Remarks on Chapter 1: When There Were No Children. 61-78
Neil Postman. The Disappearance of Childhood.
NY: Vintage Books 1982, 1994
1. The So-Called Fall of the Roman Empire
Today's understanding of what the Roman state meant usually is strongly influenced by contemporary understanding of government. But today's principles cannot be applied onto the past that easily: In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, government was easily exchangeable without leading to a great impact on the mass of the population, which was mostly rural. In fact, the provinces and towns were at the time of the collapse of the Roman government virtually self-sustaining, for there had been a long-lasting decline of the power of the emperor(s). By the end of the reign of Romulus Augustulus (472), usually referred to as the end of the Roman Empire, and by Odoaker establishing his reign in Italy, Rome had for quite some time been separated into an Eastern and a Western Empire. This division but was already apparent right from the beginning of the rise of Rome - the empire broke apart at the linguistical divide between Latin- and Greek-speaking areas.
Also, the end of the empire as such didn't mean the end of the idea of Rome: Large parts of the Medieval world understood themselves as the ongoing continuation of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne's empire was a Roman Empire, so was the German Empire of the Ottonian and of later emperors. This new empire was called sacrum imperium, holy empire, and it was seen as a direct continuation of the old state.
The Imperium Romanum and the idea of it also existed in various forms and incarnations. It's just a matter of definition. It ended for example in 391 when Christianity became the official religion under Theodosius (thereby meaning the end of the secular Rome). It ended in 395 after the separation into East and West. It ended for example in 1453 (with the fall of Constantinople), It ended in 1806 (with the fall of what was left of the German Empire acfter Napoleon's victory at Jena and Auerstedt), it ended in 1919 (with the fall of the German Wilheminian empire), it ended in 1917 (with the fall of the czaristic Russian empire, which understood itself as a continuation of Byzantine Rome). And anyway, after C. Iulius Caesar and M. Tullius Cicero had been murdered in 44 resp. 43 BC, Rome hadn't been the same anymore.
The so-called Fall of the Roman Empire was not something which took place at a certain time, at a certain place. Much more, the empire died a slow death and experienced an ongoing restauration, a rebirth into newer forms - both at the same time. At the end of antiquity and at the beginning of the Middle Ages, around 500 AD, the result was a more or less Romanized Europe, into which the structures and ideas of Rome had been carried. This also allowed Christianity to spread, so that the medieval world was something where the Roman idea and Christianity were very much present, and very much alive. Postman makes the mistake of relying on outdated historical concepts, preferring drastic changes over continuity. He confuses changes on the map with changes inside. But this is not the only weak point in his argument.
2. The So-Called Dark Ages
There is not a single term in pseudo-historic writing as deceptive as that of the 'Dark Ages'. This term itself is a construction of Renaissance and Enlightenment, and it has to be understood in the context of a growing antipathy towards the Catholic Church and towards religion itself. The medieval world as a more or less deeply religious community must have been quite a deterring image for the secular movements following. Postman doesn't hesitate to use and exploit this one-dimensional picture, blaming the Roman Church for almost everything which he thinks was wrong in the Middle Ages. Such thought is, however, not uncommon.
Had it not been for the Roman Church, and for its monks, the knowledge of antiquity would have been lost. Postman distorts this picture and presents us the Roman Church as eagerly hiding knowledge from the people, eagerly thus protecting its power. The church as a means to promote illiteracy? I've never heard anything quite ridiculous as that.
Concerning the so-called scientific and educational decline following the so-called fall of the Roman Empire: Writing and education in Rome, as well as in Athens, was a prime domain of the upper classes. In Rome, that meant restriction of such faculties to the senatoric and equestrial class. The rural population and the proletarians of the towns mostly remained illiterate. Within medieval conditions, that changed - but it was more a shift within the distribution of knowledge: The rulers of the new world weren't any more republican senators, the new rulers were dukes and kings. The church itself was more like an intermediary, the Pope himself didn't really have worldly power (with a few exceptions like Gregorius I. (590-604) and Gregorius VII. (1073-85), who tried to influence politics to a great extent). And within an agrarian, pre-industrial society, knowledge and education naturally are the domain of those having both the money and the time for that. That's not ill will, that's a matter of practicability.
But Rome itself meant scientific degradation and stagnation. It focussed on agriculture, architecture, politics and war. But its main interest was to uphold the status quo - which ultimately meant its decline as a political entity. Rome's governmental and military structure didn't adapt to a changing world, or it didn't adapt as fast as it should have. The great scientific inventions of today were made possible with the beginning of the Middle Ages. Postman tries to stress the importance of printing with movable letters. That of course was one of the most important inventions ever made. He likes the idea that with this technology, a new era of historical development had started, ending the Middle Ages - but he forgets that it was the Middle Ages that made this invention possible. The technological and industrial revolution didn't happen after the Middle Ages, they were being initiated by them. The thousand years of Rome, however, meant more or less stagnation.
The only dark thing about the Dark Ages were living conditions in the colder areas; but they hadn't been much different in antiquity either. The medieval and antique world has to be looked at from a geographic perspective: Living conditions around the Mediterranean sea were drastically different from those in Germania, northern Gallia or other areas. In those northern areas, life was threatened by cold weather, smoky and overheated cabins etc. Also, one just has to look at today's Third- and Fourth-World countries. But I haven't yet heard anybody calling our "modern" world the Dark Ages.
Concerning morale. In Rome as in Athens, sexual intercourse with children, even with animals, was something not uncommon at parties of the upper classes (although there were also quite many examples of a much more advanced morality, as visible in the writings of Cicero or Seneca). The point Postman tries to make, that the medieval world would have been emotionally cold and amoral is again a very gross weakness of his.
Equally, the (wide-ranged) notion of the Roman Empire as kind of a mother of civilization is just as erroneous. One just has to take into account that basically all our information we have about the Romans is what they said about themselves. This loss of objectivity is even more underlined by the obsession with Rome which was and still is a constant factor within historiography (I for one am not free of such thought myself). Equally, Renaissance tried to create the illusion of being much better than its historical precursor. Thus, the Middle Ages have fallen victim to the self-praise of other periods, they've become a scapegoat.
3. Disappearing Childhood
Not only does Postman deliver a distorted image of historic events and situations, he also misses the point by ignoring further evidence. Child labor might be quite an unpleasant thing, but it is only in today's top-notch industrial countries that we can condemn it without risking to endanger our economic stability. In Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, workforce was a very critical factor. While today we have unemployment, those times didn't have the adult population necessary to support the agrarian economy. Children had to work on the fields or in the factories together with their parents because there weren't any machinery like today, and the population wasn't as large as it was later, at least in rural areas. In the cities, the situation was different, and during the late Middle Ages, there was also a heavy unemployment rate in the cities.
Education and childhood, now something like a matter of course, were luxury items at this time, available only to those who had certain economic liberties. But also, everybody could make use of the Church's offers to learn in the monasteries. But, as also today in less industrial areas, children were an economical factor. Children weren't forced to work because of a lack of understanding of what childhood means. They were forced to work because that was the only way for a family to support itself, they were cheap workers. Today, family businesses work the same way.
That's also a reason for slavery and serfdom in antique and medieval societies. And it is also a reason why there was slavery in the agrarian American South, and not in the industrial American North: This was not due to any kind of higher morality of the North, it was due to the fact that the work on the fields and plantations in the South was something unpleasant, something also demanding for lots of workers. This lack of willing workforce then served as a justification for slavery; as it also did in Rome. That doesn't make it right - on the contrary: It shows that human beings can be extremely ruthless under extreme conditions. That slavery by now is being understood as something evil is best supported by it not being necessary any more; and so is child labor.
Postman also makes the point of childhood disappearing today again, stressing that by the loss of traditional children's games and clothing and dialect. But while it might be true to a certain extent that the traditional concept of what it means to be a kid has changed in recent decades, that doesn't mean that there wouldn't be childhood any more: It just looks different. Because of education and technology, kids are spending time in front of the tv or the computer, or even with books. They usually are capable of dealing with technology - which might look frightening to those adults who can't.
Childhood isn't something which can be defined by speech, clothing or occupation. Childhood is something we carry within us, something we choose to deny when being adults. We construct adulthood in opposition to childhood, to look very grown-up. We dress ourselves differently, we talk differently - we apply a mask of seriousness which is supposed to uphold the artificial construction of adulthood. But inside, deep down inside of us, we're still a child looking for appreciation and respect. When we grow older, some of us will hopefully realize the emptiness of such pretending.
May 3rd / July 1st, 1999