Neil Postman


American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic

Author Quotes

Someone needs to mention what may be lost. Of course, one of the problems is that what I would judge to be a negative consequence, someone else might see as a positive consequence. For example, telephones in automobiles seem to me a very bad idea. So does spending a lot of hours "communicating" on the Internet when one could use that time reading Cervantes' Don Quixote.

The effects of technology are always unpredictable. But they are not always inevitable.

The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information...control mechanisms are strained... When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.

These questions are not intended to represent a catechism for the new education. These are samples and illustrations of the kind of questions we think worth answering. Our set of questions is best regarded as a metaphor of our sense of relevance. If you took the trouble to list your own questions, it is quite possible that you prefer many or them to ours. Good enough. The new education is a process and will not suffer from the applied imaginations of all who wish to be a part of it. But in evaluating your own questions, as well as ours, bear in mind that there are certain standards that must be used. These standards must also be stated in the form of questions: [1] Will your questions increase the learner's will as well as capacity to learn? Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning? Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn? [2] In order to get answers, will the learner be required to make inquiries? (Ask further questions, clarify terms, make observations, classify data, etc.?) [3] Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry)? [4] Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the uniqueness of the learner? [6] Would the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?

We do not know nearly as much as we should about how children learn language, but if there is one thing we can say with assurance it is that knowledge of grammatical nomenclature and skill in sentence-parsing have no bearing whatsoever on the process.

What?s wrong with turning back the clock if the clock is wrong? We need not be slaves to our technologies

Suggestion for a final exam question: Describe five of the most significant errors scholars have made in history. Indicate why they were errors, who made them, and what persons are mainly responsible for correcting them.

The elimination of conventional tests ... is necessary because, as soon as they are used as judgment-making instruments, the whole process of schooling shifts from education to training intended to produce passing grades on tests.

The scientific method, Thomas Henry Huxley once wrote, is nothing but the normal working of the human mind. That is to say, when the mind is working; that is to say further, when it is engaged in correcting its mistakes. Taking this point of view, we may conclude that science is not physics, biology, or chemistry--is not even a subject--but a moral imperative drawn from a larger narrative whose purpose is to give perspective, balance, and humility to learning.

They will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge... instantaneous global communication... the way to mutual understanding... Virtual Reality... the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.

We have framed... some questions which in our judgment are responsive to the actual and immediate as against the fancied and future needs of learners in the world as it is (not as it was)... There seemed to be little doubt that, from the point of view of the students, these questions made much more sense than the ones they usually have to memorize the right answers to in school. Contrary to conventional school practice, what that means is that we want to elicit from the students the meanings that they have already stored up so that they may subject these meanings to a testing and verifying, reordering and reclassifying, modifying and extending process. In this process the student is not a passive "recipient"; he becomes an active producer of knowledge. The word "educate" is closely related to the word "educe." In the oldest pedagogic sense of the term, this meant a drawing out of a person something potential or latent. We can after all, learn only in relation to what we already know. Again, contrary to common misconceptions, this means that, if we don't know very much, our capability for learning is not very great. This idea ? virtually by itself ? requires a major revision in most of the metaphors that shape school policies and procedures.

When two human beings get together, they're co-present, there is built into it a certain responsibility we have for each other, and when people are co-present in family relationships and other relationships, that responsibility is there. You can't just turn off a person. On the Internet, you can.

Superstition is ignorance presented in the cloak of authority. A superstition is a belief, usually expressed in authoritative terms for which there is no factual or scientific basis. Like, for instance, that the country in which you live is a finer place, all things considered, than other countries. Or that the religion into which you were born confers upon you some special standing with the cosmos that is denied other people. I will refrain from commenting further on that, except to say that when I hear such talk my own crap-detector achieves unparalleled spasms of activity.

The idea of taking what people call the 'entertainment culture' as a focus of study, including historical perspective, is not a bad idea.

The subject known variously as 'Communication,' or 'Media Studies,' or (as we call it at my university) 'Media Ecology.'... [which] takes as its domain the study of the cultural consequences of media change: how media affect our forms of social organization, our cognitive habits, and our political ideas. As a young subject, media ecology must address such fundamental questions as how to define 'media,' where to look for cultural change, and how to link changes in our media environment with changes in our ways of behaving and feeling. But such questions rest on another, larger question which is as yet unanswered -- namely, what kind of subject is this to be? Is it a science? is it a branch of philosophy? Is it a form of social criticism? Where, in short, do we place it in the catalogue? The usual, indeed the only, answer is that the subject must be a social science.

Think of it all for a moment: How strange are the forms in which information is created and reality abstracted -- in sounds, scribbles, dots, pictures, electronic impulses. And what materials they require -- paper of variable textures, ink, screens, lights, punches, discs. And how much of it we may get and in what sequences. And think especially of what is required of our brains, senses, and bodies to get it. We must sit in dark places or well-lit living rooms. Light may come from behind a screen or in front of it. Pictures intersect sentences. We must go back in time or ahead of it. Or time may be suspended, contracted, or expanded. And think of how slowly some forms of information move and how rapidly do others. And think of where these forms come from and to whom they are addressed. Surely it is not too much to say that the configuration of all these properties of information has the deepest physiological, psychological, and social consequences. Nor is it too much to say -- in fact, it is saying the same thing -- that the configuration of these properties at any given time and place comprises an invisible environment around which we form our ideas about time and space, learning, knowledge, and social relations.

We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence. But this was not all: Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention, to use Lewis Mumford's phrase. The principle strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography.

Whereas ethnic pride wants one to turn inward, toward the talents and accomplishments of one?s own group, diversity wants one to turn outwards, towards the talents and accomplishments of all groups.

People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Suppose all of the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared. Suppose all of the standardized tests ? city-wide, state-wide, and national ? were lost. In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this "catastrophe" into an opportunity to increase the relevance of schools. What would you do? We have a possibility for you to consider: suppose that you decide to have the entire "curriculum" consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly, from the point of view of the students. In order to get still closer to reality, add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and future...What questions would you have on your list? Take a pencil and list your questions...

The key to all fanatical beliefs is that they are self-confirming... (some beliefs are) fanatical not because they are "false", but because they are expressed in such a way that they can never be shown to be false.

The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital.

This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves. In the shift from party politics to television politics, the same goal is sought. We are not permitted to know who is best at being President or Governor or Senator, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent. We look at the television screen and ask, in the same voracious way as the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? We are inclined to vote for those whose personality, family life, and style, as imaged on the screen, give back a better answer than the Queen received. As Xenophanes remarked twenty-five centuries ago, men always make their gods in their own image. But to this, television politics has added a new wrinkle: Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.

We might say that a technology is to a medium as the brain to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.

Who knows what schools will be like twenty-five years from now? Or fifty? In time, the type of student who is currently a failure may be considered a success. The type who is now successful may be regarded as a handicapped learner ? slow to respond, far too detached, lacking in emotion, inadequate in creating mental pictures of reality. Consider: what Thamus called the "conceit of wisdom" ? the unreal knowledge acquired through the written word ? eventually became the pre-eminent form of knowledge valued by the schools. There is no reason to suppose that such a form of knowledge must always remain so highly valued.

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American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic