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Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
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The Legacy of Neil Postman

by Michael Kompf

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Postman & Weingartner, 1969) hooked me on Neil Postman’s writing and ways of thinking. It happened near the bottom of the second page of the first chapter. In the early 1960’s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a “great writer”. As the interviewer offered a list of possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked. “Isn’t there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?” Hemingway replied, “Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in shockproof crap detector” (p. 20).

Finding the word “crap” in a book written for educators in 1969 provided an adolescent thrill similar to discovering the “F” word in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In spite of generation gaps then and now, “crap” was and is a powerful word that unceremoniously discredits and transports much unnecessary rhetoric, posturing and merely silly communication out of thought and mind. I recall wondering, if Postman and Weingartner got away with the effective transformation of a potty word early in their manuscript, what might await further on. I was not disappointed. The final sentences of Teaching as a Subversive Activity articulated the goal of working towards a new education that would see all learners “develop built-in shockproof crap detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits” (p. 220) that would help them learn how to learn. Postman retained this goal and wrote often and well in its pursuit. The idea of a philosophical-sociological-psychological device intended to detect disjunctions and deeper meanings in what is taught, and how and why it is taught, seems fundamental to real learning whether in classrooms or in personal activities. Reflective deliberation (as we might call crap-detecting) can serve as a lens to examine others and their ideas, or as a mirror for critical self-appraisal. Its power is magnified exponentially when taught to others as a tool for critical thinking, action, and the assessment of human cost and implications.

Neil Postman died on October 5, 2003 at age 72. In an AlterNet testimonial Jim Benning observed that the media hype surrounding California’s recall election and the political marketing of a film star caused his passing to receive less attention than it deserved. Benning implied that such irony would not have been wasted on Postman, as much of his thought and writing anticipated the triumph of form and appearance over substance. As he said: "Indeed… we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control." Such a comment was vintage Postman and cut through the fluff and stuff of social constructions.

Postman was a prolific writer sharing elegance of thought and expression through twenty or so books and many articles and interviews. All are worthwhile reading, pondering at length, and then sharing with listeners, willing and unwilling. Of Postman’s work, three books stand out as statements of critical importance. In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), he elaborated Huxley’s warnings that understanding the politics and epistemology of media are necessary to avoid the consequence of developing a culture that is mere burlesque. In Technopoly (1993), he examined the cost and consequence of technology as its progress marked the development of human nature and society. Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (1999) is especially noteworthy as he looked enviously at the instructions and principles offering a “humane direction to the future” through the hopeful attitude and remarkable progress achieved during the age of the Enlightenment.

He was more durable than the canary in the coal mine, as he communicated warnings and cautioned about the unthinking acceptance of what is new, better and faster, simply because it is new, better and faster. Jay Walljasper (2000) cited Postman:

“I think the single most important lesson we should have learned in the past twenty years … is that technological progress is not the same thing as human progress. Technology always comes at a price. This is not to say that one should be, in a blanket way, against technological change. But it is time for us to be grownups, to understand if technology gives us something, it will take away something. It is not an unmixed blessing. We have to go into the future with our eyes wide open.”

Postman’s eyes were wide open, something that caused him to lament unceasingly the fate of those who uncritically accepted media constructed world views at the expense of intellectual, social and cultural literacy. Postman frequently cited Marshall McLuhan, providing more fertile ground for debate over the principles and practices of media and manipulation. Postman was the boy who saw through the Emperor’s Clothes and grew into an articulately indignant educator and social consumer. His academic life was spent identifying opportunities for questioning the transformation of relevance and meaning through language, and exploring the possible ways for education and learning to meet the future while conserving the nobler ethics that define the sharing and caring of human intellectual inquisitiveness.

In The End of Education (1995), Postman posed a series of questions about media, technology, and the ways in which information and learning were packaged and what effects they have had and will continue to have. The questions for the most part have yet to be thoroughly unpacked, debated, and considered for consequence to Postman’s satisfaction. The questions are: “Do television and computer technology limit or expand opportunities for authentic and substantive freedom of expression? Do new media create a global village, or force people to revert to tribal identities? Do new media make schools obsolete, and create new conceptions of education?” (p. 141). Taking Postman’s legacy seriously means that researchers, teachers, and others must each think with care and caution as they approach these issues. The prospect of naïve individualism combined with Postman’s educational and social conservatism emphasized the necessity of critical awareness. The idea that open discussion in the context of an established community was not merely “groupthink” contrasts with the construction and maintenance of critical levels of individual awareness for which Postman hoped. Groupthink does have the tendency to develop gilt plate and form its own filter system. Assaying the distinctions between gold and crap must consider message, messenger, and medium and determining the differences between carat and shtick.

Postman must have been aware of the discomfort critical thought and discourse can create in forums of academic interaction. He seemed to deal with his own discomfort and that of others through further refinement of the communication of his concerns and observations. Central to his work, both as scholar and as critic, was the study of meaning and the way it develops and acts as developer of social beings. He was aware of and concerned about how intellectual pursuit is bound and confounded by the vagaries of language and issues related to the clarity of communication. Understanding the simultaneous liberations and limitations of differences between and among people of different backgrounds, skills, and world-views was for Postman the frontier that awaits.

“I'd say the most pervasive intellectual idea of this century (one finds it in physics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, almost everything else) is that the form in which we express whatever we have to express about the world controls to some extent what we are saying and what we can see. You find this in Heisenberg's remark that we do not see nature as it is, only by the questions we put to it. And you find in linguistics people discovering that different grammatical forms give people different perceptions of how the universe works. Some people say "We don't see things as they are but as we are. It's this idea which I think is the major thrust of scholarship in our own century.” (Neil Postman in an interview with Modern Reformation Newsletter, 1995)
Thank you Neil Postman for the crap detector plans and teaching us that questions should always come before answers. Thank you for teaching us by example about humanity in scholarship. Thank you for accessible knowledge expressed in ways that can be re-read not only for more learning but for the sheer delight of your eloquent wordplay. Thank you for your wisdom.

“Knowledge cannot judge itself. Knowledge must be judged by other knowledge, and therein lies the essence of wisdom” (Postman, 1999, p. 95).

References

Benning, J. (2003) “Remembering Neil Postman” AlterNet, October 10.
Modern Reformation Newsletter (1995)Sept/Oct.
Postman, N. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin.
Postman, N. (1993) Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage.
Postman, N. (1995) The End of Education. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Postman, N. (1999) Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. New York: Vintage.
Postman, N & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell.
Walljasper, J. (2000) “Neil Postman is No Progressive” Conscious Choice, January.


Michael Kompf, Faculty of Education, Brock University

Thanks to Howard Doughty, Ken Kehl and Andrew Short for their insightful comments.

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