Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Neil Postman

American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic

"If parents wish to preserve childhood for their own children, they must conceive of parenting as an act of rebellion against culture."

"If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether."

"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."

"If teachers were to take an enthusiastic interest in what language is about, each teacher would have fairly serious problems to resolve. For instance, you can?t identify bullshit the way you identify phonemes. That is why I have called crap-detecting an art. Although subjects like semantics, rhetoric, or logic seem to provide techniques for crap-detecting, we are not dealing here, for the most part, with a technical problem."

"If we continue to read the science or the Scriptures as if they would give us the truth directly and definitively, then all hopes and promises contained therein to dust. A read as a universal truth, not as a human narrative science degenerates to technological slavery. A read as a universal truth, not as a human story Scriptures degenerated into... what? At the Inquisition, Holy War, Holocaust - before fleeing people into despair. Here is destroyed there knowing the hope and deprives us of the possibility of renewal."

"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..."

"In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people ? perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger."

"In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different roder from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us. What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of 'being informed' by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information--misplace, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information--information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, 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. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?"

"In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers."

"In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself."

"In introducing the personal computer to the classroom, we shall be breaking a four-hundred year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word. Orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility... Print stresses individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy. Over four centuries, teachers, while emphasizing print, have allowed orality its place in the classroom, and have therefore achieved a kind of pedagogical peace between these two forms of learning, so that what is valuable in each can be maximized. Now comes the computer, carrying anew the banner of private learning and individual problem-solving. Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?"

"In order to understand what kind of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in a classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that students doin the classroom? Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details. (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called "convergent questions," but what might more simply be called "Guess what I am thinking " questions."

"In plain, what passes for a curriculum in today's schools is little else than a strategy of distraction... It is largely defined to keep students from knowing themselves and their environment in any realistic sense."

"In Russia, writers with serious grievances are arrested, while in America they are merely featured on television talk shows, where all that is arrested is their development."

"In saying no one knew about the ideas implicit in the telegraph, I am not quite accurate. Thoreau knew. Or so one may surmise. It is alleged that upon being told that through the telegraph a man in Maine could instantly send a message to a man in Texas, Thoreau asked, But what do they have to say to each other? In asking this question, to which no serious interest was paid, Thoreau was directing attention to the psychological and social meaning of the telegraph, and in particular to its capacity to change the character of information -- from the personal and regional to the impersonal and global."

"In schools, print shifted the emphasis from oral to written and visual communication. Teachers who had been only partly concerned within instructing their students in how to read became by the mid-sixteenth century concerned with almost nothing else. Since the sixteenth century, the textbook has been a primary source of income for book publishers. Since the sixteenth century, written examinations and written assignments have been an integral part of the methodology of school teaching; and since the sixteenth century, the image of the isolated student who reads and studies by himself, has been the essence of our conception of scholarship. In short, for 400 years Western civilization has lived in what has been characterized as the "Age of Gutenberg." Print has been the chief means of our information flow. Print has shaped our literature and conditioned our responses to literary experience. Print has influenced our conception of the educational process. But ...print no longer "monopolizes man's symbolic environment," to use David Riesman's phrase. That monopoly began to dissolve toward the middle of the nineteenth century, when a more or less continuous stream of media inventions began to make accessible unprecedented quantities of information and created new modes of perception and qualities of aesthetic experience...1839 ...Daguerre developed the first practical method of photography. In 1844, Morse perfected the telegraph. In 1876, Bell transmitted the first telephone message. A year later, Edison invented the phonograph. By 1894, the movies had also been introduced. A year after that, Marconi sent and received the first wireless message. In 1906, Fessenden transmitted the human voice by radio. In 1920, regularly scheduled radio broadcasts began. In 1923, a picture was televised between New York and Philadelphia. In that same year, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden created a totally new idea in magazines with Time. In 1927, the first "talkie" appeared; and in 1923, Disney's first animated cartoon. In 1935, Major E. H. Armstrong developed the FM radio. In 1936 came Life magazine. In 1941, full commercial television was authorized. These are just some of the inventions that form a part of the "communications revolution" through which we are all living. To these, of course could be added the LP record, the tape recorder, the comic strip, the comic book, the paperback book...the point here is ...that the perceptual-cognitive effects on us of the form of these new languages be understood."

"In the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, there appears a remarkable quotation attributed to Michael Welfare, one of the founders of a religious sect known as the Dunkers and a longtime acquaintance of Franklin. the statement had its origins in Welfare's complaint to Franklin that zealots of other religious persuasions were spreading lies about the Dunkers, accusing them of abominable principles to which, in fact, they were utter strangers. Franklin suggested that such abuse might be diminished if the Dunkers published the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline. Welfare replied that this course of action had been discussed among his co-religionists but had been rejected. He then explained their reasoning in the following words: When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors, and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from. Franklin describes this sentiment as a singular instance in the history of mankind of modesty in a sect."

"In the development of intelligence nothing can be more "basic" than learning how to ask productive questions. Many years ago, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Charles Weingartner and I expressed our astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward this language art...The "back to the basics" philosophers rarely mention it, and practicing teachers usually do not find room for it in their curriculums. ?all our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question-asking is our most important intellectual tool? There are at present no reading tests anywhere that measure the ability of students to address probing questions to the particular texts they are reading... What students need to know are the rules of discourse which comprise the subject, and among the most central of such rules are those which govern what is and what is not a legitimate question."

"In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with that growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America."

"In the field of education. I refer to the meaning of the word "basic," ...the meaning given to this word by some educators is not its "real" meaning. The word "basic,"... has been assigned certain meanings in order to further an education philosophy which is thought to be both sensible and effective...neither you nor I are under any obligation to accept their definition of what is "basic." ... In short, the definition of something is usually the starting point of a dispute, not the settlement."

"In the Middle Ages, there was a scarcity of information but its very scarcity made it both important and usable. This began to change, as everyone knows, in the late 15th century when a goldsmith named Gutenberg, from Mainz, converted an old wine press into a printing machine, and in so doing, created what we now call an information explosion...Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since."

"In the United States, we can see such collisions everywhere... but... most clearly in the schools, where two great technologies confront each other in uncompromising aspect for the control of students' minds. On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response. Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television...children who cannot organize their thought into logical structure even in a simple paragraph, children who cannot attend to lectures or oral explanations for more than a few minutes at a time... They are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side ? at least for the moment."

"Inanity: This is a form of talk which pays a large but, I would think, relatively harmless role in our personal lives. But with the development of the mass media, inanity has suddenly emerged as a major form of language in public matters. The invention of new and various kinds of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues. Many of these people are entertainers. The press and air waves are filled with the featured and prime-time statements from people who are in no position to render informed judgments on what they are talking about and yet render them with elan and, above all, sincerity. Inanity, then, is ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity."

"It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that."

"It is always necessary to provide a balance to the information biases of a culture. Such biases, if left unchecked, are tyrannies, closing off our awareness of different metaphors of the world and of different opportunities for understanding and expression. Societies strangle themselves by unrelieved information bigotry... It is the main business of education to know what these biases are and to know what to balance them with. I shall go so far as to say that the subject of education consists of little else than the analysis of communication forms, the interpretation of their psychological and social effects, and the development of school environments which supply a balance to such effects."

"It is certain that no culture can flourish without narratives of transcendent origin and power."

"It is not entirely true that a TV producer or reporter has complete control over the contents of programs. The interests and inclinations of the audience have as much to do with the what is on television as do the ideas of the producer and reporter."

"It is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not. A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away."

"It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions."

"It is precisely through one's learning about the total context in which the language of a subject is expressed that personality may be altered. If one learns how to speak history or mathematics or literary criticism, one becomes, by definition, a different person. The point to be stressed is that a subject is a situation in which and through which people conduct themselves, largely in language. You cannot learn a new form of conduct without changing yourself."

"It may come as a surprise to our technocrat philosophers, but people do not read, write, speak, or listen primarily for the purpose of achieving a test score. They use language in order to conduct their lives, and to control their lives, and to understand their lives."

"It seems to me one needs, first and foremost, to have a keen sense of the ridiculous. Maybe I mean to say, a sense of our impending death. About the only advantage that comes from our knowledge of the inevitability of death is that we know that whatever is happening is going to go away. Most of us try to put this thought out of our minds, but I am saying that it ought to be kept firmly there, so that we can fully appreciate how ridiculous most of our enthusiasms and even depressions are."

"It would be a serious mistake to think of Billy Graham or any other television revivalist as a latter-day Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney. Edwards was one of the most brilliant and creative minds ever produced by America. His contribution to aesthetic theory was almost as important as his contribution to theology. His interests were mostly academic; he spent long hours each day in his study. He did not speak to his audiences extemporaneously. He read his sermons, which were tightly knit and closely reasoned expositions of theological doctrine"

"Language education ... may achieve what George Bernard Shaw asserted is the function of art."

"Like moral theology, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again... The purpose of social research is to rediscover the truths of social life; to comment on and criticize the moral behavior of people; and finally, to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity. Specifically, the purpose of media ecology is to tell stories about the consequences of technology; to tell how media environments create contexts that may change the way we think or organize our social life, or make us better or worse, or smarter or dumber, or freer or more enslaved. I feel sure the reader will pardon a touch of bias when I say that the stories media ecologists have to tell are rather more important than those of other academic storytellers -- because the power of communication technology to give shape to people's lives is not a matter that comes easily to the forefront of people's consciousness, though we live in an age when our lives -- whether we like it or not -- have been submitted to the demanding sovereignty of new media. And so we are obliged, in the interest of a human survival, to tell tales about what sort of paradise may be gained, and what sort lost. We will not have been the first to tell such tales. But unless our stories ring true, we may be the last."

"Many decisions about the form and content of news programs are made on the basis of information about the viewer, the purpose of which is to keep the viewers watching so that they will be exposed to the commercials"

"Marx understood well that the press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience."

"Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement."

"New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop... Something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is -- in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly."

"New technologies, long-standing information problem upside down were: People once information in real environments themselves order to direct clung to, now, in fact useless information apparently will be useful contexts create are forced to."

"No one I have ever known is so brilliant as to have learned the languages of all fields of knowledge equally well. Most of us do not learn some of them at all."

"Nonetheless, I persist in believing that it is not beyond your profession to invent ways to educate youth along these lines. (Because) there is no more precious environment than our language environment. And even if you know you will be dead soon, that?s worth protecting."

"Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions."

"Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since."

"Of all things to be learned, in school or out, languaging, as I prefer to call the process, is least like a mechanical skill. It is, in fact, the most intimate, integrated, emotion-laden learning we do. At no point can we separate what we know and what we are from how our linguistic powers develop."

"Of course, in television's presentation of the news of the day, we may see the Now...this mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment."

"Of writing that is filled with mechanical and grammatical error, as compared with writing that conforms to the rules of standard edited English. Surely, we do not want to say that there is a necessary correlation between mechanical and editorial accuracy and intellectual substance. There are many books that are mechanically faultless but which contain untrue, unclear, or even nonsensical ideas. Carefully edited writing tells us, not that the writer speaks truly, but that he or she grasps... the manner in which knowledge is usually expressed. The most devastating argument against a paper that is marred by grammatical and rhetorical error is that the writer does not understand the subject."

"On television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound, sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence."

"On the god of consumerism: whoever dies with the most toys, wins."

"Once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is -- that is to say, when we admit a technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open."