Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) was one of the finest secular prophets of the twentieth century. Associated with New York University for over four decades, he is best known in the Christian community for his analysis of the effects of television in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death.1 His decades-long revolt against the supremacist claims of technology remains a vital corrective in contemporary culture. In his book entitled The Disappearance of Childhood, he offers a painful lament at the destruction of childhood through the ‘total disclosure’ of information to children. He concludes the book with a poignant question and answer:
Is the individual powerless to resist what is happening?
“The answer to this, in my opinion, is “No.” But, as with all resistance, there is a price to pay. Specifically, resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and an insult to the spirit of a throwaway culture in which continuity has little value. It is also at least ninety percent un-American to remain in close proximity to one’s extended family so that children can experience, daily, the meaning of kinship and the value of deference and responsibility to elders. Similarly, to insist that one’s children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, or self-restraint in manners, language, and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend. Even further, to ensure that one’s children work hard at becoming literate is extraordinarily time-consuming and even expensive. But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control the media’s access to one’s children. There are, in fact, two ways to do this. The first is to limit the amount of exposure children have to media. The second is to monitor carefully what they are exposed to, and to provide them with a continuously running critique of the themes and values of the media’s content. Both are very difficult to do and require a level of attention that most parents are not prepared to give to child-rearing.
Nonetheless, there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things, who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are not only helping their children to have a childhood but are, at the same time, creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. What can we say of the long run? Only this: Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help to keep alive a humane tradition. It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children. But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service.2”
1 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1986).
2 Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982; repr., New York: Vintage, 1994), 152-153.