September 5, 2009
The Pied Piper raises his flute to his lips, casts a knowing backward glance, and leads the children away. All our children have gone, yet there are no mourners and no one regrets not paying the Piper his due.
The flattening of society’s hierarchies, the marginalisation of literacy in adult life and the levelling effect of television and other electronic media have ushered the disappearance of childhood. This might be an oversimplification, for surely the decline in nurturing family life has accelerated the transition from booties to stiletto heels, but the heart of the matter is that children are disappearing because the period of incubation before adulthood where, hitherto, children had to acquire the tools of literacy in order to function in the adult world, quite frankly is no longer required. As Neil Postman explains in The Disappearance of Childhood, reading is an act that transforms the child into an adult by ‘acquiring the sort of intellect we expect of a good reader: a vigorous sense of individuality, the capacity to think logically and sequentially, the capacity to distance oneself from symbols, the capacity to manipulate high orders of abstraction, the capacity to defer gratification. And of course, the capacity for extraordinary feats of self-control.’ But these hallmarks of rational adulthood are obsolete. To live in the modern world, one no longer needs to be literate, disciplined, or even responsible. Take voting for example. It is assumed that adults, having gone through the rigour of school where skills such as logical analysis and the ability to either construct or debunk concepts are (it is hoped) honed, have the requisite discernment to elect a worthy political representative. But do adults do this now? And is this even expected of them? The charismatic persona is more important than the rhetorical point. The television demeanour is more important than the policy discussion.
Perhaps the surest sign of the disposability of literacy in the adult domain is the ubiquitous use of cartoons to explain government policy – well if you put it like that, any kid could understand CPF. You see, the adult world has been kiddie-fied and the child, fed on a staple media diet of sex, drugs and rock&roll, is adulti-fied to the point that she or he has cast off childish curiosity for precocious indifference (What-ever!), or worse, arrogance.
There are other signs of the Piper’s handiwork. Violent crime among those below the age of 16 has increased so much that in some states in the United States – and this was in the 1980s – legislators contemplated dismantling juvenile courts altogether in favour of hearing these cases in the main courts. And then of course, there’s sex. Pre-teen sexually transmitted disease is on the rise, and the only segment of society where pregnancies are increasing is among girls below 17.
So, what, are we as parents to do? Well, Postman recommends going against almost every single social trend by rebelliously teaching our children manners, delayed gratification, deference to elders, and by taking up the mantle of literacy-empowerment that schools have cast off in the misguided attempt to make learning ‘fun’. Postman’s most radical suggestion is to limit children’s exposure to mass media and to supervise closely whenever they are exposed to media. Echoing Frithjof Schuon’s proposition that only the complete child can become a whole adult, Postman contends that children thus nurtured (and protected) in a kind of monastery of media abstinence will, in the short-term bring about adults that are mature, upstanding and intelligent; and in the long term, preserve human civilization and dignity. It is a service we owe to our ancestors who toiled for what we take for granted today. To look at it another way, just as books transmit ideas to another place and another time, our children are messages we send to generations we will never see. We need to do our fard kifayah by slipping a coin to the Pied Piper and giving childhood its due.
The Disappearance of Childhood