Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Neil Postman

American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic

"Television’s strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads."

"Profound but contradictory ideas may exist side by side, if they are constructed from different materials and methods and have different purposes. Each tells us something important about where we stand in the universe, and it is foolish to insist that they must despise each other."

"Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture's being drained by laughter?"

"Educators may bring upon themselves unnecessary travail by taking a tactless and unjustifiable position about the relation between scientific and religious narratives. We see this, of course, in the conflict concerning creation science. Some educators representing, as they think, the conscience of science act much like those legislators who in 1925 prohibited by law the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. In that case, anti-evolutionists were fearful that a scientific idea would undermine religious belief. Today, pro-evolutionists are fearful that a religious idea will undermine scientific belief. The former had insufficient confidence in religion; the latter insufficient confidence in science. The point is that profound but contradictory ideas may exist side by side, if they are constructed from different materials and methods and have different purposes. Each tells us something important about where we stand in the universe, and it is foolish to insist that they must despise each other."

"Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death."

"Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action."

"Television is our culture's principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore -- and this is the critical point -- how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails."

"“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 corrrecting 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."

"The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products."

"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."

"Television screens saturated with commercials promote the utopian and childish idea that all problems have fast, simple, and technological solutions. You must banish from your mind the naive but commonplace notion that commercials are about products. They are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales."

"Remember: in order for a perception to change one must be frustrated in one's actions or change one's purpose."

"The reader must come armed , in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because he comes to the text alone. In reading, one's responses are isolated, one'sintellect thrown back on its own resourses. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business. It is also, of course, an essentially rational activity."

"At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living."

"Our culture's adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane. And if some of our institutions seem not to fit the template of the times, why it is they and not the template, that seem to us disordered and strange."

"We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant."

"Television is altering the meaning of 'being informed' by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information - misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information - information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing."

"There must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories."

"For in the end, he was trying to tell us what afflicted the people in 'Brave New World' was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking."

"But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple."

"I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed."

"One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of "crap.” "

"Parents embraced “Sesame Street” for several reasons, among them that it assuaged their guilt over the fact that they could not or would not restrict their children’s access to television. “Sesame Street” appeared to justify allowing a four- or five-year-old to sit transfixed in front of a television screen for unnatural periods of time. Parents were eager to hope that television could teach their children something other than which breakfast cereal has the most crackle. At the same time, “Sesame Street” relieved them of the responsibility of teaching their pre-school children how to read—no small matter in a culture where children are apt to be considered a nuisance.... We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents."

"The opposite of a correct statement is an incorrect statement. The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth (Niels Bohr)." By this, he means that we require a larger reading of the human past, of our relations with each other, the universe and God, a retelling of our older tales to encompass many truths and to let us grow with change."

"Television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious television” is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice—the voice of entertainment. "

"Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose."

"It is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience... The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining."

"The point is that profound but contradictory ideas may exist side by side, if they are constructed from different materials and methods. and have different purposes. Each tells us something important about where we stand in the universe, and it is foolish to insist that they must despise each other."

"The whole problem with news on television comes down to this: all the words uttered in an hour of news coverage could be printed on a page of a newspaper. And the world cannot be understood in one page."

"People in distress will sometimes prefer a problem that is familiar to a solution that is not."

"Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, our religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice."

"Why do we think technology is above morality? ... The real question is, 'How should I conduct my life?' rather than 'What tools should I use?'"

"We must keep in mind the story of the statistician who drowned while trying to wade across a river with an average depth of four feet. That is to say, in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure what sort of nonsense will lodge in people's heads."

"Socrates says that writing forces us to follow an argument rather than to participate in it, and I think you see that all the time when the professor is giving a lecture. Students are writing their notes, trying to follow the argument, and abandon any hope of participating in it."

"But in the end, science does not provide the answers most of us require. Its story of our origins and of our end is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. To the question, How did it all begin?, science answers, Probably by an accident. To the question, How will it all end?, science answers, Probably by an accident. And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living. Moreover, the science-god has no answer to the question, Why are we here? and, to the question, What moral instructions do you give us?, the science-god maintains silence."

"We must cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge. How to do this is the question."

"A book is an attempt to make through permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past? The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation."

"We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions. In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us."

"A much more malignant form of bullshit than pomposity is what some people call fanaticism. Now, there is one type of fanaticism of which I will say very little, because it is so vulgar and obvious ? bigotry. But there are other forms of fanaticism that are not so obvious, and therefore perhaps more dangerous than bigotry"

"A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided. The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion. Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers."

"A reading test measures one's ability to read reading tests, and reading tests are in themselves... somewhat akin to the world of crossword puzzles or Scrabble or the game of twenty questions. Some people play these games well, and all praise is due them for their skill. But if we ask, What aspect of the world do they comprehend in doing these games well? the answer is, Only the world within the games themselves."

"A student who is bored with the real world? can a journey into virtual reality cure such a problem,?"

"A third kind of semantic awareness is an extension of the consciousness of abstracting, namely an awareness of varying levels of abstraction. Words vary in the degree to which they correspond to verifiable referents. Some words are relatively more abstract or general, and some words are relatively more concrete or specific. Related to this fact is a fourth kind of semantic awareness, which might be called the "direction of meaning." That is, with increasingly abstract or general words, (i.e., those farther removed from operationally verifiable referents), the direction of meaning shifts accordingly from "outside" to "inside." With increasingly concrete or specific words (i.e., those whose referents can be more easily verified operationally), the direction of meaning shifts accordingly from "inside" to "outside." The conventional semantic terminology for these directions of meaning are intensional (internal or inside) and extensional (external or outside). Closely bound to these directions of meaning are, of course, different kinds of meaning. The primary semantic distinction made in kinds of meaning is between connotation (intensional, subjective, personal meaning) and denotation (extensional, objective, social meaning)."

"A fifth kind of semantic awareness has to do with what might be called the "photographic" effects of language. We live in a universe of constant process. Everything is changing in the physical world around us. We ourselves, physically at least, are always changing. Out of the maelstrom of happenings we abstract certain bits to attend to. We snapshot these bits by naming them. Then we begin responding to the names as if they are the bits that we have named, thus obscuring the effects of change. The names we use tend to "fix" that which is named, particularly if the names also carry emotional connotations... There are some semanticists who have suggested that such phrases as "national defense" and "national sovereignty" have been... maintained beyond the date for which they were prescribed. What might have been politically therapeutic at one time may prove politically fatal at another."

"A definition is the start of an argument, not the end of one."

"A variation of the "photographic" effect of language consists of how blurred the photograph is. "Blurring" occurs as a result of general class names, rendering distinctions among members of the class less visible. One of the most common manifestations of the lack of this kind of semantic awareness can be found in what is called "prejudice": a response to an individual is predetermined because the name of the class in which the person is included is prejudiced negatively. The most obvious and ordinary remark made in cases of this kind, "They are all alike," makes the point clear."

"About the last place any of us can expect to learn anything important about the realities we have to cope with in our wistful pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is a classroom. If we decided that schools must do whatever is necessary to help students to learn the concepts and skills relevant to the nuclear space age, we wouldn't spend much time sitting inside of small boxes inside of boxes ? even with all the fancy hardware being developed to jazz up the Trivia contest. It's probably true that most of what we all know we didn't learn in school anyway. Moreover, developments in electronic information processing make the school as it presently exists unnecessary. ..the "new education." Its purpose is to produce people who can cope effectively with change. To date, none of the new "educational technology" has that as its purpose. Remember Santayana's line: Fanaticism consists of redoubling efforts after having forgotten one's aim. The developments in "educational technology" are intended to do all of the old school stuff better... but that's not the aim of the new education."

"Administrators are another curious consequence of a bureaucracy which has forgotten its reason for being. In schools, administrators commonly become myopic as a result of confronting all of the problems the "requirements" generate. Thus they cannot see (or hear) the constituents the system ostensibly exists to serve ? the students. The idea that the school should consist of procedures specifically intended to help learners learn strikes many administrators as absurd ? and "impractical." ? Eichmann, after all, was "just an administrator." He was merely "enforcing requirements." The idea of "full time administrators" is palpably a bad one ? especially in schools ? and we say to hell with it. Most of the "administration" of the school should be a student responsibility. If schools functioned according to the democratic ideals they pay verbal allegiance to, the students would long since have played a major role in developing policies and procedures guiding its operation. One of the insidious facts about totalitarianism is its seeming "efficiency." ... Democracy ? with all of its inefficiency ? is still the best system we have so far for enhancing the prospects of our mutual survival. The schools should begin to act as if this were so."

"All reading, in truth, is reading in a content area. To read the phrase "the law of diminishing returns" or "the law of supply and demand" requires that you know how the word "law" is used in economics, for it does not mean what it does in the phrase "the law of inertia" (physics) or "Grimm's law" (linguistics) or "the law of the land" (political science) or "the law of survival of the fittest" (biology). To the question, "What does 'law' mean?" the answer must always be, "In what context?""

"All stories [are] infused with moral prejudice and sociological theory... Both the novelist and the social researcher construct their stories by the use of archetypes and metaphors... The writer of fiction creates metaphors by an elaborate and concrete detailing of the actions and feelings of particular human beings. Sociology is background; individual psychology is the focus. The researcher tends to do it the other way around. His focus is on a wider field, and the individual life is seen in silhouette, by inference and suggestion. Also, the novelists proceed by showing. The researchers, using abstract social facts, proceed by reason, by logic, by argument. That is why fiction is apt to be more entertaining... What I am driving at is this: Once we rid ourselves of the false notion that we are scientists, and accept the idea that we are among our culture's most important tellers of psychological and social tales, the answers to the two questions I began with are obvious. As to what are legitimate forms of research into human communication, we may answer by permitting ourselves the greatest possible latitude. Historical speculation, philosophical argument, literary criticism, case histories, biography, semantic and semiotic analysis, ethnography -- all these and more ought to be admissible as ways of telling our stories, and the less concern about method, the better. One becomes fastidious about method only when one has no story to tell. The best people in our field have, with few exceptions, been almost indifferent to the question of method. Who can characterize Harold Innis's method? Or Susanne Langer's? Or Eric Havelock's? Or McLuhan's? Or Mumford's? Or Jacques Ellul's? They used whatever social or historical theories and facts seemed relevant; they put forward their arguments by using the instruments of reason, logic, intuition, conjecture. Even Erving Goffman, who seems more technical than most, hasn't much of a method; what he has is a metaphor: that life is a stage and we are all players on it. Of course, we can also count things, if we wish, and do correlational studies. But if we do, we ought to make clear what social theory is serving as the frame for our story...And so, the answer to the first question is that by resisting the attractions of pseudo-science, and embracing the role of creators and narrators of social myth, media ecologists can enrich our field of study immeasurably. Of course, this cannot be done without risk. It means that most of us will generate piles of junk -- unconvincing stories without credible documentation, sound logic, or persuasive argument... It is a risk that must be borne. The alternative is to remain a shriveled pseudo-science, useless for everything except the assembly-line production of Ph.D.s. As for my second question -- What is the purpose of such research? -- the answer is not, obviously, to contribute to our field, but to contribute to human understanding and decency. For the most part, novelists do not write to enrich the field of novel-writing. The good ones write because they are angry or curious or cynical or enchanted. The Scarlet Letter was not written by a man who wanted to improve the art of the novel, but by a man who wanted to improve the art of living together. Similarly, The Myth of the Machine, Understanding Media, The Technological Society, Computer Power and Human Reason, Stigma, Anger, Public Opinion, and, if you will pardon an attempt to gilt myself by association, Amusing ourselves to Death -- all these books were written by men and women who were concerned not to improve scholarship but to improve social life. Thus the purpose of doing this kind of work is essentially didactic and moralistic. These men and women tell their stories for the same reason the Buddha, Confucius, Hillel, and Jesus told their stories. To put it plainly, the so-called social sciences are subdivisions of moral theology. It is true, of course, that social researchers rarely base their claims to knowledge on the indisputability of sacred texts, and even less so on revelation. But you must not be dazzled or deluded by differences in method between preachers and scholars."