Neil Postman


American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic

Author Quotes

Perhaps we should abandon the whole idea of trying to make students intelligent and focus on the idea of making them less ignorant. Doctors do not generally concern themselves with health; they concentrate on sickness. And lawyers don't think too much about justice; they think about cases of injustice. Using this model in teaching would imply identifying and understanding various forms of ignorance and working to eliminate as many of them as we can.

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean 'ecological' in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none. This is how the ecology of media works as well. A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry. And that is why the competition among media is so fierce. Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization -- not to mention their reason for being -- reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crises that new media foster.

The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. Knowing the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.

The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, the surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts...Of course, the practice of capitalism has its contradictions...But television commercials make hash of it...By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser's claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama--a mythology, if you will--of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better ? best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it.

We no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don't know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.

With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present.

Pomposity is not an especially venal form of bullshit, although it is by no means harmless. There are plenty of people who are daily victimized by pomposity in that they are made to feel less worthy than they have a right to feel by people who use fancy titles, words, phrases, and sentences to obscure their own insufficiencies.

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.

The meaning I have given here to "language education" represents it as a form of meta-education. That is, one learns a subject and, at the same time, learns what the subject is made of... If it be said that such learning will prevent students from assimilating the facts of a subject, my reply is that this is the only way by which the facts can truly be assimilated. For it is not education to teach students to repeat sentences they do not understand so that they may pass examinations. That is the way of the computer. I prefer the student to be a programmer.

The terminology of a question determines the terminology of its answer.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.

We rarely talk about television, only about what?s on television.

With the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.

Print also created new literary forms and altered ideas of literary style. Medieval poetry was conceived for the ear, and each poem had to stand the test of recitation. In addition, medieval audiences were not always interested in the poet himself, since his work was known to them only through the interpretations of minstrels, who frequently rephrased poems to suit their own image and images. The printed page changed these conditions. Slowly, the printed poet came into a new relationship with his reader. He learned not to be so repetitive as his predecessors since a reader could be depended upon to return as often as needed to uncompromised passages...After the flowering of dramatic poetry during the Elizabethan Age, the printed page substituted for the theater, and millions of children came to know Shakespeare only through this form.

Technological competition ignites total war, which means it is not possible to contain the effects of a new technology to a limited sphere of human activity... What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school.

The means by which people communicate comprise an environment just as real and influential as the terrain on which they live... When there occurs a radical shift in the structure of that environment this must be followed by changes in social organizations, intellectual predispositions, and a sense of what is real and valuable... It is the business of the educator to assess the biases of the information environment with a view toward making them visible and keeping them under control. A society that is unaware of what its information environment is leading to may become overwhelmed by philosophers, priests, conquerors, or even explorers. Or it may forget how to remember. Or may confine its imagination only to what it can remember... It is the business of education, at all times, to monitor and adjust the information environment wherever possible so that its inherent biases and drift do not monopolize the intellect and character of our youth.

The title of my book was carefully chosen with a view toward its being an ambiguous prophecy [The End of Education]. As I indicated at the start, The End of Education could be taken to express a severe pessimism about the future. But if you have come this far, you will know that the book itself refuses to accept such a future. 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 ?nal pages?that I am not terribly con?dent that any of these will work. Let me be clear on this point. I would not have troubled anyone?least of all, written a book?if I did not think these ideas have strength and usefulness. But the ideas rest on several assumptions which American culture is now beginning to question. For example, everything in the book assumes that the idea of "school" itself will endure. It also assumes that the idea of a "public school" is a good thing. And even further, it assumes that the idea of "childhood" still exists. As to the ?rst point, there is more talk than ever about schools' being nineteenth-century inventions that have outlived their usefulness. Schools are expensive; they don't do what we expect of them; their functions can be served by twenty-?rst-century technology. Anyone who wants to give a speech on this subject will draw an audience, and an attentive one. An even bigger audience can be found for a talk on the second point: that the idea of a "public school" is irrelevant in the absence of the idea of a public; that is, Americans are now so different from each other, have so many diverse points of view, and such special group grievances that there can be no common vision or unifying principles. On the last point, while writing this book, I have steadfastly refused to reread or even refer to one of my earlier books in which I claimed that childhood is disappearing. I proceeded as if this were not so. But I could not prevent myself from being exposed to other gloomy news, mostly the handwriting on the wall. Can it be true, as I read in The New York Times, that every day 130,000 children bring deadly weapons to school, and not only in New York, Chicago, and Detroit but in many venues thought to provide our young with a more settled and humane environment in which to grow? Can it be true, as some sociologists claim, that by the start of the twenty-?rst century, close to 60 percent of our children will be raised in single-parent homes? Can it be true that sexual activity (and sexual diseases) among the young has increased by 300 percent in the last twenty years? It is probably not necessary for me to go on with the "can it be true's?" Everyone agrees and all signs point to the fact that American culture is not presently organized to promote the idea of childhood; and without that idea schooling loses much of its point. These are realistic worries and must raise serious doubts for anyone who wishes to say something about schooling. Nonetheless, I offer this book in good faith, if not as much con?dence as one would wish. My faith is that school will endure since no one has invented a better way to introduce the young to the world of learning; that the public school will endure since no one has invented a better way to create a public; and that childhood will survive because without it we must lose our sense of what it means to be an adult.

To every Old World belief, habit, or tradition, there was and still is a technological alternative. To prayer, the alternative is penicillin; to family roots, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal established through scientific polling. There is even an alternative to the painful riddle of death, as Freud called it. The riddle may be postponed through longer life, and then perhaps solved altogether by cryogenics.

We use language to create the world?we go where it leads. We see the world as it permits us to see it.

With the possible exception of those human encounters that Fritz Peris calls ?intimacy,? all human communications have deeply embedded and profound hidden agendas. Most of the conversation at the top can be assumed to be bullshit of one variety or another.

Print, in even more revolutionary ways than writing, changed the very form of civilization...the Protestant Revolution was contemporaneous with the invention of moving type...the printing and distribution of millions of Bibles made possible a more personal religion, as the Word of God rested on each man's kitchen table. The book, by isolating the reader and his responses, tended to separate him from the powerful oral influences of his family, teacher, and priest. Print thus created a new conception of self as well as of self-interest. At the same time, the printing press provided the wide circulation necessary to create national literatures and intense pride in one's native language. Print thus promoted individualism on one hand and nationalism on the other.

Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way that Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible, and therefore irrelevant.

The modern idea of testing a reader's comprehension, as distinct from something else a reader may be doing, would have seemed an absurdity in 1790 or 1830 or 1860. What else was reading but comprehending?

The way to be liberated from the constraining effects of any medium is to develop a perspective on it ? how it works and what it does. Being illiterate in the processes of any medium (language) leaves one at the mercy of those who control it. The new media ? these new languages ? then are among the most important "subjects" to be studied in the interests of survival. But they must be studied in a new way if they are to be understood, they must be studied as mediators of perception. Indeed, for any "subject" or "discipline" to be understood it must be studied this way.

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American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic