Tag Archives: Neil Postman

What We Needed to Think About

What we needed to know about cars … is not how to use them but how they use us. In the case of cars, what we needed to think about in the early twentieth century was not how to drive them but what they would do to our air, our landscape, our social relations, our family life and our cities.

Neil Postman

The World Turns to Dust Before Our Eyes

If a television viewer has relatives in Mexico City and an earthquake occurs there, then she may take an interest in the images of destruction as a report from a specific place and time. That is, she may look to television news for information about an important event. But film of an earthquake can still be interesting if the viewer cares nothing about the event itself. Which is only to say that there is another way of participating in the news – as a spectator who desires to be entertained. Actually to see buildings topple is exciting, no matter where the buildings are. The world turns to dust before our eyes.

—Neil Postman, “The News,” Conscientious Objections

Taking TV Seriously

I raise no objection to television’s junk. The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do. The trouble with such people is that they do not take television seriously enough. For, like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial.

—Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Killing More People

I try to remind myself that during the last two decades men with PhDs in the humanities and social sciences, many of them working for the Pentagon, have been responsible for killing more people in any given week than the Mafia has managed since its inception.

—Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections

Several “Bizarre” Proposals

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner offer a series of “proposals that attempt to change radically the nature of the existing school environment. Most of them will strike you as thoroughly impractical but only because you will have forgotten for the moment that the present system is among the most impractical imaginable, if the facilitation of learning is your aim.”

Though the book was written in 1969, many of their proposals still strike me as relevant. Some of the proposals I especially like include

4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” well to write a book on it. In this way, he will be relieved of the necessity of inflicting his knowledge on other people, particularly his students.

and

10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public. There would be a “smart” group (the Bluebirds), an “average” group (the Robins), and a “dumb” group (the Sandpipers). The lists would be published each year in the community paper. The I.Q. and reading scores of teachers would also be published, as well as the list of those who are “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” by virtue of what they know in relation to what their students know.

Number 10 is related to number 11:

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know. Only if a teacher passes this test should he be permitted to “teach.” This test could be used for “grouping” the teachers as in number 10 above.

(I know quite a few teachers who would struggle to pass such a test.)

My favorite three proposals, however, have got to be numbers 12, 13, and 14. Here’s number 12:

12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes. This proposal would simply put the teacher on a par with other professionals, e.g., doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. No one forces you to go to a particular doctor unless you are a “clinic case.” In that instance, you must take what you are given. Our present system makes a “clinic case” of every student. Bureaucrats decide who shall govern your education. In this proposal, we are restoring the American philosophy: no clients, no money; lots of clients, lots of money.

And here’s number 13:

13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education. Such an experience can be take as evidence, albeit shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life. Recommended occupations: bartender, cab driver, garment worker, waiter. One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as “teachers”) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.

As good as those last two are, proposal 14 is my absolute favorite:

14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being. If the teacher can get someone to say, “I love her (or him),” she should be retained. If she can get two people to say it, she should get a raise. Spouses need not be excluded from testifying.

The authors acknowledge that some people might find number 14 “facetious, if not flippant,” but they ask readers to consider “What kinds of evidence must teachers presently offer to qualify for their jobs? A list of ‘courses.’ Which of these requirements strikes you as more bizarre? From the student’s point of view, which requirement would seem more practical? Bear in mind that it is a very difficult thing for one person to learn anything significant from another. Bear in mind, too, that it is probably not possible for such learning to occur unless there is something resembling a loving relationship between ‘teacher’ and learner.”