Saturday, January 23, 2010

Education manifestos...part 3, Neil Postman

In 1969 Neil Postman, along with Charles Weingartner, published the book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I remember reading that book while going through teacher training in the late seventies. The book snapped me out of the doldrums; it challenged me to think about teaching in a way that was both romantic and rigorous. I've never really gotten over that book.

"The children know that none of these questions has anything to do with them, and the game that is being played does not require that the questions do. The game is called ‘Let’s Pretend,’ and if its name were chiseled into the front of every school building in America, we would at least have an honest announcement of what takes place there. The game is based on a series of pretenses which include: Let’s pretend that you are not what you are and that this sort of work makes a difference to your lives; let’s pretend that what bores you is important, and that the more you are bored, the more important it is; let’s pretend that there are certain things everyone must know, and that both the questions and answers about them have been fixed for all time; let’s pretend that your intellectual competence can be judged on the basis of how well you can play Let’s Pretend. (p. 49)

As soon as students realize that their lessons are about their meanings, then the entire psychological context of schools is different. Learning is no longer a contest between them and something outside of them, whether the problem be a poem, a historical conclusion, a scientific theory, or anything else. There is, then, no need for the kinds of "motivation" found in the conventional Trivia content. There are few occasions for feelings of inadequacy, few threats to their sense of dignity, less reason to resist changing perspectives. In short, the meaning-maker metaphor puts the student at the center of the learning process. It makes both possible and acceptable a plurality of meanings, for the environment does not exist only to impose standardized meanings but rather to help students improve their unique meaning-making capabilities. And this is the basis of the process of learning how to learn, how to deal with the otherwise ‘meaningless,’ how to cope with change that requires new meanings to be made. (p. 97)

One of Postmans most subversive assertions is that teachers out to be primarily concerned with outfitting their students with fully functioning and highly sensitive "crap-detectors". In a famous essay,
Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection
, Postman enumerated several varieties of bullshit that people should become practiced at identifying and avoiding at all costs. They include:

Postman was a serious thinker but he was also a committed ironist. Here he cites Postman's third and fourth laws.
Postman's Third Law:

"At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself."

The reason for this is explained in Postman's Fourth Law, which is;

"Almost nothing is about what you think it is about--including you."

His preoccupation with bullshit was, and is, for me a tonic. It reminded me that the worst trap a teacher can fall into is the trap of taking oneself too seriously. I have waged a lifelong and unequal battle with myself over this one. Here's Postman again:
An idealist usually cannot acknowledge his own bullshit, because it is in the nature of his "ism" that he must pretend it does not exist. In fact, I should say that anyone who is devoted to an "ism"--Fascism, Communism, Capital-ism--probably has a seriously defective crap-detector. This is especially true of those devoted to "patriotism."

Postman later wrote another provocative book entitled The Disappearance of Childhood. In it he argued that today's media environment threatens the very concept and viability of that idea and stage of life we call "childhood."


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