A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: The Age of Privacy, the Family, and Schooling

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: Part 4

Who will ultimately control the cameras?”
David Brin, The Transparent Society

7. The Age of Privacy.   

The Middle Ages were public.  Life was lived in the community, not inside houses.  Even the wedding night was public!  That changed with the Modern Ages.  Certain rooms in palaces and workshops were set apart for the king or for the master and his family – and it became understood that courtiers and customers were not to enter these “apart-ments” without invitation.  The word “home” took on its current meaning and “make yourself at home” implied a very intimate friendship.  An interiority developed in people’s ways of thinking: “inspiration” (which comes from the outside) gave way to “imagination” (which comes from the inside).  The great controversies of the Middle Ages had been carried out in large and raucous public debates.  The Modern Ages tended toward memoirs and diaries. 
But privacy was a frail reed.  There was always the competing desire for recognition – and recognition is anything but private.  Peer pressure has always mattered, and matters more to the young than to the mature.  As modern maturity segues into post-modern immaturity, peer pressure will become steadily more important.[1] 

The post-modern world will be more medieval, in that it will once more carry out its arguments in public debates – on message boards and blogs and comm. boxes.  They just won’t be as intellectually rigorous as the old medieval quodlibets. 
Meanwhile, modern technology has made privacy virtually impossible.  Someone is watching you, and it ain’t Big Brother.  Or rather, it is your big brother, or your neighbor, or some passing stranger with a cell phone.  Or the store surveillance camera…  And they will post everything on the Web.  David Brin calls this “The Transparent Society.”  The public begins to spy on the government!  Big Brother, we are watching you! 
You can even spy on yourself, using social media to publish intimate details of your private life for all to see.  Or blurting them out in the restaurant.  Public phones used to be in booths to ensure privacy of the conversation.  We now routinely chat in public with our invisible friends. 
This sounds creepy to people who value privacy.  The medieval would have shrugged.  Post-modern people will likely take a desire for privacy as suspicious, and possibly even sinister.  What have you got to hide?

8. The Age of the Family.   

While the Age of Privacy might seem related to the Cult of the Individual, it was more related to the Cult of the Family.  Medieval children were put out of the family as apprentices or (among the nobility) as squires; girls, less so; although they too were often put out to work.  Boys came of age at fourteen, girls at twelve.[2]  They could hold property, vote in manorial elections, enter contracts, marry.  Beatrice of Burgundy was thirteen when she wed the forty-year old Kaiser Barbarossa.  But the bourgeois Cult of the Home – of privacy, of interiority, of “coziness” meant keeping children at home.  The Bourgeois Age did not invent children, but it did invent a certain way of thinking about children.  The adolescent made its appearance.  
Figure 6. Frequency of the terms “adolescent” and “teenager” in English language sources.
This peaked in the 19th century when, for the first time in history, a significant number of married women no longer had to rise at dawn and go out to work.  The Age of Industry paid the husband enough to afford an apartment or a cottage (sometimes even a house) where the wife, freed of the need to labor for others, could govern her children.  But, like the Age of Industry, the Age of the Family was short-lived. 
With the advent of easy divorce, many women found themselves without husbands but with children.  At the same time, declining birthrates began sucking women back into the workplace to fill the low-paying clerical jobs required by the “production of consumption.” 
Nor was the change driven solely by the economic demands of businesses.  The role of homemaker had proven lonely and boring.  In the Early Modern Age, working men and women labored at home or in shops below the apartment (or on the family farm).  But in the industrial age, men more often had to leave the home and go elsewhere to work and governing the household became a very solitary occupation. 
So once again, children were turned out of the house.  Their raising was entrusted to professionals (licensed by the omnicompetent State), to peer groups, and to themselves.  The Cult of Youth reinforced this trend.  “As far as I can tell,” blogged Paul Graham, “the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia.  I don't think this is a coincidence.  I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead.  Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs.  Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs.  Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.” [PG] 
What will our SFnal post-modern age look like?  Youngsters used to talk about what they'd do when they grew up – fireman, policeman, postman, RR engineer – now they talk about never growing up.  They want to be paid for singing, dancing, or wearing pretty clothes professionally. 
A civilization of singers and dancers sounds rather pleasant.  No one dances across the border to conquer their neighbors, although they have sometimes sung.  But more and more, children are being thrown on their own devices and will have to grow up, will they, nill they.  Meanwhile, their parents take pills not to have them and a third of them never get born.  We cannot expect the same comfy families we used to know. 

“It used to be that to get a good-paying job you needed a high school education.  That’s still true today, but you have to go to college to get one.”
– Origin Uncertain

9. The Age of Schooling.   

The Middle Ages invented the university; but the schooling of children was let to the apprenticeship system.  In the late 17th century, a new model emerged, pioneered by Jean-Baptiste de la Salle and others.  La Salle envisioned schools for poor and working families, staffed by a dedicated cadre whose only occupation was that of teaching children.  He proposed that children be taught in the vernacular rather than in Latin[3]; and that the “simultaneous system” be used.  This meant grouping the children into “grades” of equal attainments placed in the same class, using the same text-books, and following the same lesson under one and the same teacher.  Thus was invented the mass education of the common citizen, possibly the greatest innovation of the Modern Age.  By the 19th century, the West had made public high schools free and compulsory and the word education had shifted from its domestic meaning to its current public meaning. 
So, of course, they had to mess with it.  Grouping children into ability-grades became age-grades.  “Tracking” was then introduced to keep similar abilities together; and this led to struggles to get one’s children into the “right” track.  
Figure 7.  At School “in the Year 2000.”  One of a set of images prepared for the Paris Exposition of 1900.  The books are being processed into audio, the 1900s vision of e-books.  Boys would still wear knickers, of course.
Beginning in the 1890s, contemporary with the invention of “intellectuals,” new theories of education became popular, many of them based on the philosophy of Rousseau, and of course known as “progressive” education.  In this new model, the “naturally inquisitive” child would become a self-teacher, choosing which subjects to study, discussing facts, and advancing at his own pace.  The teacher would become a “facilitator.”  This was a step away from mass tutoring and back toward the medieval model of individual apprenticeship and of the child as a miniature adult. 
Schools shifted focus from academic education to “preparing the young for real life” and encouraging them to become “creative, inclusive, and empathetic.”  This marked the triumph of the artist over the intellectual, said Barzun.  The term “creative” became the stamp of approval on everything from education to advertising. [JB]  Even in academic topics, the emphasis was often on technique (“engaging the students”) rather than on content.  Non-academic responsibilities were laid on teachers and schools, which began to transition into custodial institutions. 
Meanwhile, college degrees were required for more and more occupations.  The diploma began to outweigh the education.  Inevitably, Lukacs wrote, “inflation had set in, diminishing drastically the content and quality of learning.”[4] 
In our SFnal future, schooling will no longer be in schools as the Modern Age understood them, but at home or in small child-driven centers.  Or both?  Parents may form consortia where nine work and one instructs their children.  Inter-home schooling? 
The Age of the Individual demands individualized instruction.  But not every child is really a self-driver, and “facilitators” may be reluctant to “force” them to learn things in which they show no interest.  Why bother learning how to factor an equation if you will never need to do it after graduation?  On the other hand, lack of interest is not the same as lack of importance.  So child-driven education has its perils as well.  

 Next Episode: The Age of Representative Art and the Book

[1] Peer pressure.  Even the acceptance of scientific conclusions will be pegged to “the consensus.”  A recent “scientific” paper focused not on the data supporting a particular theory, but on the credentials and publications of those supporting it versus those opposing it. 
[2] Fun fact: The word “boy” came from the Latin for “servant or slave” and referred to the leather collar Roman slaves wore (boia).  The term for a child regardless of sex was “girl.”  Over time, the term for servant was applied to male girls and the term “girls” contracted to female girls. 
[3] Quod cognitio vacerrosa!
[4] Elite schools remain top notch, but the children of poor and working families find themselves more and more in custodial schools and diploma mills.

©2014 Michael F. Flynn


  1. In castles, back when they were used for defense rather than status, even the bedroom was not a private place. The lord and lady slept, and did anything else a lord and lady might do in bed, with the king's most loyal men sleeping all around in the same room. Lords, understandably, didn't want to get knifed at night, an occupational hazard, so having your guys right there where you might need them was a prudent precaution. (and also having enough of them to make it hard for little conspiracies to escape notice, or for anyone to hope to escape if they took the direct route to getting that promotion).

    Obviously, any sense of privacy in the modern sense was completely lacking. It's difficult for me to get my head around.

  2. Well, a lot of families slept all in the same bed or the same room, so people were used to it. Also beds and sleeping cubicles usually had curtains for warmth and keeping summer bugs away, so there was probably some muffling effect.

    What happens in a small space can be walled off by mental privacy (Not paying attention to the lord and his lady's doings!) or it can become just a cozy part of the background (Oh, good, they're such a cute happy couple in bed, and that's good for us as the lord's retainers!).

    And anyway, it beats sleeping on the benches out in the meadhall.

  3. "[T]he concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia."

    How true is that? The character of Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is sort of the quintessential hormonal teenager. I would think teenagers have been hormonal from the dawn of time.

    "Parents may form consortia where nine work and one instructs their children. Inter-home schooling?"

    I think this is already going on. When my parents started homeschooling me in the mid 80's, it was virtually unknown. Now, it's not unusual to have large homeschooling coops where parents share teaching responsibilities. Most instructions goes on at home, but a day a week or so, the kids go to another families home for some special instruction. Even I had something of a sort, with once a week history, chemistry, and religion classes when I was in home-high-school.


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