Whether it be in the context of public schools, private schools, home-centered education, co-ops, or learning pods, revisiting Neil Postman’s vision will help foster humane education in our Zoom World.

It was nearly sixty years ago when famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan penned The Gutenburg Galaxy as “a series of historical observations” regarding the cultural impacts “first of literacy, and then of printing” (5). Then came Neil Postman, a McLuhan mentee who extended the analysis further to television, computers, and the nascent internet at the 20th century’s twilight. Contemporary philosopher Byung-Chul Han similarly offers a careful analysis of more recent developments in social media and digital life. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, he writes in that “the efficiency and convenience of digital communication are leading us to avoid direct contact with real people” and that such “digitality radically… dismantles the real” (22). A year of COVID-19 life in the Zoom Universe and Webex World has radically accelerated the dismantling of the real to which he refers. Digital fatigue deepens as the elemental longing for real presence grows—a real presence that can never be replaced by screen-mediated telepresence.

Education has especially bumped up against the limits of online learning and virtual meetings this past year, as the loss of full embodied presence between student and teacher seems to jam the signals of the educational process. With the internet and computer as the primary delivery mechanisms utilized during COVID-19 by many schools across the country, the transactional model of education becomes further entrenched as “logging in” and clicking “submit assignment” become the sorry replacements for real learning.

Though almost twenty years have passed since Postman’s death, his educational prognosis remains remarkably prescient, and his proposals can breathe new life into our educational efforts as COVID-19 restrictions lift. Whether it be in the context of public schools, private schools, home-centered education, co-ops, or learning pods, revisiting Postman’s vision will help foster humane education in our Webex World.

Postman’s Prognosis for Education

For Postman, technology always offered a Faustian bargain; that is, technology most certainly gives, but it also takes away. In the 1990s Postman wrote that society had become a technopoly, a stage of civilization where the control of industrial resources, the reform of financial institutions, and the reorganization of social systems are all based on the findings of technologists and engineers. A technopoly enthrones technique and technology as primary ways of not just knowing, but also being. This, Postman argued, degrades education into a transactional and mechanistic system, driven by accompanying educational narratives, which he called the myth of technological progress and economic utility. Within such a framework, education is primarily directed toward economic ends, where students are fungible commodities being prepared for the 21st-century workforce.

Further impact of this economic and technological vision for education is found in the unconditional embrace of technological progress and its provision of greater and more efficient information access. This myth is reflected in the primacy of STEM in current educational policies and the push for technological competence and “one-to-one” device initiatives across the country. But as Todd Oppenheimer documents in The Flickering Mind, technological solutions to educational problems have consistently underperformed. Radio, film, television, and other technologies were supposed to revolutionize education, but failed to deliver in any significant way (3-61).

In a 1990 address titled “Informing Ourselves to Death,” Postman said, “Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better.… The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems.” But Postman consistently argued that information access should not be, nor ever has been, the primary function of a school. For centuries there has been access to more information than any one person could learn. The real challenge comes in knowing what to do with that information: how to organize it, think about it, and fit it into a coherent worldview. The idea of a curriculum is exactly that; a way to divide and package the most useful subjects of knowledge into a unified whole that gives students the best education possible and offers them a compelling view of the world.

But while the curriculum became more uniform across the country through national standards and federal Department of Education initiatives, Postman pointed out that it no longer functioned as a unified course of study with an intellectual or moral center that clearly put forward what it means to be an educated person. Instead, it became a conglomeration of unrelated subjects and facts designed to give students marketable skills (63, 186). Without a coherent curriculum and accompanying mythic story, schooling loses its center, sending students spinning out of orbit where they end up stuck in a narcissistic meta-loop of the digital self. COVID-19 schooling has intensified this iterative process with increased reliance on the screen. Concurrently, student failure rates have ballooned across the country, leaving all parties involved hoping for something more. Postman would not be surprised by the generally dismal results of online learning during COVID-19. And though decades old, his educational proposals still offer intriguing solutions that can help bring students back into the humane orbit of the real.

Postman’s Proposals for Education

To begin with, Postman suggested serious thought be undertaken before any technology is employed in the classroom: “every technology—from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer—is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control” (184-185). Whether it be a film strip, computer, Chromebook, or smartphone, educators cannot be too cautious about implementation, and should always maintain “an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural” (185).

Postman’s technological skepticism led him to conclude that true education is ultimately a very low-tech endeavor, a journey of dialogue, where one person leads another. This can be seen in the Latin roots of the English word education, educere, which means to lead out—as in leading one out of the limiting shadows of Plato’s cave into the liberating experience of reality. The teacher’s aspiration is leading students into further experience of the real—into the world of embodied meaning—not keeping them in the cave of digital shadows. Postman proposed several ideas that still hold promising potential to address our current educational moment.

1. Teach all subjects historically. Central to the Postman prospectus is that all subjects within the curriculum be taught with the wide-angle lens of historical and philosophical perspective. Providing this overarching outlook helps students fit knowledge together. Each subject would unfold together in unison: Developments in math and science are linked to art and literature; events in philosophy and religion are connected to politics and culture.

“Every teacher,” Postman explains in Technopoly, “must be a history teacher.” He explains,

To teach, for example, what we know about biology today without also teaching what we once knew, or thought we knew, is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product. It is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what we know, and of how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli, to teach about music without Haydn, is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. It is to deny them knowledge of their roots, about which no other social institution is at present concerned. (190)

Imagine the depth of knowledge students would develop if all subjects spiraled together chronologically through time—the unfolding story of each subject and its contributions to the human drama made inspiringly clear. Furthermore, with all subjects taught from a historical perspective, the subject of history itself is loosed from the fetters of facts, dates, and events to actually do the work of historians in presenting points of view, theories of history, and comparative histories, which makes the study of history more engaging for students. This also allows for students to refine and hone the logical and rhetorical skills necessary in being a well-rounded person.

2. Don’t teach how to use technology; teach how it uses us. Postman suggested that the subject of technology itself be taught historically. Students need a serious form of technology education, but not in how to use technology—students are already technologically more adept than their teachers, and predicting which skills will still be relevant when students reach the workplace is nearly impossible. Instead, by tackling the philosophy and history of technology, students can learn of humanity’s confrontation with nature and of technology’s impacts on culture and society. Postman’s technology education makes technology itself an object of inquiry, so that students are “more interested in asking questions about the computer than in getting answers from it” (294).

3. Teach “languaging.” Postman’s curriculum included something he termed languaging, which includes the art of asking questions, how to speak, how to listen, and how to write. All of this would be taught within the context of each subject, so that the language skills unique to each subject could be understood and applied appropriately. Explicit teaching in this area—what was classically called grammar, logic, and rhetoric—is much needed to develop well-rounded, thinking human beings. While most schools jettisoned such an approach generations ago, Postman argues that languaging is at the core of critical thinking and self-development, as “improved language behavior originates in the deepest need to express one’s personality and knowledge, and to do so with variety, control, and precision. Once such a need has been aroused and cultivated, the resources of language, including its mechanics, become objects of intense interest and are apt to be both satisfying and easy to grasp” (27).

Rediscovering an Education Few of Us Received

Postman’s analysis is perhaps more relevant now than when it first appeared decades ago, and is further corroborated by the experiences of COVID-19 schooling. Humans are not economic plug-and-play devices downloading information from their teachers, preparing for the job market. Humans are not disembodied spirits hovering in the shadowy regions of the internet, clicking their way to college. Postman calls us back to education’s low-tech core as a better way to secure human flourishing. To counter the pervasive technological worldview, Postman suggests focusing on the topics and texts that have stood the test of time, and their ordinary transmission through dialogue and discussion where words are spoken, read, written, and shared. He advises we learn the story of each subject with its unfolding through the centuries to ground us in something more stable than ourselves or the whims of current political and popular opinion.

The Postman prospectus is not a novelty. It stands the test of time because it closely correlates with the best of humanity’s educational endeavors found in the classical tradition. Finding ways to implement these ideas in our varied contexts helps us fight what Byung-Chul Han calls the dismantling of the real. When education’s driving force is human-to-human interaction—small in scale, personal in nature, historical in focus—we can better treasure the fully human ways of knowing and being that were familiar to generations past. These are the foods that nourish and strengthen humanity to resist the totalizing effects of the ubiquitous screen. Such an education and structure of living necessitates creative measures and might require us to look outside the bounds of our current public systems where efficiency reigns, the scale is massive and impersonal, and standardized tests and promoting students from one grade to the next overshadow actual learning. As COVID-19 schooling restrictions are being lifted, it is vital that we recover a humane education, where students and teachers, parents and children are fully present with one another, gathered around the perennial subjects and questions that form humanity’s great conversation. And you don’t need a screen for that—and you may not even need a school either.

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