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College Quarterly
Fall 1993 - Volume 1 Number 1
Amusing Ourselves To Death
Neil Postman
Toronto: Penguin Books, 1985

Neil Postman
New York: Vintage, 1993
Reviewed by David Mode

Neil Postman first came to the attention of educators when he wrote, in collaboration with Charles Weingartner, a 60s pedagogical classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity. His work since then has enhanced his reputation as a cultural critic.

Show business has invaded all aspects of our lives, from politics to personal relations. Post-McLuhan communicators might find little new in such a revelation. But in Amusing Ourselves to Death, when Postman tells us of the transformation from a “word” to an “entertainment” culture, he is singularly successful in explaining the significance of such observations for contemporary education.

Postman raises fundamental issues about the psychological impact of an entertainment culture on the developing brain, and about the social implications of the consequent proliferation and trivialization of information. Shorter attention spans, deteriorated reading skills, and weakened problem-solving abilities all can be at least partially explained by his theory that visual images have replaced the written word as our primary means of understanding ourselves and our world.

Television produces a “peek-a-boo” world in which events momentarily pop into view and as quickly vanish. This markedly degrades our ability to understand issues in depth, to appreciate complexity and nuance, and to recognise the historical context in which events take place. A ba-lanced view of the “entertainment society” suggests that despite greater access to more information, our analytical capability has been critically weakened. Canadians can be forgiven if they hear echoes of George Grant in much that Postman says.

As author and as technology critic on CBC’s Morningside, Postman has elucidated the relation-ship between communications and power. In Technopoly, he shows us how education and medicine, and business and literature have surrendered themselves to the homogenizing power of technological thought and language.

Postman is most useful when he speaks of curriculum. Modern schooling’s failure, he says, is not that it does not pass on enough information to make students culturally literate, but that it does not give our youth "a sense of coherence in their studies, a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness in what they learn. “Modern education,” he says, “is failing because it has nomoral, social, or intellectual center It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it is a person who pos-sesses ‘skills.’ In other words the technocrat’s ideal - a person with no commitment and no point of view, but with plenty of marketable skills.”

This is scary stuff, for there are many who would prefer to make their own narrow morality the heart of the curriculum. Postman is aware of this, but goes on to posit a humanistic core that would produce genuine cultural literacy. He proposes “a curriculum in which all subjects are presented as a stage in humanity’s historical development; in which the philosophies of science, of history, of language, of technology, and of religion are taught; and in which there is a strong emphasis on classical forms of artistic expression. This is a curriculum,” he correctly affirms, “that goes ‘back to the basics,’ but not quite in the way the technocrats mean it.”

Although his optimistic pleas for a humane rationalism, for the encouragement of “the loving resistance fighter” against technological hegemony, may strike some as simplistic and romantic, they may remain our last, best hope.

David Model teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College.