The End of Education

I promised more on education, and look, here is comes–finally! What follows is a book review I wrote for my Foundations of Education class on Neil Postman’s The End of Education. It contains alot of my opinions on the subject, some time in the next month, before I forget everything I learned, (!!!) I will post a nice long discussion of my dear friend, John Taylor Gatto, and the conspiracies he’s convinced me of. Anyway, enjoy…

In the epilogue to his book The End of Education, Neil Postman points out that despite the semi-apocalyptic title, “I offer this book in good faith, if not as much confidence as one would wish. My faith is that school will endure since no one has invented a better way to introduce the young to the world of learning; that the public school will endure since no one has invented a better way to create a public; and that childhood will survive because without it we must lose our sense of what it means to be an adult.” In other words, though through much of the book he sets forth various possible reforms, many of them radical and a few admittedly near impossible, his primary purpose is to give hope. He wants to hear no more whining guff about the failure of the school system; he simply wants people to be willing to back up to the beginning and try again. He wants them to re-evaluate not how, when, where, and by whom their children are educated, but why. If one chooses the right purpose for education, he points out optimistically, the rest will follow in due course.

Postman was educated at the famous Teacher’s College of Columbia University and now chairs the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. He once taught as both an elementary and secondary school teacher and has published about twenty books on the subject of education. If there is a man who has thought long and hard about America’s school system, it is he. He begins The End of Education with his grounding philosophy that school must be based upon something bigger than itself to be of any worth.  American schools must have what he calls “a god,” a thing to serve, and by which to be served—an ultimate idea strong enough to bear the weight of millions. “Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.” And so Postman, seeing urgency in his search, plunges in to find which gods fail and which gods “will serve.”

His gods that fail seem obvious as such to any real thinker. We have seen communism, Nazism, and fascism fail in awful and grandiose ways throughout history. A market economy is far too hollow a god to accomplish anything but greed, yet this lord called “Economic Utility” is one to which we very often find our school system offering its first fruits. There is the god of consumership which Charles Schulz so clearly preaches against in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and the god of technology is another one whose power the school system leans upon far too often, usually with a high degree of self-righteousness. Postman seems to be skimming over all of these simply as a sort of precaution against those of his readers who have not yet learned to think and feel simultaneously. For who could truly look at a child and knowingly proclaim that his master for the next twelve years (and probably for all eternity) ought to be one of the above?

Postman therefore spends the rest of his book describing “gods that may serve.” He has five separate proposals of what could be done to make school an institution worthy of its emphasis. Many of his ideas are hugely refreshing. He sketches pictures of five different futures in which America’s students are lively thinkers and in which the classroom is only the beginning of so many great things.

In his defense of “Spaceship Earth,” Postman tells a fable of a city at risk which solves its problems by turning its students into happy, capable community workers. “This made many people unhappy, for many reasons, but most of all because no one could tell the dumb children from the smart children anymore.” What a pleasantly snarky retort to those who care more about a child’s brain than the child himself. Under the lordship of “The Fallen Angel” Postman suggests that a teacher would stand in front of his class on his first day and say, “I am going to make you all members of Accuracy in Academia. Your task is to make sure that none of my errors goes by unnoticed. At the beginning of each class, I will, in fact, ask you to reveal whatever errors I made in the previous session. You must, of course say why these are errors…” etc. Subsequently, with hard work, America’s students would learn to differentiate between bosh and worthwhile knowledge. They would forever be evaluating and re-evaluating even what they themselves had always assumed.

On it goes: good idea after good idea. Under the god of “The American Experiment” students would learn what our nation was originally meant to stand for, and under “The Law of Diversity” by studying a great cross-section of culture they would learn the inherent value of all humanity. Postman even argues that the god of “Word Weavers/World Makers” would cause students to love words in such a way that the things they say would be worth hearing. Each new revelatory idea is worthy of a standing ovation.

And yet, it is not enough. It is not nearly enough. It is as if Postman has started off jubilantly in the right direction and then stopped halfway to the real destination to turn around and call back, “Look how far I came! Isn’t it fantastic?” He speaks of community, but what about love? He sings the praises of good solid facts, but does not mention truth itself. Honor and Freedom are worthy of celebration, but where do they come from? Why is all of humanity worth loving despite differences? Please, Dr. Postman, tell exactly what worthwhile things one can say with careful words. He has let the book end at the climax of his argument. He gives the reader no proper conclusion of what the world ought to be. His suggestions are only “gods that may serve” and truthfully, none of them do, because none of them are worth serving in return. Each promises that answers exist, but could not tell what they are.

Maybe they lie with Socrates’ truth, goodness and beauty, or Cicero’s good man? Ought there to be a god of virtue or a god of ethos? Those are closer and better than Postman’s attempts, but not yet far and good enough.  Throughout history, what narratives have inspired a good education? Gentility, nobility and ego are some of the best answers, but one cannot take them seriously here and now in America. Let there be no more nonsense about “gods.” Are not all these things mere pale, faulty imitations of the God? For hundreds of years, the most learned men lived quietly in cloisters, viewing their education not as a way to serve themselves, but as a way to serve their Lord. If one is to worship a “narrative,” let it be one of rebellious humans and the ultimate sacrifice made to redeem them. If  America is to educate her children well, then go ahead, pull out all the stops and give them the best there is. Why would one hold it back?

Of course, this is not practical. If there are to be public schools, which it seems there must, teachers cannot preach the gospel outright. Yet, there is no reason it cannot be the gloriously subversive driving force, the “god” that is actually God. Postman is dreaming big; not a single one of his ideas is likely to come into effect. Actually a single one of his ideas is not worth the effort. As impossible as it seems, America’s schools must have all of them: a strong community, a passion for accuracy, patriotism, diversity in curriculum, and careful stewardship of words.  Within each of these must reside a whisper of love and truth. Each must simply point farther down the road to the ultimate “Why?” The student who has come to love learning will venture there himself, on his own time, and behind the huge pulsating interrogative, he will find the true answer waiting for him as it, or He, has been all his life. That is the true end and purpose of education.

One thought on “The End of Education

  1. Alice I just read a speech by Neil Postman, Informing Ourselves to Death, the other day. It is about how technology is not always for our good, but not many people talk about what we lose from technology.

    “The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework.”

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