Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Neil Postman

American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic

"All subjects are forms of language education. Knowledge of the subject mostly means knowledge of the language of that subject."

"Although we know we cannot step in the same river twice, abstracting allows us to act as if we can."

"Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials."

"An idealist usually cannot acknowledge his own bullshit, because it is in the nature of his ?ism? that he must pretend it does not exist. In fact, I should say that anyone who is devoted to an ?ism??Fascism, Communism, Capital-ism?probably has a seriously defective crap-detector. This is especially true of those devoted to ?patriotism.? Santha Rama Rau has called patriotism a squalid emotion. I agree. Mainly because I find it hard to escape the conclusion that those most enmeshed in it hear no bullshit whatever in its rhetoric, and as a consequence are extremely dangerous to other people. If you doubt this, I want to remind you that murder for murder, General Westmoreland makes Vito Genovese look like a Flower Child."

"And that is why I would propose that, in our teaching of the humanities, we should emphasize the enduring creations of the past. The schools should stay as far from contemporary works as possible. Because of the nature of the communications industry, our students have continuous access to the popular arts of their own times - its music, rhetoric, design, literature, architecture. Their knowledge of the form and content of these arts is by no means satisfactory. But their ignorance of the form and content of the art of the past is cavernous."

"Another way of saying this is that all ideologies are saturated with bullshit, and a wise man will observe Herbert Read?s advice: ?Never trust any group larger than a squad.?"

"As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit. I will ask only that you agree that every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure, and that if we can help them to recognize this fact, they might turn away from it and toward language that might do them some earthly good."

"As one learns the language of a subject, one is also learning what the subject is...what we call a subject consists mostly, if not entirely, of its language. If you eliminate all the words of a subject, you have eliminated the subject."

"As technical people, we are apt to be preoccupied with scores, not competence."

"At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself."

"Because he did not have time to read every new book in his field, the great Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski used a simple and efficient method of deciding which ones were worth his attention: Upon receiving a new book, he immediately checked the index to see if his name was cited, and how often. The more Malinowski the more compelling the book. No Malinowski, and he doubted the subject of the book was anthropology at all."

"Because of what computers commonly do... With the exception of the electric light, there never has been a technology that better exemplifies Marshall McLuhan's aphorism "The medium is the message." ... the "message" of computer technology is comprehensive and domineering. The computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and professional levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable...this is... nonsense. Our most serious problems are not technical, nor do they arise from inadequate information. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it shall not be because of inadequate information. Where people are dying of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing whatever to do with any of these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them."

"Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection - With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, ?crap-detecting,? originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, ?Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.?"

"But it is not time constraints alone that produce such fragmented and discontinuous language. When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, Let me think about that or I don't know or What do you mean when you say? or From what sources does your information come? This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art."

"But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos...matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems...The tie between information and action has been severed...It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it."

"Childhood is analogous to language learning. It has a biological basis but cannot be realized unless a social environment triggers and nurtures it, that is, has need of it. If a culture is dominated by a medium that requires the segregation of the young in order that they learn unnatural, specialized, and complex skills and attitudes, then childhood, in one form or another, will emerge, articulate and indispensable."

"Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."

"Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. From a biological point of view it is inconceivable that any culture will forget that it needs to reproduce itself. But it is quite possible for a culture to exist without a social idea of children. Unlike infancy, childhood is a social artifact, not a biological category."

"Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods."

"Conventional "requirements" ... are systems of prescriptions and proscriptions intended solely to limit the physical and intellectual movements of students ? to "keep them in line, in sequence, in order," etc."

"Cultures may be classified into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies... Tool-using cultures ... may have many tools or few, may be enthusiastic about tools or contemptuous. The name 'tool-using culture' derives from the relationship in a given culture between tools and the belief system or ideology. The tools are not intruders. They are integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its world-view... In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives... And so two opposing world-views -- the technological and the traditional -- co-existed in uneasy tension. The technological was the stronger, of course, but the traditional was there -- still functional, still exerting influence, still too much alive to ignore... two distinct thought-worlds... With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way 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. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy... the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology."

"Cyberspace is a metaphorical idea which is supposed to be the space where your consciousness is located when you're using computer technology on the Internet, for example, and I'm not entirely sure it's such a useful term, but I think that's what most people mean by it."

"Definitions, like questions and metaphors, are instruments for thinking. Their authority rests entirely on their usefulness, not their correctness. We use definitions in order to delineate problems we wish to investigate, or to further interests we wish to promote. In other words, we invent definitions and discard them as suits our purposes."

"Definitions, questions, metaphors ? these are the three of the most potent elements with which human language constructs a worldview."

"Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? ...If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?"

"Each person?s crap-detector is embedded in their value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values. After all, Vice President, Spiro Agnew, or his writers, know as much about semantics as anyone in this room. What he is lacking has very little to do with technique, and almost everything to do with values. Now, I realize that what I just said sounds fairly pompous in itself, if not arrogant, but there is no escaping from saying what attitudes you value if you want to talk about crap-detecting. In other words, bullshit is what you call language that treats people in ways you do not approve of. So any teacher who is interested in crap-detecting must acknowledge that one man?s bullshit is another man?s catechism. Students should be taught to learn how to recognize bullshit, including their own."

"Eichmannism is a relatively new form of fanaticism, and perhaps it should be given its own special place among the great and near-great varieties of bullshit. The essence of fanaticism is that it has almost no tolerance for any data that do not confirm its own point of view. Eichmannism is especially dangerous because it is so utterly banal. Some of the nicest people turn out to be mini-Eichmanns. When Eichmann was in the dock in Jerusalem, he actually said that some of his best friends were Jews. And the horror of it is that he was probably telling the truth, for there is nothing personal about Eichmannism. It is the language of regulations, and includes such logical sentences as, ?If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.? Can you imagine some wretched Jew pleading to have his children spared from the gas chamber? What could be more fair, more neutral, than for some administrator to reply, ?If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.?"

"Embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another... [This is] an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number."

"Enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it."

"Even when the problem of the access to technology is solved so that anyone who wishes can have access to technology, there still remains a problem. For example, just about anyone has access to a public library (at least in America). In that library we find the greatest, most profound, most illuminating literature that human beings have so far produced. Do most people read these books? Have you read Cervantes? Have you read the sonnets of Shakespeare? Have you read Hegel or Nietzsche? Their books are in the library, you have access to them, why have you not familiarized yourself with this literature? (Even if you have, I think you will agree that most people have not. Why?)"

"Every society is held together by certain modes and patterns of communication which control the kind of society it is. One may call them information systems, codes, message networks, or media of communication. Taken together they set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the source of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capabilities that will emerge."

"Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself."

"Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response."

"For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers or Marshall McLuhan's (quite different answers, by the way). This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell."

"For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada."

"From millions of sources all over the globe and beyond, through every possible channel and medium -- light waves, airwaves, ticker tapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, satellites, printing presses -- information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage -- on paper, on video and audio tape, on discs, film, and silicon chips -- is an even greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, we are awash in information. And all the sorcerer has left us is a broom. Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions, but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose... We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms."

"Get rid of textbooks...Why? Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward the truth."

"Great reason for schooling: to provide our youth with the knowledge and will to participate in the great experiment; to teach them how to argue, and to help them discover what questions are worth arguing about."

"Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." ... Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." ...Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." ...the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you ...what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us... There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory."

"Human beings make mistakes? we are capable of correcting our mistakes, providing we proceed without hubris, pride, or dogmatism, providing that we accept our cosmic status as the error prone species."

"Humans live in two worlds ? the world of events and things, and the world of words about events and things."

"I am not a Luddite. I am suspicious of technology. I am perfectly aware of its benefits, but I also try to pay attention to some of the negative effects."

"I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether."

"I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology."

"I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. A new technology helps to fuel the economy, and any discussion of slowing its growth has to take account of economic consequences. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it."

"I mean a story. But not just any story. I think of great stories - stories that are deep and complex enough to offer explanations as to the origin and future of a people; Narratives, set up the ideals of conduct specify, name the sources of authority and create through all of this a dimension of continuity and sense."

"I said at the beginning that I thought there is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication. You, therefore, probably assume that I know something about now to achieve this. Well, I don?t. At least not very much. I know that our present curricula do not even touch on the matter. Neither do our present methods of training teachers. I am not even sure that classrooms and schools can be reformed enough so that critical and lively people can be nurtured there."

"I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anti-communication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville."

"I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions... The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens... The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths... The Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us -- in this hall, in this community, in our city -- there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths... To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday's newspaper. To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior... A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community... Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth."

"If every college teacher taught his courses in the manner we have suggested, there would be no needs for a methods course. Every course would be a course in methods of learning and, therefore, in methods of teaching. For example, a "literature" course would be a course in the process of learning how to read. A history course would be a course in the process of learning how to do history. And so on. But this is the most farfetched possibility of all since college teachers, generally speaking, are more fixated on the Trivia game, than any group of teachers in the educational hierarchy. Thus we are left with the hope that, if methods courses could be redesigned to be model learning environments, the educational revolution might begin. In other words, it will begin as soon as there are enough young teachers who sufficiently despise the crippling environments they are employed to supervise to want to subvert them. The revolution will begin to be visible when such teachers take the following steps (many students who have been through the course we have described do not regard these as "impractical"): 1. Eliminate all conventional "tests" and "testing." 2. Eliminate all "courses." 3. Eliminate all "requirements." 4. Eliminate all full time administrators and administrations. 5. Eliminate all restrictions that confine learners to sitting still in boxes inside of boxes...the conditions we want to eliminate... happen to be the sources of the most common obstacles to learning. We have largely trapped ourselves in our schools into expending almost all of our energies and resources in the direction of preserving patterns and procedures that make no sense even in their own terms. They simply do not produce the results that are claimed as their justification in the first place ? quite the contrary. If it is practical to persist in subsidizing at an ever-increasing social cost a system which condemns our youth to ten or 12 or 16 years of servitude in a totalitarian environment ostensibly for the purpose of training them to be fully functioning, self-renewing citizens of democracy, then we are vulnerable to whatever criticisms that can be leveled."