The De-Skilling of Childhood

2013 May 27
by Ando Arike

To continue in the anti-automobile vein of my previous post, I’ve embedded a nice little two-minute video below from the good people at Streetfilms, which, to my mind, goes a long way to explaining why the generation coming of age in the U.S. today seems so conformist, apathetic, and lost. According to the statistics quoted in this video, only 13% of American kids get to school using their own wherewithal — i.e., walking or bicycling. The other 87% depend on school buses or their parents to drive them — no matter how nearby their schools are.

So from a very early age, American youth are taught that they are essentially helpless without the  intervention of the auto industry. The idea of a 15-minute walk to school becomes unthinkable; this translates to an “enforced dependency” which makes the child feel inadequate without access to the products of major corporations — a kind of emotional indebtedness that will soon become a financial debt when he or she enters college. And, of course, the same process is now taking place with communications technology. Where in the past, a child could relish his or her freedom from the social world, it’s now more or less required for children to have smartphones, through which they’re continuously jacked-in to the matrix. Increasingly, this is so they can be tracked or otherwise monitored by parents or authorities.

What a different kid’s world it was when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, before the technological takeover of childhood! We always walked to school, free to take any detours we wanted to, free to explore whatever excited our attention. Outside, away from adult figures of authority, freedom rooted itself deep into our bones and muscles. And then we got bicycles — an even more intensive education in freedom! Alone, or in small groups, we’d ride for miles and miles across the surrounding landscape — cut loose from the adult world and all its restrictions. I remember the exhilaration of summer nights, coasting through the hot fragrant air and feeling that anything was possible in this vast, yet navigable world. What power we felt in our legs and the gears of our bikes! I can’t imagine how cramped and stifled kids must feel today, when the entire culture seems to want to swaddle them in electronic diapers and rob them of the use of their bodies.

But this change in children’s existential condition certainly does go a long way to explain the depression and malaise I see in so many of my undergrad students — who have spent too much of their lives indoors, imprisoned in an electronic mass-mediated fantasy world. Childhood — previously the period when one learned how to exert one’s natural physical abilities — has been transformed into an education in consumerism — in abject dependency. Like most adult American workers, children, too, have been alienated from the labor (and unmediated pleasure) of their bodies, and are now beholden to corporate culture, even for their imaginations, even for the use of their limbs.

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