The Bearer Of Bad News

When I was a freshman in college I took a class in the History of Communication, for which I read The End of Childhood by media ecologist (that’s what the studiers of media call themselves, or did in 1983) Neil Postman. The thesis of the book was that ever since Guttenberg’s infernal machine, “childhood” has been gradually eroding because more and more often kids know as much about the world as adults. For some reason this was bad, but I can’t remember why. According to Postman, the invention of computers and VCRs only hastened this erosion. As it happened, our own media ecologist knew Mr. Postman and asked him to speak to us about the book. This would be the very first time that I ever read a book and subsequently met the author. It was kind of exciting. My neighbor in class that day was very excited. He loved the book. He was an aspiring singer/songwriter but The Disappearance of Childhood spoke to him.

In came Postman. He sat at a table in the front of the class and seemed to enjoy being the center of attention—a feeling I was in no position to judge. He elaborated on what he had written in the book. This was sort of interesting. I remember thinking, “Sure enough. He sounds just like the book.”

Then Postman began to expand on his thesis. Things, he told us, were bad and getting worse. No one had manners anymore, which I guess was the VCR’s fault. I couldn’t bear this kind of grouchy-old-man State Of The Union and told him, in so many words, that he was full of it, that there were surely people in the 1940’s who cursed at baseball games and called the players names. I was reminded that I was not alive in 1940 so my opinion on the matter was void. He officially lost me at this point.

It only got worse after this. Maybe I started it. Postman seemed emboldened by our exchange and went on—gratuitously, I thought—to explain that popular music was not helping the situation at all. The class, made up entirely of under-30’s who had grown up listening to almost nothing but popular music, whose childhoods’ and adolescences’ were scored by the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Michael Jackson, began to squirm. None of them were squirming more than my neighbor. Postman, smiling the smile of a man happy to deliver shocking news, went on to say that he did not allow his children to listen to Rock & Roll in the house, that if they wanted music they could listen to Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven.

My neighbor began to sputter. “How can you say that?” he shouted. Our professor tried to calm the situation by informing Postman that my neighbor was a musician himself, but Postman didn’t care. He kept on about the depravity and pointless of popular music, as if he had been waiting years to tell a classroom full of young people that their music stank. My neighbor looked like he was going to cry. “I loved your book!” he said. “I thought it was great.”

And then the class was over.  We couldn’t wait to get out. But my neighbor wasn’t done. I can still see him in my imagination, imploring Postman over the din of exiting students to consider listening to The Police, that their latest album was based on a theory of Carl Jung’s, and if he would just—

I sprinted from the room, out into the quadrangle where everyone’s opinion was equal.

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