Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

If people don’t school, what does that mean for childhood?

In his controversial work, The disappearance of childhood, Neil Postman (1982) proposed that childhood was an invention of the late middle ages. Rather than a natural, universal or biological state, he argues that childhood is, in fact, due to the invention of the printing press (Postman, 1982). Prior to the printing press, both children and adults “lived in the same social and intellectual world” (Postman, 1982, p. 36) however, after the printing press and the widespread requirement for literacy, childhood became a necessity. The necessity to learn to read, in order to exist in the modern world, he argues, also led to the invention of schooling (Postman, 1982).

Because school was designed for the preparation of a literate adult, the young became to be perceived not as miniature adults, but as … unformed adults [which gave adults] … unprecedented control over the symbolic environment of the young

(Postman, 1982, pp. 41-45)

Thus, without schools we have no childhood. Prior to the invention of childhood, children were said to live “in the same social and intellectual world” (Postman, 1982, p. 36) as their parents. However, with literacy came “secrets” for which children needed to be prepared.

Postman (1982) states that the century between 1850 and 1950 marked a high-water mark for childhood as they succumbed less to disease, celebrated birthdays and their welfare became important. However, childhood is disappearing, as the title of his book suggests, principally due to technology, such as television the internet and, to a lesser extent, radio. These technologies were killing childhood because, through them, the secrets of the adult world were “diluted and demystified” (Postman, 1982, p. 85). They are egalitarian dispensers of information, requiring no certificates or notes granting access. Rather, they encourage no specialised learning in order to access them. He also saw social issues such as divorce, an awareness of economic realities and the two-income family as responsible, because they reduce the nurturance of children (Postman, 1982).

What does this mean if, as some scholars (paywall) have suggested, homeschooling is increasingly popular? What does this mean for the further refinement of the discourse of childhood?

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16 Responses to “If people don’t school, what does that mean for childhood?”

  1. Jeff Nguyen

    Good food for thought, we’re considering homeschool and virtual schooling our kids for a year while we travel and work.

    Reply
    • Rebecca English

      Are you in Australia or the US? What kind of virtual schooling would you do? Would you buy a program or use a government one? Would you consider unschooling or natural learning while you travel?

      Reply
      • Jeff Nguyen

        We’re in the U.S. and not sure what unschooling or natural learning is. There is a virtual school through the state we live in or there is the homeschool curriculum. If you have any links about other types of schooling, I’d love to look at it. Thank you.

  2. Rebecca English

    Hi sure thing. Why not have a look at my post on unschooling (https://rebeccamenglish.com/2012/12/27/unschool-say-what/) to give you a bit of an indication?

    Basically, it’s learning without a formal curriculum. You trust your child to know what they need to learn and are led by them. So, if your child is really into cars, they can learn about mechanics (science), how to know how much fuel it takes and how much it uses (mathematics/numeracy), do some work on a car’s body (art), read the manual and learn how to spec up a car (English/literacy). Does that make sense? It’s like you just don’t set out to teach them all those subjects discreetly, because in the real world there are no discreet subjects, you kind of blur the lines between them because that’s what the world is like. I’ve never said to a boss, “sorry, I can’t total the bill for this customer without a till because I don’t do maths, I’m paid to do communication with customers or English”.

    If you want to know about some books to read, you can contact me privately, most of the books are available online as pdfs. I’ve got links.

    Reply
  3. godmadeknown

    My husband and I read through all of Postman’s works when we were first married and “The Disappearance of Childhood” is the first non-fiction I a can recall that had me bawling like a baby. My husband is a classroom teacher but we have chosen to homeschool our four boys and have been heavily influenced in our parenting decisions by Postman’s rather prophetic writing, especially “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

    Reply
    • Rebecca English

      I too enjoy his work. We teach his theory of the disappearance of childhood to undergraduate education students. It’s probably the only thing I’ve ever had to teach that’s led to all out brawls in class. Amusing ourselves is fantastic. What do you think of Subversive Teaching?

      Reply
      • godmadeknown

        I enjoyed your Subversive Teaching post very much but find it difficult to hand over the reigns entirely when it comes to inquiry based education. I have four little boys who are deeply engaged so far in studying the natural world around them but I choose the overarching topic for the year ( i.e. astronomy) then we learn everything we possibly can about it. I do encourage them to pursue their own tangents and particular areas of interest and give them all the time and resources they need to do so but it’s definitely not hand’s free at this point.

      • Rebecca English

        I wonder if it’s ever possible to be completely hands off. Even Holt said children should have as much freedom as their parents could comfortably bear. After all, don’t we channel them as infants, reading to them (or not), with the toys we give them, even how we live our lives!

  4. Marsupialmouse

    I’m pleased to find your blog. As a philosopher and future unschooler (I have a 2 year old and baby number 2 due in May) I was hoping there was someone out there who had written the book on schools that Foucault never wrote. Perhaps Postman is a good place to start.

    Reply
    • Rebecca English

      Hi Jess

      Thank you so much for your compliment! I would suggest reading Postman, maybe his “Disappearance of Childhood” is a bit much but try “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” and “The End of Education”. I’d also recommend the works of John Holt and John Taylor Gato. Have you read their work?

      Cheers
      Rebecca

      Reply
      • Marsupialmouse

        Thanks Rebecca! I have read and enjoyed Holt and Gatto, and look forward to checking out Postman’s books next. Time to check the library 🙂

      • Rebecca English

        Actually, I have a link to a PDF of his book, Teaching As A Subversive Activity on my blog, if you look in the Library -> Education, it’s the final link. It’s a great read! It’s also a very cogent argument for unschooling your children.

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