The End of Education
Chapter 1 – The Necessity of Gods
In this chapter, Neil Postman explores education in terms of how we consider how to school our children. He postulates that the physical considerations of who, what, when, where and how are not as critical as why. Those physical elements can vary and there is no proof as to which way is the right way. It is the reasons that matter more.
Postman creates an extended metaphor, a metaphysical conceit that connects the notions of a god and all its connotations of origin, creation, myth, description and prescription to the innate human need to create some kind of order and purpose to existence, a meaning to life and for life. It follows that without meaning, life has no purpose and therefore learning has no purpose. What creates meaning in life is a narrative that explains it for us and tells us how to live. It is usually a god that provides that explanation. Postman takes great care to make clear that these “gods” that narrate need not be some familiar religious figure. He discusses science, technology, and politics. The “god: can be any philosophy we cling to that provides meaning to life.
The question then raised in this chapter is what are schools for (particularly American schools)? Postman traces the purpose of schools throughout American history. As America became “the melting pot”, different cultural “gods” contributed to the American culture and history and added strength to the American Creed. As more people immigrated to the U.S., the Creed strengthened because of the shared narratives and embracing of cultural diversity. Postman believes that this current era has not been embracing multiculturalism. What we now do is present different cultural narratives as a way of distinguishing and separating groups, therefore tearing away at the American Creed.
This, Postman contends, could be the beginning of the end of American education. Public education creates the public; it depends on the whys of learning. If different groups keep separate their “gods”, their narratives, the whys of learning conflict. The kind of public we want to create depends on shared narratives providing a common meaning or reason for learning.
The End of Education
Chapter 2 – Some Gods That Fail
This chapter traces the history of scientific, political, psychological, philosophical and even sexual narratives, or “gods”, which have tried and failed to provide a positive truth for the meaning of life. The search of expository narratives continues. But Postman believes these searches can be dangerous. People can become so desperate for identity and values that they become vulnerable to false “gods” or a kind of deconstruction. Postman lists examples of ways America has lessened the meaning of our national symbols (deconstructed our “gods”); the face of Abe Lincoln used in advertising a President’s Day sale, the image of the Statue of Liberty used in advertising airline fares to Florida, and even the Judeo-Christian image of Moses on an ad for kosher chickens.
Unfortunately, Postman points out, the business of schooling has ignored this deterioration of “gods” that provide reasons for learning. We have too long been focusing on the how of schooling. Data-driven research has become our prescription on how to school our children. New methods based on evidence of perceived success have replaced clear reasons for learning. Children and educators do not share the same reason. Postman sees this as the problem in American education: teachers “do not have the time, the incentive, or the wit” and “students are too demoralized, bored or distracted to muster the attention” (Postman). The narratives we have been relying on are not helping. Postman lists and explains those inadequate narratives.
The first is a narrative of an economic agenda. This promises that if a student works hard, pays attention, gets good grades, scores well on tests, that student will get a good paying job. Thus, our schooling should produce a productive person in the economic life or our society. Postman points out, however, that there is little evidence that a successful economy is the result of good quality schooling.
Another failing “god” is the god of Consumership. The basic precept is that we are what we own. The more you own, the better you are. Schooling begins almost at birth with the bombardment of advertising on television. Coupled with that is the god of Technology. Technology seems to be the vehicle for disseminating parables supporting the teachings of the god of Consumership. We see advertisements showing the effects of having bad breath, bad investments, and bad time management. The problem is that thus far, educators see no problem with this as the why of learning. Career education and technology is at the forefront of education these days. Postman warns that focusing on these gods may contribute most of all to the downfall of education and knowledge.
The End of Education
Chapter 3 – Some New Gods That Fail
Postman begins the chapter with a description of a class discussion he holds on the nature of belief. He gets students talking about their belief in or non-belief in God. He compares the nature of religious belief to the reverence of technology, which he deems dangerous. If people follow technology blindly as the savior of this era, we will certainly miss the question of how technology will use us. Indeed we use technology but to make a “god” if it will liken our society to a cult. But Postman points out many times in the chapter that the problems in the world that the schools can’t solve without technology, they also cannot solve with technology. We must consider the pros and cons of how we use technology and how technology uses us.
The problems Postman refers to involve the socialism and community of life. Schools historically have been a place where children are taught to work in groups, how to behave in groups, to solve problems in groups. He quotes Robert Fulghum’s All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten in that the technological age of secluded learning leaves out the following: share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess, wash your hands before you eat and flush (Postman). Thus, the traditional brick and mortar public schools produce a civilized public.
On a more theoretically hopeful note, some tout that new technologies will equalize the opportunities for diverse learners, but Postman sees the continued inequity due to economic issues, fragmented family issues, and psychological issues. Schools and technology will not solve those problems, but we cannot continue to ignore them or pretend that they do not affect learning. We must not be blinded by this false god.
A more dangerous false god that Postman addresses is the god of what he calls Tribalism or Separatism, or the god of the more politically correct term – Multiculturalism. The problem though is that this term is confused with the idea of cultural pluralism, the goal of which is to enrich the American Creed through inclusion. Multiculturalism, or more specifically for Postman, Afrocentrism seems to desire a separate or new narrative to explain history and prescribe the future. While Postman does not refute that American history is fraught with racism, oppression, exclusion and violence, he warns against a retelling of the narrative that focuses on only these blots. He feels that every group’s narrative should be told without sugar-coating the blots, and with an emphasis on the trials and tribulations the culture goes through in its quest for humanity. The journey is the key.
There is a danger in using schools to disseminate a “multicultural” curriculum aimed at one population. Those public schools will product what Postman calls hyphenated Americans: African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Greco-Americans, Italio-Americans. Schools would become divisive and separatist, with the mind soon to follow, resulting in a society built on hate. Postman hopes for a reasonable, civilized alternative to this scary forecast.