Childhood, Computers, and Hi!

Hello fans of the Internet. It's been over a month since I last clicked post, and I'm way overdue. You'd think I'd be teeming with witty observations and insights after all this time, but no. I think my internal operating system is still in newborn mode, which means I can't even post 140 characters or less to twitter very often. It's my own personal kernel panic.

I mentioned last time that I was reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, and I recently finished it. Here's a quick summary. Postman argues that the idea of childhood as a distinct, protected time in a person's life is a social construction that came into being shortly after the printing press was invented. By locking information into the fairly inaccessible, abstract form of written language that requires years of study to master, a distinction was formed between young and old that didn't exist in oral cultures. He mentions the idea of shame makes childhood possible by making certain information taboo to children. Basically, literate adults had access to vital information that wasn't available to young people, and an elaborate system of education was invented to train children to read and write so they could eventually participate. Children could be brought into adulthood gradually with structured guidance. Postman then says that the invention of the telegraph was the beginning of the end for the concept of childhood. (And perhaps formalized education along with it.)
...the telegraph began the process of making information uncontrollable...News from nowhere means news from everywhere, about everything, and in no particular order. The telegraph created an audience and a market not only for news but for fragmented, discontinuous, and essentially irrelevant news, which to this day is the main commodity of the news industry.
What does this have to do with childhood? The telegraph, telephone, photography, and finally television have made literacy less important, and information available to everyone, everywhere. Today's children encounter—and are forced to process—the adult world throughout our visual culture that moves information at the speed of light.
...if we turn over to chidren a vast store of powerful adult material, childhood cannot survive. By definition adulthood means mysteries solved and secrets uncovered. If from the start the children know the mysteries and secrets, how shall we tell them apart from anyone else?
Postman goes on to lament the diminishing idea of adulthood as well, blaming electronic media. He feels that fully literate culture has "...tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order." Postman calls the new period between infancy and senility the adult-child.

Throughout the book I couldn't help but think of Postman yelling, "you kids get my off my lawn!" But his history of communication technology is worthwhile, and while his arguments aren't scientific, they're fun to mull over. The question I can't shake after reading the book: what does it mean to be an adult? Postman wrote the book in 1982, before the Web. I think the Web has definitely helped the cause of literacy, if only briefly. Broadband is turning the Web into a video-delivery device, and sites like YouTube are an intermediate step back toward a visually-dominated culture. Maybe?

To counter Postman a bit, I'm currently reading Mindstorms by Seymour Papert. Papert also believes formalized education is on its way out, computers are responsible, but this is a good thing. I'm only 50 pages into the book, but I'm struck by Papert's metaphors for teaching. He believes the best type of learning is similar to how we learn spoken languages, and he blames some education problems such as mathophobia on parents not "speaking math" around the house. Just as an English-speaking child learns French faster if they're surrounded by native speakers, so other skills such as reading literature and geometry are helped along by "native speakers" of those skills. He argues that children can learn to program computers, and in the process learn subjects "without being taught". Specifically, without being taught in the classic teacher/classroom sense. I'm also interested in his view of children as builders rather than consumers.

Mindstorms is from 1993, also pre-Web, and some of the ideas feel dated. But his prediction of computing ubiquity was correct, and his fears about how computers are used in the classroom as pre-programmed test-administers are also correct, I'm afraid. But I'm guessing there, and like I mentioned I'm just starting this book. It is comical to go from reading a Luddite to a Techno-Utopian so quickly. Papert's statement that, "what is good for professionals is good for children" would probably horrify Postman.

(Oh, and this book is where the name Lego Mindstorms comes from: The Origins of Mindstorms.)

In personal news the Oregonian had a nice article that mentioned ORblogs the other day: Portland is No. 2 in blogging, and I was quoted going on and on about the local blogosphere. I don't have as much time as I'd like to work on the site right now, but I get a few hours here and there every once in a while. I'm glad people are still interested in it, and I think it's still valuable to have community aggregators even though personal feed-readers are ubiquitous.

Until January (I suppose), take care.

Conquest of (Parental) Happiness

I've been thinking about parenting lately since I'm on deck, and it's reminding me of college in a way. College is where I made the transition from being a child dependent on my parents to being an adult, and that's the time when I began figuring stuff out for myself. It's also when I was fully immersed in the problems of the adult world via my classes, and thanks to that I read some philosophy (among other things) to help make sense of the world. I didn't always understand what I was reading (I wasn't a philosophy major—just read for fun), but some of those books did give me new ways of looking at things that I've found useful.

So as I'm getting ready for another life-shift, I've been wondering what philosophers have said about parenting. I know there are a lot of books out there about "parenting philosophies" and that's not quite what I'm after. I'm wondering what classic Philosophers have said.

The philosophy I read in college dealt with abstract concepts like whether or not a table exists in reality, or whether the table is simply expressing its tableness through existence or something. I didn't read anything about practical matters like raising children. (Or maybe I wasn't reading the right books.) It's not like I expect to find Baby or Superbaby? by Nietzsche, but thinking back there wasn't much in what I read specifically about family life, which isn't all bad. Ideas about personal responsibility and freedom that are a part of existential writings can apply to every aspect of life. Philosophy is sort of a meta-layer above everything else anyway. I also think philosophy has the problem of being dominated by men who might not be completely tuned into their nurturing side.

Conquest of Happiness I remembered reading some thoughts on marriage by Bertrand Russell and if you read his bio you'll know why he had some ideas rattling around about that. Even though his life isn't the model of family bliss, I've found his logical writing hard to argue with. So I thought I'd see if he'd written anything about parenting. I eventually found his Conquest of Happiness on Google Books and read a bit there before picking up a copy. It's not a philosophy book or a parenting book. It's more of an early self-help book he published in 1930 where he lays out "life lessons" for being happy.

The book is surprisingly modern for being almost 80 years old, and the issues of modern living he addresses have only become more pronounced. Parts of it are dated, and he was obviously writing for a white, Western, upper-class audience. And sometimes I couldn't decide if I was reading grandfatherly advice or cranky old man rants, but either way this book has given me a lot to think about. The book has also generated a lot of conversation around the house, and I thought I'd summarize some of his parenting thoughts.

The most fascinating chapter in the book for me was ironically about Boredom where Russell encourages parents to teach children how to endure boredom. "The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts himself from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness." He talks about how the ability to concentrate on boring tasks will pay dividends in adult life. And in a poetic passage he mentions that the human body is adapted to the slow rhythm of the Earth, and children especially need contact with this slow ebb and flow. (I was reminded of this just today reading Asha Dornfest's thoughts on planning summer activities and the fear of "wasted time" for kids. It's obviously still something parents are grappling with.)

In a chapter on Family, Russell describes a conflict that arises in all parents, "...between love of parental power and desire for the child's good..." He advises parents should have an almost mystical respect for the child's personality so they don't become possessive or oppressive parents. This can lead to the classic case of Democrats having a Republican child (or vice versa), where hilarity ensues. The idea that, "...the child should as soon as possible learn to be independent in as many ways as possible..." seems difficult to me, and I'm not even a parent yet.

Russell also mentions that our modern knowledge of psychology is both a blessing and a curse. While we have a better understanding of phobias and neuroses that can help children be healthier, Russell feels this knowledge can create timid parents who are afraid of screwing up. His prescription is self-confidence, respect for the child, and self-permission for occasional mistakes. Easy!

The bits on parenting only make up a small portion of the book, and overall reading it was like a smack in the face. But in a good way. I went looking for philosophical parenting advice, and I've found just this small bit. I'm sure there are other parent-philosophers who have a completely opposite take. Anyway, just as I found in college there's only so much you can glean from books before real life takes over and teaches you the hard way.