Have You No Shame?

…Without a well-developed idea of shame, childhood cannot exist.

-Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, p. 9

I bought this book used. The person who owned it before me made a comment in the margin that the sentence I have quoted above is ‘disturbing.’ I don’t think they understood the point.

Throughout the book, Postman is making the argument that the concept of childhood is a relatively young one that began to develop in the 16th Century after the invention of the printing press. With mass amounts of printed material becoming available, Westerners decided that children needed boundaries to protect them from the flood. Before that time, he argues, children essentially lived in an adult world. They did not go to specialized schools; they didn’t live lives essentially distinct from their parents. By the age of seven, they were a part of the work-force – whatever that looked like at the time.

The sense of shame he writes of is the sense that some things are shameful, or inappropriate, for certain groups of people – children in this case. Over the centuries, it became agreed that some things simply weren’t suitable for children, and parents were entrusted with being gatekeepers of such things.

Now, especially with the internet, but even with television before it, this task is all the more difficult; and even beyond the difficulty, Postman is asserting, we are losing the sense that many things are inappropriate for children to begin with. We are losing that sense of shame – the sense that there are boundaries, the sense that parents are to discern the acceptability of content introduced to their children. That is what is disturbing.

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