Neil Postman's new title is deliberately ambiguous. He argues for the genuine purpose or “end” of education. He also warns of reformers whose “hyperactive fantasies” regard traditional education as obsolete. For them, the functions of schooling are served by 21st century technology and thus education ends.
In The End of Education Postman reveals the false premises of technology-mediated learning. He discloses the secular religion of futurism and the trinity it adores. Its gods are “Economic Utility, Consumership and Technology”; they would replace civility, inquiry and imagination.
The new godhead has problems. The litany of the information age is rootless. Cliche builds upon slogan and slogan evokes buzzword until the 21st century “cheerleaders” are consumed in their own hyperbabble. “In this vision,” says Postman dryly, “there is a confident and typical sense of unreality,” for schools now teach less and the economy wants less teaching. “Since 1980,” he reminds us, “the largest increase in jobs has been for those with relatively low skills - for example, waiters, porters, salespeople, taxi drivers.”
Hallucinations (staring out Windows©?) can be important. Taken seriously, their distortions threaten locally and globally. Says Postman: what the technophiles are “talking about is not a new technology but a new species of child.” With spellcheck, a calculator and Internet access, this novel humanoid may be illiterate, innumerate and uncivil, but it will be empowered to spend relentlessly what revenue it derives from the new cottage industries.
The prospect does not appeal to Neil Postman: “For all its widespread popularity, the God of Economic Utility is impotent to create satisfactory reasons for schooling.” With deskilling and automation only the elite will enjoy full high-tech employment; the rest will crave even under employment for which excellence in education ensures only overqualification.
Depressing as such prospects are, even sadder is our surrender to the “vision” and the “forthright determinism about the imagined world described in it.” Echoing George Grant, Postman recites: “The technology is here or will be; we must use it because it is there; we will become the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology.” So think educators who care nothing for education, who speak of customers and products and markets as though schools were run for profit.
Is this our fate? We cannot know; all prophets are false. But we can accept Postman's first principle (he has 10): “All technological change is a Faustian bargain.” To make the best of our deal with Mephistopheles, we must be attentive. Our students must have technology education. For Postman, “technology education is not a technical subject. It is a branch of the humanities” which probes the relationship between technology and society. It implies no negative attitude toward technology, but it does imply criticism: “To be ‘against technology’”, he explains, “makes no more sense than to be ‘against food.’ We can't live without either.”
Technology education builds on Postman's fifth principle: “Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.” In college, we had better learn (and teach) this lesson quickly. Our technology education could do worse than begin with Faust and Mephistopheles. Goethe anyone?
Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.