Thank You Mr Postman

Sometimes you read a book which makes you rethink your opinions on a particular subject. Back in 2004 I read a book, originally written in 1982, called The Disappearance of Childhood by the US writer and educator Neil Postman (1931-2003). Reading this book caused me to think about everything I was doing in terms of junior chess, and everything that was happening in the junior chess world, in a different way. You might think it curious that I should have been so influenced by a book which doesn’t actually mention chess at all. It’s not really strange though: I’m always asking questions like “What should 21st century childhood and 21st century schools look like?” before I ask what role chess should play in them. Other chess educators are asking the very different, and, in my opinion, over-simplistic question: how can we best put chess into schools as they are now?”

In his book Neil Postman writes about the decline in children’s play and the merging of children’s and adult games, with specific reference to Little League baseball and Pee Wee football.

“The idea that children’s games are not the business of adults has clearly been rejected by Americans, who are insisting that, even at age six, children play their games without spontaneity, under careful supervision, and at an intense competitive level.”

Postman goes on to discuss a brawl between parents which occurred during an international soccer tournament for young children in Ontario in 1981.

“What are the parents doing there in the first place? Why are four thousand children involved in a tournament? Why is East Brunswick, New Jersey playing Burlington, Ontario? What are these children being trained for? The answer to all these questions is that children’s play has become an adult preoccupation, it has become professionalized, it is no longer a world separate from adults.”

He then talks about young children competing in sports such as tennis, swimming and gymnastics, and has another question to ask.

“Why submit children to the rigors of professional-style training, concentration, tension, media hype? The answer is the same as before: The traditional assumptions about the uniqueness of children are fast fading. What we have here is the emergence of the idea that play is not to be done for the sake of doing it, but for some external purpose, such as renown, money, physical conditioning, upward mobility, national pride.”

I would not take quite such an extreme position as Postman. I can think of many benefits that children who excel at soccer (or chess) could gain from taking part in international tournaments even though I would certainly ask some questions and have some concerns. I guess it’s partly a generational thing: Postman was nearer my parents’ age than my age, and those who are 20 years or so younger than me will, by and large, have far fewer qualms than I do about this sort of competition.

One of the round table debates at last month’s London Chess & Education Conference, which I unfortunately missed as there were several other debates on at the same time which interested me, was on this topic: “Silence, touch move, timers: how strict should chess classes be?” I consider this a very important subject and would have been interested to hear others’ views. Postman writes about the distinction between ‘children’s play’ and ‘adult play’, and it seems to me that, with regard to chess, silence, touch move, timers, scoresheets, arbiters and so on are very specifically aspects of ‘adult play’ rather than ‘children’s play’. Postman would expect chess clubs for young children, even if he was in favour of such a thing, to be unsupervised and unstructured, with children inventing their own rules, and even doing totally different things with the pieces, such as using them as projectiles.

I’ll return to this topic next week and provide some of my own answers, but there was one other thing that jumped out at me on reading Neil Postman’s book.

Postman considered the golden age of childhood to have been between about 1850 and 1950, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the end of his own childhood. Many baby boomers like me would put the end of the golden age as more like 1970. He saw television as the main reason for the disappearance of childhood, and would surely have been horrified by the effect of the Internet on today’s children. As I explained above, although I share his concerns, my position is not so extreme.

In one chapter, Postman predicts, due to the merging of childhood and adulthood, and the influence of television, the rise of the adult-child.

“The adult-child may be defined as a grown-up whose intellectual and emotional capacities are unrealized and, in particular, not significantly different from those associated with children.”

By the time you read this, an adult-child will be running the most powerful nation in the world, with his finger on the nuclear button. Postman’s prophecy from thirty five years ago has come true.

Meanwhile, I’d urge anyone who is involved with decision making in junior chess to go away and read the book: it’s readily available on Amazon. You probably won’t agree with all of it; you may well disagree with most of it, but it will make you stop and think about how we should be promoting and running junior chess. Come to think of it, I really ought to read his other books myself as well.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.