Sunday, December 16, 2012

NEWTOWN....And The Disappearance of Childhood (1)

Making sense of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is difficult enough because all the facts aren't in yet. I emphasized that in my previous blog wherein I linked possible submerged personality disorder to Adam Lanza, the slayer of 20 children from 6 to 7 years of age, and 6 female teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Perhaps as horrifying as the killings themselves are the deep psychological scars left on many of the survivors, and what can rightly be described as the most pernicious violation of childhood in living memory in this country.

Does childhood even exist any more when a deranged gunman can barge into a first grade classroom and kill 20 kids, most with multiple gun wounds (up to 11 each) according to today's New York Times?  That is a question I want to pursue in this blog and the next one.  In particular, I want to use the template of Neil Postman's book,  The Disappearance of Childhood’ as a lens by which to process what has also transpired in the aftermath, namely interviewing the surviving child victims at the scene!

As TIME's James Poniewozik wrote, "There is no good journalistic reason to put a child at a mass-murder scene on live TV, permission of the parents or not."

BINGO! Because in so doing, these media have trespassed on the province of childhood, making the children into adults, by imposing adult cerebral or neural processing demands via their questions. This is insane, but it bears out Postman's basic thesis that by the indiscriminate use and tolerance of electronic visual media we've essentially eradicated childhood. Now, there are some (in other blogs I've seen) who will disagree and assert Postman has extrapolated or exaggerated his case. I don't believe so! The reason is that I have taught kids in Barbados before the advent of U.S. media there, and beheld kids who were still kids and didn't put on the affectations or quasi-adult displays - in clothing, behavior or language, that one sees in the U.S. and which have become more prevalent in Bim as U.S. TV has become entrenched via "Subscription TV".

But I get a bit ahead of myself.

As Lucinda Marshall put it in a recent blog (‘A Culture that Condones the Killing of Children and Teaches Children to Kill’), the Sandy Hook massacre “did not happen merely because of a lone, disturbed young man and it is not an isolated incident. It is an epidemic and we are all to blame”. We’re all to blame, because as Neil Postman so aptly described it in his powerful book, ‘The Disappearance of Childhood’, we’ve permitted the somber –violent, forbidden world of adulthood to eradicate childhood. We’ve done this in steps, but the most abusive form these steps have taken – according to Postman, inheres in permitting the domination of visual media which displays no holds barred realities as well as fictions.

Postman’s thesis, first proposed in 1982 in his book, is subtle to grasp because it is two-pronged. He shows how the intrusion of visual media via television has stripped childhood of its innocence, even as he shows the same media has effectively rendered adults as children. The effect has been to create “adult-children” and ‘child adults”. To starkly illustrate his point, he compares – for instance – the favorite TV shows of different age groups, ca. 1980 (p. 131):

The 1980 Neilsen Report on Television reveals that adults (defined as people over the age of 18) rated the following among their fifteen favorite syndicated programs: Family Feud, The Muppet Show, HeeHaw, M*A*S*H, Dance Fever, Happy Days. These programs were also listed among the top fifteen most favored by those between 12 and 17 years. And they also made the favored list of those between age 2 and 11!”

He concludes from this that the figures support his contention that what now amuses the child also amuses the adult. What happened?

In the era following print typography, a new world of symbolic abstraction based on the printed word emerged, and the human adult with it. As this adult became more solidified and print became the basis for separating the adult mind from the child’s – the social construction of “childhood” had to be created. Thus, before about 300 years ago the “child” as such didn’t exist in the social context. The child before about 1650 was treated as a small adult, had to work in the coal mines along with his more mature relations, as well as toil in the fields. There were no child clothes, child games as such or child distinctions.

The arrival of print changed all that because it disclosed the need for the young to be properly trained to assume a role in a world in which lack of print mastery exacted great social costs. The mastery of print required also a certain skill set totally contingent on the ability to process the printed word including: the ability to sit still for protracted periods, the ability to sequentially process abstract (phonetic) symbols, the ability to master logical –rational thought.

The mastery of print also separated child from adult in much the same way that current specialist domains, say in modern physics,  separate specialists from those outside the specialty discipline. Take solar physics for instance. The appropriate equation of transfer in a simple, plane-parallel atmosphere would be:

dI = j dx - σ I (Θ) dx = (j - σ I (Θ)) dx

where I (Θ) is the specific intensity. If you do not know the language of solar physics you will not know what specific intensity is, nor will you be able to produce the "moments of intensity" - say obtained by successive integrations over an element of solid angle - defined as (A/r^2) for a sphere, for example. In other words, you will be like a "child" left out of esoteric knowledge granted to those in the "priesthood" of solar physics. Those who had to come up through years of dedicated training, education and research to be able to perform such tasks.

In other words, you'd be like the child relative to the adult in the new world where print mastery was foremost....and defined the adult.

Before the advent of print there were no children as such because there existed no means for adults to know exclusive information. What the adult knew the child knew, as all knowledge was in the "vernacular". With print this changed, because the introduction of abstract symbols split the access "codes". As adults mastered the printed world, children were excluded...analogous to how novices are excluded from the province of specialist research.

Print literacy then, similarly demanded a specialized period of “childhood” education and training, apart from adulthood for which literacy had attained a peak. Thus, a child was not expected to master anything like Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Thomas Mallory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ or Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ but the adult was. The arrival of electronic visual media changed all that by making everything available to everyone but in visual form rather than symbolic. Attendant on this was the need for speed, for shortcuts in presentation, and as Neil Postman puts it, the insatiable demand for novelty. Thus, one eventually ended up in a “Jerry Springer” cartoon world shown on daytime TV airing problems on everything under the sun from a spouse’s sexual fetishes, to violent on- set altercations between races, to once private personal physical issues, to you name it.

And the damnable thing was that with this medium no barriers existed. The child glued to the TV could soak everything in as much as the adult. No symbolic barriers existed that had to be surmounted. All one had to know is how to flick the remote on, and change channels! Or to paraphrase Postman, “the six year old and sixty year old could equally access what was shown on TV.”

This is all critical to understand in terms of the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, especially (as Lucinda Marshall puts it): “a media so insensitive that it thinks it is okay to shove a microphone in the face of young victims in the name of sensationalized 24/7 cable “news” while under-reporting the root causes of this tragedy.”

Why would the media “shove microphones” in the faces of young victims? According to Postman’s thesis: because the media doesn’t make any distinction between the young victims and adults! In other words, it exactly proves Postman’s thesis that childhood has “disappeared”, especially in this virulent new age of 24/7 cable-Direct-tv, and the need to fill every waking moment. But worse, the insensitivity to childhood as a special province separated from that 24/7 world.

I will show more of the connections of our electronic media (including computer useage) to increased infantilization of adults, and the concomitant eradication of childhood, tomorrow.

No comments: