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The Disappearance of Childhood… and adulthood too…

April 23, 2013

Drawing on Neil Postman’s (1982) The Disappearance of ChildhoodLawrence Quill writes:
The world of the child and the world of the adult are intimately linked but it was not always so. Prior to the invention of the printing press it was far harder to differentiate between individuals and the distinction between child and adult was not symbolically important. This is why it is possible to say that with the invention, and subsequent circulation, of printed matter that childhood was invented (Heywood 2002).” (p.329) Quoting Postman, he continues: “From print onward, adulthood had to be earned. It became a symbolic, not a biological, achievement. From print onwards, the young would have to become adults, and they would have to do it by learning to read, by entering the world of typography. And in order to accomplish that they would require education. Therefore, European civilization reinvented schools. And by so doing, it made childhood a necessity.” (Postman 1982, p. 36)

Quill explains: “Children were educated to become the sort of people a print culture required, people with a strong sense of individuality and:
The capacity to think logically and sequentially
The capacity to manipulate a high order of abstraction
The capacity to defer gratification
The capacity for self-control—a high degree of concentration and sedateness” (p.329)

In Postman’s view, this 400-year-old literate revolution had come to a staggering end by the early 1980 s and the main culprit was television. While there were many social examples of television’s negative effects upon childhood Postman noted that the evidence for this disintegration in the classroom, in particular, was overwhelming. In short, under pressure from television, education was forced to mimic the high thrills approach to [-p.330] learning or be left behind. Educators were assured that television could be integrated into the classroom to make teaching more efficient. Using television as a teaching tool was popular with students who had grown up on a diet of commercials and television programming. And television was popular with parents who, while they worried about the effects of television on their children, held out the hope that it might teach them ‘‘something other than which breakfast cereal has the most crackle’’ (1986, p. 142). For Postman, there was a direct connection between the world of adults and the world of the child. That connection was literacy. The proliferation of a non-text, image-based culture challenged that connection. It made childhood meaningless by collapsing adulthood into childhood. As Postman put it: ‘‘[i]n a literate world children must become adults. But in a non-literate world there is no need to distinguish sharply between the child and the adult, for there are few secrets, and the culture does not need to provide training in how to understand itself’’ (1986, p. 13).” (pp.329-330)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, while the word adult can be traced back to 1656, ‘adulthood’ was invented in 1870 as a social category of sufficient importance to require its own definition. The term adult is derived from adolescere (to grow up, mature), adolere (to make grow) adultus (grown). Of course, the idea of a person who was not a child existed long before the category of childhood and adulthood emerged in English, along with a set of ideas that corresponded to what it meant to be an educated person. But, as Blatterer notes in a study of the concept, before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries you might be considered man, woman, or child. Not an adult. ‘‘Adulthood’’ he notes, ‘‘is inextricably linked to processes of individualization, that is, individuals’ gradual liberation from the determinants of birth and religious conformity, and the simultaneous charging with an ever-increasing self-responsibility for all aspects of their lives’’ (2007, p. 11). In pre-industrial Europe, a child would have assumed adult responsibilities. They would have worn work clothes that were adult in appearance, and they would not have gone to school. Concepts like adulthood and childhood became meaningful as a result of the dramatic changes in technology and society in the nineteenth century, the political revolutions that expanded the franchise, a rising tide of nationalism, institutional transformations that increased the potential for states to collect and analyze data from their populations, and the contributions of biology and the new science of psychology in particular to a deeper understanding of the individual citizen. Combined, these changes prompted policy makers to think afresh about the connection between children, adults, schools, society, and the economy (Cote 2002).” (p.333)

The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century saw this version of adulthood become the default position. But it was the period after the Second World War up to the oil crises of the early 1970 s that has been called ‘a golden age of adulthood.’ It coincided with a period of relative economic stability, rising equality, a massive increase in public spending, social security provision and, crucially, careers; employment that was permanent, often life-long, where employee loyalty was rewarded with promotion within a company’s hierarchy. ‘‘For employees and families this meant that there were plannable [sic] careers with predictable milestones on the way, a known destination: retirement on guaranteed government pensions…Becoming adult was a matter of following a life course that resembled a veritable march through the institutions of marriage, parenthood, and work’’ (Blatterer 2007, pp. 14–15).
Of course, not everybody experienced this. The same period was one of gender and racial discrimination. But Blatterer’s point is that the normative ideal that was most strongly associated with the white, heterosexual, middle-class-male became the benchmark for adulthood. Hence, ‘‘[o]ur contemporary associations of adulthood with stability arose from that generation’s experience and expectations’’ (2007, p. 15).
In the previous section I suggested that a meaningful conception of adulthood was under stress because of the impact of new technologies, principally information technologies. Yet, because technology does not operate in a vacuum, we must account also for how it has fundamentally altered how we work. This is crucial in any discussion of education for the simple reason that education and employment have, hitherto, been fundamentally linked. In fact, we might say that the education employment algorithm has been part of the structure of modern societies.
It is precisely because the nature of employment is changing, in large part thanks to those technologies, that we can say that adulthood is disappearing in this second sense.” (p.334)

“The underlying cause of [the] staggering change[s] of economy and society can be summed up as the effects of the revolution in information technology. As Mason notes: if first there was sail, then steam, then petroleum, ‘‘[b]y the same crude technological measure, we are now in the information age’’ (2009, p. 147).
These changes have altered the economic conditions that confront graduates entering the job market today, and their expectations. They now enter a world with high levels of risk and insecurity, and a generalized inability to plan for the future (Beck 2002). As a consequence, more people stay in education for longer to increase their employment prospects through the acquisition of further qualifications, stay at home with parents or, indeed, return home after graduation or later in life. According to Furstenberg et al. (2004) this trend is so significant that a new stage of the maturation process can now be identified:  ‘early adulthood.’ This period describes a stage of life after adolescence but before ‘full adulthood,’ which occurs sometime in the late 20s or early 30s, after the completion of schooling, establishing a home away from parents, and securing a full-time job; all of which are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.
The term ‘early adulthood’ has been supplemented with other concepts that capture the general trend of adulthood’s collapse: ‘Kidults’ (Butterworth 2009), ‘Youthhood’ (Bly 1997), ‘Adultescence’, ‘Middle Youth’, ‘Middlescence’ and, ‘Peterpandemonium’ (Furedi 2003). Yet while the trend to move back home is important, the so-called ‘boomerang children’ phenomenon, it is the trend away from long-term employment that is, arguably, the single most important challenge to adulthood.” (p.335)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Lawrence Quill (2011) The Disappearance of Adulthood. Studies in Philosophy and Education 30(4)July:327–341

Reference is to: Blatterer, H. (2007). Coming of age in times of uncertainty. New York: Berghahn Books.

Cote, J. (2002). Arrested adulthood—The changing nature of maturity and identity. New York: New York University.

Heywood, C. (2002). A history of childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press

Postman, N. (1986). Amusing ourselves to death—Public discourse in the age of show business. London: Penguin.
Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.


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