The Disappearance of Childhood (Neil Postman)

The Disappearance of Childhood
by Neil Postman
Dell, 1982

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“A picture may, indeed, be worth a thousand words, but it is in no sense the equivalent of a thousand words, or a hundred, or two.  Words and pictures are different universes of discourse, for a word is always and foremost an idea, a figment, so to speak, of imagination.

“When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.”

For they are talking about the emergence of a symbolic world that cannot support the social and intellectual hierarchies that make childhood possible.

…Childhood, as I have tried to show, was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be psychologically assimilable ways.  The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.  But the telegraph began the process of wresting control of information from the home and school.  It altered the kind of information children could have access to, its quality and quantity, its sequence, and the circumstances in which it would be experienced.

Of course, had the possibilities of electric communication been exhausted by the telegraph, it is possible that the social and intellectual structure of the literate world would have remained largely intact, and that childhood in particular would not have been much affected.  But the telegraph was only a foreshadowing of what was to follow.  Between 1850 and 1950 the communication structure of America was dissolved, then reconstituted, by an uninterrupted flow of invention – the rotary press, the camera, the telephone, the phonograph, the movies, the radio, television.  By including the rotary press and the camera, I mean to suggest that electric media were not the only factors leading to a new symbolic world.  Paralleling the development of electric communication, there unfolded what Daniel Boorstin has called the “graphic revolution,” the emergence of a symbolic world of pictures, cartoons, posters and advertisements.  Taken together, the electronic and the graphic revolutions represented an uncoordinated but powerful assault on language and literacy, a recasting of the world of ideas into speed-of-light icons and images.

The significance of this development cannot be exaggerated.  For while speed of transmission made the management of information impossible, the mass-produced image changed the form of information itself – from discursive to nondiscursive, from propositional to presentational, from rationalistic to emotive.  Language is an abstraction about experience, whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.  A picture may, indeed, be worth a thousand words, but it is in no sense the equivalent of a thousand words, or a hundred, or two.  Words and pictures are different universes of discourse, for a word is always and foremost an idea, a figment, so to speak, of imagination.  There does not exist in nature any such thing as “cat” or “work” or “wine.”  Such words are concepts about the regularities we observe in nature.  Pictures do not show concepts; they show things.  It cannot be said often enough that, unlike sentences, a picture is irrefutable.  It does not put forward a proposition, it implies no opposite or negation of itself, there are no rules of evidence or logic to which it must conform.

Thus, there is a sense in which pictures and other graphic images may be said to be “cognitively regressive” (to use Reginald Damerall’s phrase), at least in contrast to the printed word.  The printed word requires of a reader an aggressive response to its “truth content.”  One may not always be in a position to make that assessment but, in theory, the assessment can be made – if only one had enough knowledge or experience.  But pictures require of the observer an aesthetic response.  They call upon our emotions, not our reason.  They ask us to feel, not to think.  This is why Rudolf Arnheim in reflecting on the graphic revolution and anticipating its massive manifestation on television warned that it has the potential to put our minds to sleep.  “We must not forget,” he wrote, that in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to others made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts.  For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think.  When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

This observation was made in 1935, before the full maturing of the image-information environment.  Forty-five years later, Arnheim’s prophecy was ruefully acknowledged as fact by Robert Heilbroner in his claim that pictorial advertising has been the single most destructive force in undermining the assumptions of the literate world.  In saying this, he meant to suggest, as has Roland Barthes, that the mass-produced image has introduced a constant and pervasive element of irrationalism into both politics and commerce.  With the photograph, then movies, and finally television, a candidate’s “image” has become more important than his plans, a product’s “image” more important than its usefulness.  In making these judgments, Arnheim, Heilbroner, and Barthes indicate by implication how the graphic revolution has contributed to a radical change in the status of childhood.  For they are talking about the emergence of a symbolic world that cannot support the social and intellectual hierarchies that make childhood possible.

Before explicating the details of the transformation now taking place, I must mention, once again, the irony of the situation: During the period between 1850 and 1950 enormous effort was expended in getting America to become literate, in elevating the values of the literate attitude.  But at exactly the same time, electric speed and mass-produced imagery were working together to undermine that effort and attitude.  By 1950 the competition between the two symbolic worlds finally became visible and the irony manifest.  Like many other social artifacts, childhood became obsolete at the same time that it was perceived as a permanent fixture.  I choose 1950 because by that year television had become firmly installed in American homes, and it is in television that we have the coming together of the electric and graphic revolutions.  It is in television, therefore, that we can see most clearly how and why the historic basis for a dividing line between childhood and adulthood is being unmistakably eroded.

The period in which we live is, of course, the incunabula of television.  After the invention of the printing press it took sixty years for printers to arrive at the idea of numbering the pages of books.  Who knows what the future holds for television?  There may be novel and profound uses for it that will be thought of by people not yet born.  But if we consider broadcast commercial television as we presently know it, we can see in it, quite clearly, a paradigm of an emerging social structure that must “disappear” childhood.  There are several reasons for this, one of which I shall deal with here, the others in the following two chapters.

The first concerns the idea of accessibility of information, which, in turn, is related to the form in which information is encoded.  The changeover from a pictographic writing system to the alphabet 3,500 years ago is a good example of the point I wish to make here.  Prior to the invention of the alphabet, “readers” were required to learn an enormous number of signs in order to interpret a written message.  The task was so arduous that only a few could achieve it, and those who did were required to devote their lives to it.  But it was worth it.  As a result of their exclusive skills they accumulated vast political and religious power, as is always the case when a group has knowledge of secrets to which the general population is denied access.  Pictographic writing, in other words, generated a particular social, political, and religious structure.  With the coming of the alphabet, as Isaac Taylor has observed in The History of the Alphabet, this structure was overthrown.  The priests and scribes had their “knowledge monopoly” shattered by a relatively simple and ingenious writing system