Neil Postman Always Rings Twice

After my mother died, in cleaning out her house I went through my father’s old books, pulling out the ones that I might find of use in my own writing and teaching. Among those was a dusty paperback of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s 1969 Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I returned to it recently, remembering it from my father’s time and and appreciating it for what it offers today. Toward the end, the authors present a list of eleven things a teacher can do to improve education. The ninth of these struck me as particularly significant for the contemporary classroom:

Anyone interested in helping students deal with the future (not to mention the present) would naturally be concerned, even preoccupied, with media of communication…. [F]ocus on the question “In what ways are media affecting our society?”… No matter what “subject” you are teaching, media are relevant…. You might bear in mind that your students are quite likely to be more perceptive and even more knowledgeable about the structure and meaning of newer media than you.

Postman, toward the end of his life, warned against reliance on the personal computer for education, seeing it as a distraction from the group work and socialization that are critical to learning and to education as a cornerstone to society. This interests me today, when people like Clay Shirky restrict the use of technology in their classrooms. Personally, I don’t, for I see the devices not as barriers to interaction but as tools for interaction—but I can see the other side.

My father was quite influenced by Postman and probably lost his job at Hamilton College in 1970 in part because he tried to implement Postman and Weingartner’s suggestions. He ended up moving to the much more innovative (at the time) City University of New York, to Kingsborough Community College at the far south end of Brooklyn.

Postman would influence me, too, particularly through Amusing Ourselves to Death which, though I don’t always agree with it, influenced my vision of the impact of changing media and the digital revolution on the United States.

Today, circling back to this earlier work of his, he’s influencing me again, and and I am beginning to wonder if he hasn’t influenced me in a somewhat subliminal way since I returned to teaching fourteen years ago. After all, like my father did, I teach on a CUNY campus (though at the other end of Brooklyn). And, I’ve discovered, the belief behind my own struggles to help change American education can be summed up by the last paragraph of Postman and Weingartner’s book:

The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we all must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the questing-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called “learning how to learn.” This comprises a posture of stability from which to deal fruitfully with change. The purpose is to help all students develop built-in, shockproof crap detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits.

Postman, obviously, continues to ride his circuit, stopping by from time to time to deliver his messages once more.

3 thoughts on “Neil Postman Always Rings Twice

  1. I am not sure if you meant to give the distance between the two ends of Brooklyn such emphasis, but I am guessing that readers from many other parts of the country are wondering how much difference it can possibly make to be teaching at a college at one end of Brooklyn or the other.

    I know that in the vertical city, cultural distances often far exceed geographical distances. But I am sure that someone in Texas is thinking, it’s not like someone is going from El Paso to Texarkana.

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