In Memory of Neil Postman
In a spiritual crisis, as the one we are suffering actually, educators expect help from scientists who are working on their subject. However, we cannot linger on a theoretical discussion on well-intentioned recommendations from psychologists, epistemologists, sociologists or linguists, as there is just too much on stake. What we urgently need is a practical reconsideration of aspects that are existential, fruitful or dangerous for education. Of the few really useful contributions to this problem, The End of Education, the communication scientist and educator Neil Postman’s (1996) last words on education, is outstanding.
Postman’s call for reflection about school’s purpose rather than teaching styles fades into his final words in the epilogue of The End of Education:
[…]I have tried my best to locate, explain and elaborate narratives that may give nontrivial purposes to schooling, that would contribute a spiritual and serious intellectual dimension to learning. But I must acknowledge – here in my final pages – that I am not terribly confident that any of these will work. (Ibid.: 195)
Discarding the substitution of teachers by computers or the end of public school because of the diverging society of the melting pot USA, he cannot but confirm the earlier scruples he had defined in The Disappearance of Childhood against a progressing adaptation of adult behaviour by children, going hand in hand with the disappearance of childhood’s fancy games and merry pranks: The violence at North American schools today gives evidence of a loss of childhood innocence we could not have imagined by the end of the 50s of last century when mankind was still recovering from the carnage of World War II. Neil Postman, an ardent defender of the human right on a humane life, as was his teacher Marshall McLuhan, stays in our heart as a sagacious critic of an unrestrained technological armament of the Western civilization which has intruded our minds and hearts, leaving little space for critical thinking and less hope for humanistic learning.
Somebody else could have warned of the cultural destruction we are suffering, but nobody would have dared to unveil our frenetic adoration of new gods, nor would anyone have told us these warnings with his unbent sincerity. We should not forget to recognize this honest attitude of a spiritual pioneer in a rampantly materializing world while we are admiring his entertaining style. He writes in a varied and differentiated language, not to impress us (although he unintentionally does it with his wit), but to demonstrate that every what includes a how. In the debate on the latest theory of education, the most appropriate methodology and the use of modern technology in teaching, he always indicates the blind spot, e.g. when quoting Roszak (1986):
Too much apparatus, like too much bureaucracy, only inhibits the natural flow [of teaching and learning]. Free human dialogue, wandering wherever the agility of the mind allows, lies at the heart of education. If teachers do not have the time, the incentive, or the wit to provide that; if students are too demoralized, bored or distracted to muster the attention their teachers need of them, then that is the educational problem which has to be solved – and solved from inside the experience of the teachers and the students.” (Ibid.: 62-63)
He is not afraid of criticizing governmental decisions either, e.g. referring to a newspaper article which informed about solutions suggested by California’s Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Education Secretary Richard Riley, who did not hesitate to answer President Clinton´s call to provide young people with more practical vocational skills:
Of course, this is exactly the wrong solution, since the making of adaptable, curious, open, questioning people has nothing to do with vocational training and everything to do with humanistic and scientific studies. (Ibid.: 32)
Postman is aware of the traps which have been laid out by the gods, e.g. by the god of consumerism, and he describes their metaphysical impact on uninformed consumers who feel guilty like members of a Christian congregation because they committed the sin of unfaithfulness. Yes, it is true, he does not abstain from burlesque exaggerations, but caricature is a way of saying the truth which has been used successfully by thinkers of all times, e.g. George Bernhard Shaw. As a matter of fact, consumerism can be seen as the false religion of our time, if we define religion in terms of rite, traditional belonging and unconditional devotion. We blind sheep should be grateful that someone enables us to see again. However, as our social acceptation depends so much on our loyalty, we just do not want to recognize our fault.
The writing tasks he would give to high school students in his suggested core subject “History of Technology” would be based on a Decalogue of principles which lay bare the hazards of technological innovation by changing our soul (Faustian bargain), social balance (new technology privilege), mind and heart (introduction of a “new” philosophy of life, the use of body, perception and emotion), our “worldview”, our ecological system, the code of our information (“different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases”), the accessibility and speed of our information (“different technologies have different political biases”), the way we perceive (“sensory biases”), share and receive (“social biases”), and the way we apply technology (technical and economic content biases). Creating the necessary historical distance, he would have them write on the advantages and disadvantages of one pre-twentieth century technology in terms of intellectual, social, political and economic achievements first, before having them make a transfer to computer technology.
The knowledge of the technical development and its impact on the minds and souls of human beings of century xxi is primordial in all our humanistic studies. It is true, this generation has all the gifts of their late birth, their abilities being superior to their elders’ skills. They accede the widest data base of science and of humanistic matters. However, the overwhelming technical development will never stand still. When the gales and waves of life are rushing in, who will then guide them? When religion, tradition and moral principles will have faded, what will give them hold?
Yet, they can always come home to their forefathers who share the treasure of their wisdom while all the world is paralyzed by consume. “Our strength grows out of our weakness. … As the Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valor of the enemy he kills passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” This is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s answer to the desperate cry of the isolated soul of our time. In his advise, the spirit who is seeking the essence of life is supplied by a scientific conclusion more convincing than the great astrophysicists’ and a doctrine more holy and more comforting than worldly religion:
There is a deeper fact in the soul than compensation, to wit, its own nature. The soul is not a compensation but a life. The soul is. Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation or part, but the whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts and times within itself. Nature, truth, virtue, are the influx from thence. Vice is the absence or departure of the same. Nothing, Falsehood, may indeed stand as the great Night or shade on which as background the living universe paints itself forth, but no fact is begotten by it; it cannot work any harm. It is harm inasmuch as it is worse not to be than to be.
Emerson, R. W. ([1898/1911] 1947). Ed. by Carl Bode in Collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. The Portable Emerson. Viking Penguin, New York.
Postman, N. (1996). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. Random House, New York.
Postman, N. (1994). The Disappearance of Childhood. Random House, New York.
Roszak, T. (1986). The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. Pantheon, New York.
Roszak, T. (1994). The Cult of Information: A neo-Luddite treatise on high tech, artificial intelligence, and the true art of thinking. Univ. of CA Press.
Bogotá, 21 October 2003 Bernhard Wahr
 McLuhan, Herbert Marshall, communication theorist, born in Edmonton on July 21, 1911, died in Toronto on December 31, 1980. Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He became internationally famous during the 1960s for his studies of the effects of mass media on thought and behaviour.
Copyright © 1999 ENJOY ENGLISH/2010 SPRACHENSERVICE WAHR
All rights reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, no part of this article may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing from the publisher.