Postman is a critic, writer, communications theorist, and professor of
communication arts and sciences at
He has written 17 books on a range of topics from the crisis in our schools, to the effect of television on our public and political life, to the nature of modern childhood and education. Throughout, his position is that of the “conscientious objector”— standing aside from what he sees as institutionalized mistakes or commonplace stupidities, and raising questions about them.
He is married and has three children, and lives in
Postman: Well, the notion of childhood, while it might conceivably have a biological basis, is largely a social artifact. We know, for instance, in the medieval world there was no such thing comparable to what we today call childhood. There were basically two stages of life: infancy and adulthood, with infancy ending at about the age of seven.
This form of social organization was the product of the kind of communication system that existed. That is to say, it was largely an oral culture in which most of the important social transactions occurred through speech in face-to-face situations. So in order to be an adult, one had to learn how to speak, which most people do by the age of seven.
In the sixteenth century, this began to change because the communication environment changed with the invention of the printing press. After the printing press, one had to earn adulthood by becoming literate. People are biologically programmed to learn how to speak, but they are not biologically programmed to be literate. This required the development of the modern school. And for the first time in centuries, a certain segment of the population was segregated from the rest of the population and sent to a special place, namely school, in order to learn how to become literate. After a while, the term schoolboy became synonymous with a certain age group, which developed into the idea of childhood—a special stage of life that was to act as a bridge between infancy and adulthood.
For about 350 years, we in the West have been developing this idea of three stages of life: infancy, childhood, and adulthood. Now, we have a new element in the communication environment called television, which is making the idea of childhood increasingly untenable; and it is doing this in several ways. One is that it makes the content of the adult world available to the young without them having to learn any special coding system such as the printed word. Previously adults revealed the secrets of adult life—by secrets, I mean the social, political, and sexual secrets that adults know but that are not considered appropriate for children to know—to the young in stages and in psychologically assimilable ways.
Now, television reveals all these secrets all at once, simultaneously to everyone in the culture, so that it becomes impossible to control the socialization of the young. Slowly, the whole period that we call childhood becomes less distinct than it once was. For example, there was a time not so long ago, when alcoholism was strictly an adult affliction. There really were no child alcoholics. Now figures show that it is quite common. We know, of course, about drug addiction and how common that is in our young. We even know about sexual diseases and sexual activity itself. We certainly know about crime. I have some interesting crime statistics which show how fully engaged the young are in crime, whereas as recently as 1959 crime by the under 18 population was not a major issue in the culture. So my argument is simply that television makes it increasingly impossible to sustain the idea of childhood and that in North America, especially, we can see its rapid disappearance.
Well, for parents who are aware of what’s happening and who have the time and
affluence to exert influence on the socializing of their own children, there
still is the possibility of providing a child with a childhood. But that
requires parents to pay a great deal of attention to, among other things, the
media influences on their children. More and more, there are not, enough
parents whose lives meet those conditions. In
don’t think there is any possibility of that, so I don’t really think too much
about it. As a social critic of sorts, I try to focus my attention on what is
possible. Now, I do think that it is possible, at least in some countries, to
limit the overpowering influence of a medium like television. For example,
In the States, of course, it’s too late for restrictions of that sort to be put into place. Americans wouldn’t tolerate it. Besides, the ideology of the present administration and of the recent administration is what I call “free-market extremism.” Ronald Regan was anything but conservative; I call him a free-market extremist by which I mean that he believes, as apparently does President Bush, in the development and exploitation of technology for economic gain. So there is not very much of a likelihood that there would be a social policy that would restrict the growth of any medium.
However, in western
Europe some very serious thought is given to the question of how, through
education, social policy, or political action the influence of television on
cultural life can be controlled. I’ve been spending so much of my time in
Sometimes people ask me if I’m a Luddite, if I really want to bust up all the machinery, and my answer is an emphatic no. I want our social organizations and people generally to take some control over technology. More and more of what I see happening is that people have not thought deeply about how technology works in their culture, how it can undo things and change things that cultures actually need. So, what is required here is not to break up the machinery but an almost quantum increase in the sophistication and knowledge about technology that people presently have.
Well, your country and mine both have a noncommercial
system. We have the PBS, but it’s a relatively insignificant form of television
In a book I am now writing I try to set out certain principles about the role of technology in cultural life that I would like people to begin paying some attention to. Especially here in the States we seem quite prepared to change our definitions of family, childhood, intelligence, knowledge, privacy, piety, everything just to accommodate the demands of new technology, not only video technology but also computer technology and other technology. I think this is a mistake, and it signifies a culture that is on a self-destructive path. So, lately, I’ve been showing up at conferences about the computer technology as well as conferences about television and other media.
Well, in the first case, I would make a distinction between Mr. Rogers and
My complaint about
Well, you’re going to be kind of surprised at how old my kids are. They were
Our oldest child is 31, and he turned out to be an
astrophysicist; the next one is 27, and he’s a writer; and our daughter, who is
24, is a teacher. So even if they watched
Postman: That is kind of frightening. But in the next fifty years, those who will learn early and well to be literate will probably form some sort of elite, which has its good side and its bad side. No one likes to contemplate a culture in which there is kind of an elite priesthood that has access to special codes, namely print. It sounds like a prescription for an authoritarian culture to develop. What will be fifty years after that is very murky. I mean, it may be that in the end literacy will no longer be of any importance to the culture.
Postman: Well I think there is no question that image-based media, which includes television, film, advertising in its various forms, photography and so on, have made the word a less powerful and binding medium in the culture. We can’t get away from that. Now, I would argue that that necessarily implies a decline in what we have traditionally meant by reasoning be-cause our idea of reasoning and of critical thought, analytical thought, detached thought, has been intimately linked with the written word. To the extent that the written word is moved to the periphery of the culture and the visual image takes its place in the centre, there would be a natural decline in what we might call intelligence or intellectual thought.
Postman: Well, I started to give an answer to that twenty years ago in a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity and again thirteen years later in Teaching as a Conserving Activity. I think the most important thing we can do for our students is to help develop in them a sense of detachment and analytic skill so that they can look at their own culture with courage, calm, and intelligence. I would certainly agree that the present curricula for the most part try to get students to believe what their culture believes. It would be necessary to rethink what we mean by a curriculum.
This doesn’t mean that teachers have to be malcontents, but it does mean that we have to find a way of getting students to know how to think. Now, it’s very easy to say we need to teach students how to think, but it is not entirely clear how we can get students to learn to think. At every teacher’s conference I go to, I hear speakers say that this is what we need to do, but it is very difficult to find one who has a plan for how this might be done.
One possible way of doing that is to abandon the whole idea of trying to make students intelligent and focus on the idea of making them less dumb. This is not just some semantic razzle-dazzle but is exactly the procedure that physicians and lawyers follow, which is one of the reasons I would guess they make so much money. Doctors do not generally concern themselves with what is good health; they concentrate on what is sickness. And lawyers don’t think too much about what is justice; they think about what is injustice. Using this model in teaching would imply identifying and understanding various forms of stupidity and then working to eliminate as many of those as we could.
The trouble with trying to make kids more intelligent is that intelligence is very difficult to define. It tends to be vague and makes people lapse into clichés, but if we concentrate on stupidity we can be very concrete. In one of my essays in Conscientious Objections I try to identify half a dozen types of stupid talk that I think are cureable.
Postman: I think they’re wrong. I hear a lot of people say that the trouble with doctors is that they should be more holistic; they should think more about what is good.
Maybe I shouldn’t have answered so quickly—there probably is something to that. But I think that doctors function best when they can be concrete. When you go to a doctor, you probably go because there is a problem, and his first question is going to be, “What’s bothering you?” And then you’re going to say, “It’s my shoulder, and I can’t lift my left arm.” That kind of transaction has a concreteness to which it holds the promise of the doctor being a precise kind of practitioner. So, I’m going to hold on to this idea a little while longer. I think there may be something in it.
Yes, I could imagine it. One of the lessons I want to teach is that media
always have unforeseen consequences and always take unpredictable turns. It’s
quite possible that while we are having this conversation, some kid is being
born in a
Conscientious Objections: stirring Up Trouble
about Language, Technology, and Education.
Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
The Disappearance of
Teaching as a Conserving
The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for
Turning Schools Around.
Teaching as a Subversive
Article originally published Fall 1989
Neil Postman is currently Professor and Chair Paulette Goddard Professor of Media Ecology and Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication.
Internationally recognized scholar and critic, he
is the author of 17 published books. His most recent work is Building a Bridge
to the 18th Century. His articles have been published and have appeared in The
New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper's, Time Magazine, The Saturday
Review, The Harvard Education Review, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times,
Stern, and Le Monde. In 1986 he was given the George
Orwell Award for clarity in Language by the National Council of Teachers of
English. Other awards include the Christian Lindback
Award for excellence in teaching and Distinguished Teacher Award--one of many
awards received in his 38 years of teaching at
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman criticizes the mass media, including
cultural icons such as
Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change: address, Postman's thinking about technology.
Informing Ourselves to Death: A speech to the German Informatics Society on the disadvantages of computer technology.
Updated February 2002