Postman (1931-2003): Amusing ourselves to death
New York University’s Neil Postman was one of the first academics to put his foot through the TV screen and subsequent screen-based computer culture. Although best known for his work on television as a cultural and educational force, he has a much wider reach into the broader issues of teaching and schooling.
Technology can impress but oppress
He warns us against the unthinking adoption of technology and schooling without purpose and values. His voice is a valuable antidote to the unthinking adoption of technology in learning. Electronic media may be all pervasive, this is not to say that it is always good for learning and cultural development. In this sense, he is in line with McLuhan in seeing the medium as a force as important as the message but he is much more judgemental than McLuhan.
Amusement is not learning
In his wonderfully titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman warns us against mistaking the rhetoric of a broadcast medium for learning. Stripped of dialogue, the flow of television strips us of our ability to reflect, think, deduce and resolve issues. As a top-down medium It simplifies, caricatures and stops us from learning. This attack on pedagogy which relies on long, linear media, such as the one hour lecture, TV programmes and overlong video is sound. Psychologically, the suspension of disbelief one finds in TV and film is not often useful if prolonged, as the mind does not have time to stop, reflect, record and retain the knowledge. It can be fun, and create the illusion of learning, but it’s mostly a forgetting game.
Where Postman fails is in carrying this critique over to new asynchronous media such as YouTube and iTunes has solved this problem, by replacing the idea of the half-hour or one hour programmes, whose length, like the one hour lecture, is designed for scheduling rather than learning. YouTube has shown us that video content needs to be as long as it needs to be, the shorter the better, in line with the maxim that, in learning, less is more.
However, his main argument is that teaching, as a form of dialogue, is being replaced by entertainment or amusement. It is not clear that teaching was or is a dialogue-based activity. The staple one hour lecture in higher education and endless presentations and talking by teachers in other contexts suggest that it is far from a dialogue-driven activity. John Hattie, the master of evidence-based teaching, shows that teachers talk 70-80% of the time and the most common activity in the classroom with children is ‘pretending to listen’.
However, there is something in this argument about amusement, and while the affective or emotional element is important in learning, this can descend into fun for the sake of fun. Humour is surprisingly resistant to retention and the adrenaline driven world of games, along with the additional cognitive load of knowing the rules and extraneous activity, may not result in productive learning. Similar arguments can be put forward for social networking, where it is easy to get sucked into bouts of casual communication.
He introduced an interesting concept around media use, the idea that media distances us from relevant, largely local information that leads to action. We become desensitised consumers of information that diminishes our social role. It is a promising concept, that of media relevance, but Postman, as usual derives and ought from an is and sees media as having moral import. This theme, of the deluded masses, deafened by the din of information goes way back, and its rise between 1800-1939 is well documented in John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. Postman didn’t live long enough to see that social media brings this ratio into play, with its focus on social groups and action. The Arab Spring, for example, would surely out social networking beyond his critique.
The Disappearance of Childhood
Another cardinal theme in his work is the effect of media on childhood. In The Disappearance of Childhood and Childhood: Can It Be Preserved, he identifies the creation of childhood (7-17) with print and reading, certainly since the Renaissance. Television, he claims, destroys that idea of childhood and blurs the adult/child distinction, making children behave like adults and adults like children. Like many of Postman’s big arguments, he takes a grain of credibility and universalises it into a general statement about an entire medium or culture.
This is an interesting argument as one could argue that the internet with its culture of games, social networking and mobiles, may well be reintroducing the separation of children from adults in the way that Postman claims happened with print. Alternatively this may be no more than a temporary phase, as young adopters turn into adults and the demographic of technology use drift upwards.
Schools, he states, along with the family, protect us from this unthinking adoption of technology. They preserve the values of childhood, rooted as they are in the culture of teaching, dialogue and print. This is not to say that schools are all good. Schooling is simply the best we have come up with as a form of introduction to the adult world. In The End of Education he defines the role of schools as both dissemination of values and knowledge as well as the skills of reflection, critique and debate, but fears the effects of technology and claims to see the tangible evidence of decline.
He is right factually, in that schools do preserve a sense of extended childhood but it is not clear that this is necessarily a good thing. Of course, schools have always used technology, from pens, pencils, paper, books, blackboards, slates, whiteboards and now computers. This is entirely reasonable. To isolate schools from the real world is to keep children in a state of isolation, something he accuses media of doing to adults.
Technopoly – culture of consumption
His wider research into technology in culture is well represented by Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Technology is both good and bad. It becomes dangerous when we look to it for the authentification of our culture or allow it to determine our lives through the joy of consumption. He is a jealous guardian of the culture of print and reading and has grounded much of his theory in a defence of the language of dialogue against the language of technology and consumerism. It is through reading, he thinks, that our true educational development takes place.
This is disingenuous. It is to identify, and therefore confuse, text with print and paper. A printed book is a physical delivery mechanism, the text its real contents. New media have separated the two and made the entire canon available, largely for free as downloadable texts. One could also argue that there has been a renaissance in reading and writing with the advent of computer and mobile technology. Young people write far more frequently than they ever did in the past. They txt, email, post and comment on social media. Postman is far too quick to pounce on new media, when it supports many of the virtues he espouses.
In a general sense, technology has freed us from the chains of physical labour, disease and poverty. As usual Postman sees the piston of technology as half empty rather than half full.
We should not mistake Postman’s critiques of television and other media as complete condemnation. He is not, as some claim, a simple reactionary. He is asking us to think deeply about the effects of technology on both learning and culture. To read Postman is to read a sharp mind who knows how to challenge lazy assumptions with deep questions. Technology can both impress and oppress. He is careful to defend the traditional without being naively conservative. On the other hand he is does seem to fall into the trap of seeing anything old as intrinsically good and anything new as intrinsically bad, which limits his analysis.
Postman, Neil (1982). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte.
Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin.
Postman, Neil (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf.
Postman, Neil (1997). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Knopf.