Susan Neiman offers a materialist analysis of the contemporary catechism of child rearing and the glorification of childhood. Bring a child into the world, and you have given birth not just to a human being but the future culture to which he or she will contribute. Held hostage to a context in which child experts foster a child-centered myopia, it becomes possible for parents to avoid seeing the cultural ramifications for an extended period of such a narrowed approach. As if they were “It” in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, they bluff their way blindly through the new cosmos the child brings to them, aiming aimlessly to solve the mystery of who he or she “really” is. They struggle with obstacles large and small, fervent in the hope that by the age of majority, the newcomer will meet society’s criteria for what a grown-up “really” is. The winners of this game sport score a few victories, and learn to navigate a slope studded with mogul-like defeats. It’s a landscape that looks nothing like the one they at first imagined. Then, one evening, a mother, say, may find herself looking around an adult son or daughter’s living room, taking a reading from its various artifacts: What do they say about what her son or daughter has brought to the party? Is the inhabitant of this space a bona fide grown up? Moreover, does one’s offspring reach full maturity on a closing date, or is growing up a process more akin to permanent revolution, with all the attendant contradictions?
Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum, studied philosophy at Harvard and the Free University of Berlin. As impressive as this clutch of academic credentials may be, in this gem of a book, she demonstrates that her real strength lies in her mastery of applying a materialist view to everything from the sacred to the profane in child pedagogy. In “Why Grow Up?” she sheds light on how to escape the formalist trap set for parents and educators by pragmatic parenting fads. Her starting point is not whether to swaddle, home school, or dispense quotients of logical consequences versus tough love. She instead examines our culture, and offers up nuggets from the musings of expert philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume and Kant, while drawing on categories rigorously honed by Marx, refined from rough approximations by Nietzsche and Hegel. With deft language laced with irony, she evaluates the validity of each in its relationship to a dialectical appreciation of labor, the thing that makes us human, and its nemesis, alienated labor, the fodder for barbarism. After all, growing up in today’s world means that one is highly likely to spend the better part of a lifetime running at a mad pace to assure that someone who tapped the “Purchase” key on a screen will receive his or her chosen commodity within 24 hours. If that’s all there is, what point is there in growing up?
Commenting on the rise of religious fundamentalism, Neiman writes, “It is certainly not an accident that religious fundamentalism exploded at the same moment when market fundamentalism became the leading global ideology, though it is a tragedy that it has become the most popular alternative to it.” Then quoting Karl Marx [and Frederic Engels] from their “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848), she writes: “The bourgeois . . . has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour . . . in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade . . . .All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
The current generation of youth and young adults is both seduced and reduced to place a high premium on electronic toys that accelerate the pace of expectation, at the same time as such commodities render obsolete, not only their own shelf lives, but certain social conventions meant to message our humanity to the world beyond our electric outlets. Without going religiously Luddite, or embracing the rural idiocy of Back to the Land advocacy that is the Luddite’s kissing cousin, Neiman stares down the bully infantilizers, who have not so much robbed the cradle as placed a Nanny Cam in it. She calls them by their real names. She reasons that the hopelessness engendered by alienated labor is not an argument for capitulating to it. On the contrary, if we are ever to locate the exits from this chamber of horrors, it will be by virtue of the efforts of self-acting, self-confident, classically educated youth who are as able to acquit themselves in the classroom as to learn life (and other) lessons from the street vendor.
Growing up before growing old makes the latter a more tolerable and even richer experience, says Neiman. No wonder young people disdain growing up, if they hear from their elders that youth is the “best time of life.” Neiman counters with the argument that growing up enlightens old age. It locates the dignity within that sustains us with an accumulated wisdom valuing the ascendancy not of a Utopian counter culture, but a reasoned protest of the current one. Only grown up human beings can successfully pose a scientific challenge to the power monopolized by an alien and alienated social class that shows a vexing determination to dumb down what centuries of social labor, learning, and maturation have built up.