matter. The first is the family; the other, the school. As already noted, the structure and authority of the family have been severely weakened as parents have lost control over the information environment of the young. Margaret Mead once referred to television, for example, as the Second Parent, by which she meant that our children literally spend more time with television than with their fathers. In such terms, fathers may be the Fourth or Fifth Parent, trailing behind television, records, radio, and movies. Indeed, encouraged by the trend toward the devaluation of parenthood, Bell Telephone has had the effrontery to urge fathers to use “Dial-a-Story” as a substitute for telling their own stories to children. In any case, it is quite clear that the media have diminished the role of the family in shaping the values and sensibilities of the young.
Moreover, and possibly as a result of the enlarged sovereignty of the media, many parents have lost confidence in their ability to raise children because they believe that the information and instincts they have about child-rearing are unreliable. As a consequence, they not only do not resist media influence, they turn to experts who are presumed to know what is best for children. Thus, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and others representing an institutional point of view invade large areas of parental authority, mostly by invitation. What this means is that there is a loss in the intimacy, dependence, and loyalty that traditionally characterize the parent-child relationship. Indeed, it is now believed by some that the parent-child relationship is essentially neurotic, and that children are better served by institutions than by their families.
Even more devastating to the power of the family is the women’s liberation movement. So that I am not misunderstood on this point, I must say at once that the liberation of women from limited social roles is one of the truly humane effects of the technological revolution and deserves the full support of enlightened people. But it cannot be denied that as women find their place in business, in the arts, in industry, and in the professions, there must be a serious decline in the strength and meaning of traditional patterns of child care. For whatever criticisms may be made of the exclusive role of women as nurturers, the fact is that it is women, and women
alone, who have been the overseers of childhood, shaping it and protecting it. It is unlikely that men will assume anything like the role women have played, and still do, in raising children, no matter how sensible it might be for men to do so. Thus, as parents of both sexes make their way in the world, children become something of a burden, and, increasingly, it is deemed best that their childhood end as early as possible. All of this adds up to the fact that unless there occurs a 180 degree turn in social trends, the American family will not stand in strong opposition to the contraction and then dissolution of childhood.
As for school, it is the only public institution left to us based on the assumption that there are important differences between childhood and adulthood and that adults have things of value to teach children. For this reason, childlike optimists still write books advising educators on how they ought to conduct themselves, and, in particular, on how they might pursue conserving activities. But the declining authority of the schools has been well documented, and amid a radically changed communication structure they have become (to quote Marshall McLuhan)
houses of detention rather than attention. Educators, of course, are confused about what they are expected to do with children. For example, as the teaching of literacy becomes more difficult to do, educators are even losing their enthusiasm for that time-honored task and wonder if it ought not be abandoned altogether. For another example, equally depressing: In some schools, children as young as eleven and twelve have inflicted upon them what is called “career training,” a clear symptom of the reemergence of the miniature adult. It is evident that schools reflect social trends far more powerfully than they can direct them, and are close to impotent in opposing them.
Nonetheless, as a creation of literacy, the school will not easily join in the assault on its parentage. In one form or another, no matter how diluted the effort, the school will stand as the last defense against the disappearance of childhood.
It goes without saying that in due course, when all teachers and administrators are themselves products of the Television Age, resistance will not only lose whatever strength it may have had but its point will have been forgotten.
Is the individual powerless to resist what is happening?
The answer to this, in my opinion, is “No.” But, as with all resistance, there is a price to pay. Specifically, resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and an insult to the spirit of a throwaway culture in which continuity has little value. It is also at least ninety percent un-American to remain in close proximity to one’s extended family so that children can experience, daily, the meaning of kinship and the value of deference and responsibility to elders. Similarly, to insist that one’s children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, or self-restraint in manners, language, and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend. Even further, to ensure that one’s children work hard at becoming literate is extraordinarily time-consuming and even expensive. But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control the media’s access to one’s children. There are, in fact, two ways to do this. The first is to limit the amount of exposure children have to media. The second is to monitor carefully what they are exposed to, and to provide them with a continuously running critique of the themes and values of the media’s content. Both are very difficult to do and require a level of attention that most parents are not prepared to give to child-rearing.
Nonetheless, there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things, who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are not only helping their children to have a childhood but are, at the same time, creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. What can we say of the long run? Only this: Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help to keep alive a humane tradition. It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children. But it is halfway toward for getting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service.