Wednesday, August 23, 2017 Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Neil Postman (1931 – 2003)


Prominent American educator, media theorist and cultural critic, associated with New York University for more than forty years.
Neil Postman
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; which is to say, it does not allow inquiry into most of the critical problems that comprise the content of the world outside the school (...one of the main differences between the "advantaged" student and the "disadvantaged" is that the former has an economic stake in giving his attention to the curriculum while the latter does not. In other words, the only relevance of the curriculum for the "advantaged" student is that, if he does what he is told, there will be a tangible payoff.)
Postman quotes
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.
Postman
About the last place any of us can expect to learn anything important about the realities we have to cope with in our wistful pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is a classroom. If we decided that schools must do whatever is necessary to help students to learn the concepts and skills relevant to the nuclear space age, we wouldn't spend much time sitting inside of small boxes inside of boxes — even with all the fancy hardware being developed to jazz up the Trivia contest. It's probably true that most of what we all know we didn't learn in school anyway. Moreover, developments in electronic information processing make the school as it presently exists unnecessary. ..the "new education." Its purpose is to produce people who can cope effectively with change. To date, none of the new "educational technology" has that as its purpose. Remember Santayana's line: Fanaticism consists of redoubling efforts after having forgotten one's aim. The developments in "educational technology" are intended to do all of the old school stuff better... but that's not the aim of the new education.




Postman Neil quotes
Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." ...Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." ...Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." ...the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you ...what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us... There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.
Postman Neil
A reading test measures one's ability to read reading tests, and reading tests are in themselves... somewhat akin to the world of crossword puzzles or Scrabble or the game of twenty questions. Some people play these games well, and all praise is due them for their skill. But if we ask, What aspect of the world do they comprehend in doing these games well? the answer is, Only the world within the games themselves.
Neil Postman quotes
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...
Neil Postman
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?
Postman Neil quotes
A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided. The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion. Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.
Postman
Cultures may be classed into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. ...until the seventeenth century, all cultures were tool-users. ...the main characteristic of all tool-using cultures is that their tools were largely invented to do two things: to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion, as in the construction of castles and cathedrals and the development of the mechanical clock. In either case, tools (...were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced. With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization...
Postman Neil
Print also created new literary forms and altered ideas of literary style. Medieval poetry was conceived for the ear, and each poem had to stand the test of recitation. In addition, medieval audiences were not always interested in the poet himself, since his work was known to them only through the interpretations of minstrels, who frequently rephrased poems to suit their own image and images. The printed page changed these conditions. Slowly, the printed poet came into a new relationship with his reader. He learned not to be so repetitive as his predecessors since a reader could be depended upon to return as often as needed to uncompromised passages. ...After the flowering of dramatic poetry during the Elizabethan Age, the printed page substituted for the theater, and millions of children came to know Shakespeare only through this form.
Neil Postman
Someone needs to mention what may be lost. Of course, one of the problems is that what I would judge to be a negative consequence, someone else might see as a positive consequence. For example, telephones in automobiles seem to me a very bad idea. So does spending a lot of hours "communicating" on the Internet when one could use that time reading Cervantes' Don Quixote.




Neil Postman quotes
We do not know nearly as much as we should about how children learn language, but if there is one thing we can say with assurance it is that knowledge of grammatical nomenclature and skill in sentence-parsing have no bearing whatsoever on the process.
Neil Postman
We no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don't know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.
Postman quotes
Technological competition ignites total war, which means it is not possible to contain the effects of a new technology to a limited sphere of human activity... What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school.
Postman Neil
The Benedictine monks who invented the mechanical clock in the 12th and 13th centuries believed that such a clock would provide a precise regularity to the seven periods of devotion... here is a great paradox: the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; and it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose. ...Gutenberg thought his invention would advance the cause of the Holy Roman See, whereas in fact, it turned out to bring a revolution which destroyed the monopoly of the Church.
Postman Neil quotes
Because of what computers commonly do... With the exception of the electric light, there never has been a technology that better exemplifies Marshall McLuhan's aphorism "The medium is the message." ...the "message" of computer technology is comprehensive and domineering. The computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and professional levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable. ...this is... nonsense. Our most serious problems are not technical, nor do they arise from inadequate information. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it shall not be because of inadequate information. Where people are dying of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing whatever to do with any of these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them.
Neil Postman
If every college teacher taught his courses in the manner we have suggested, there would be no needs for a methods course. Every course would be a course in methods of learning and, therefore, in methods of teaching. For example, a "literature" course would be a course in the process of learning how to read. A history course would be a course in the process of learning how to do history. And so on. But this is the most farfetched possibility of all since college teachers, generally speaking, are more fixated on the Trivia game, than any group of teachers in the educational hierarchy. Thus we are left with the hope that, if methods courses could be redesigned to be model learning environments, the educational revolution might begin. In other words, it will begin as soon as there are enough young teachers who sufficiently despise the crippling environments they are employed to supervise to want to subvert them. The revolution will begin to be visible when such teachers take the following steps (many students who have been through the course we have described do not regard these as "impractical"): 1. Eliminate all conventional "tests" and "testing." 2. Eliminate all "courses." 3. Eliminate all "requirements." 4. Eliminate all full time administrators and administrations. 5. Eliminate all restrictions that confine learners to sitting still in boxes inside of boxes. ...the conditions we want to eliminate... happen to be the sources of the most common obstacles to learning. We have largely trapped ourselves in our schools into expending almost all of our energies and resources in the direction of preserving patterns and procedures that make no sense even in their own terms. They simply do not produce the results that are claimed as their justification in the first place — quite the contrary. If it is practical to persist in subsidizing at an ever-increasing social cost a system which condemns our youth to ten or 12 or 16 years of servitude in a totalitarian environment ostensibly for the purpose of training them to be fully functioning, self-renewing citizens of democracy, then we are vulnerable to whatever criticisms that can be leveled.
Neil Postman quotes
Adminstrators are another curious consequence of a bureaucracy which has forgotten its reason for being. In schools, adminstrators commonly become myopic as a result of confronting all of the problems the "requirements" generate. Thus they cannot see (or hear) the constituents the system ostensibly exists to serve — the students. The idea that the school should consist of procedures specifically intended to help learners learn strikes many administrators as absurd — and "impractical." …Eichmann, after all, was "just an adminstrator." He was merely "enforcing requirements." The idea of "full time administrators" is palpably a bad one — especially in schools — and we say to hell with it. Most of the "administration" of the school should be a student responsibility. If schools functioned according to the democratic ideals they pay verbal allegience to, the students would long since have played a major role in developing policies and procedures guiding its operation. One of the insidious facts about totalitarianism is its seeming "efficiency." ...Democracy — with all of its inefficiency — is still the best system we have so far for enhancing the prospects of our mutual survival. The schools should begin to act as if this were so.
Neil Postman
The world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact ...that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. ...in a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise. ...The medieval world was... not without a sense of order. Ordinary men and women... had no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not rational, at least coherent. ...The situation we are presently in is much different. ...sadder and more confusing and certainly more mysterious. ...There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore... we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.
Postman Neil
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.


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