Friday, May 8, 2020

Aspiring to More than Mere Amusement in Education

After finishing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I devoured Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Published in 1985, Postman’s thesis is that Huxley in Brave New World, not George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984, more accurately predicted life in the modern United States. In the forward to his book, Postman writes:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history, As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.


What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. (xix).

Postman argues that we have moved from an Age of Exposition--where print-based works encouraged logic, order, relevant criticism, and deep learning--to an Age of Show Business, dominated by "the language of headlines--sensational, fragmented, impersonal.” (55-70). This shift, according to Postman, has led to a focus on applause over reflection, a focus on image instead of ideas. He compares a 7-hour Lincoln-Douglas debate in the Age of Exposition (44-45) to the 1984 Age of Show Business presidential debates with 5-minute addresses and 1-minute rebuttals (97).  Given the biases of the medium of television influencing the 1984 “debates,” Postman argues that:

in such circumstances, complexity, documentation, and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom? The answer determined by the “style” of the men--how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners. (97)

Having watched a number of political “debates,” I must say Postman nails it here, though 5-minute addresses may have shrunk to 2-minutes by 2020! In contrast, on October 16, 1854, Douglas received 180 uninterrupted minutes before Lincoln was given a chance to respond. In a shorter debate on August 21 1858, Douglas received 60 minutes to speak, followed by a 90 minute reply from Lincoln, and concluding with a 30 minute rebuttal by Douglas. Unfortunately, in the modern United States, Postman convincingly argues that “the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial….on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people...the commercial disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument.” (126-31)

Postman claims: 

Those who run television do not limit our access to information, but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual: that is to say, information packaged as entertainment. In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves. (141)

According to Postman, the Age of Show Business influences everything from how modern books are written to how our education is shaped. His tenth chapter is entitled “Teaching as an Amusing Activity” and starts with intense criticism of Sesame Street. Postman claims, “[w]e now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.’ Which is to say, we now know that ‘Sesame Street’ undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.” (143). Postman cites no evidence to support this claim and the research on Sesame Street’s impact seems varied. Nevertheless, Postman argues that the material in the Sesame Street shows is not nearly as important as the way it is taught. Postman writes “the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns," not the content of the lesson. (144). In responding to television's increasing influence, Postman argues that teachers are increasing visual stimulation in the classroom and “are reducing the amount of exposition their students must cope with; are relying less on reading and writing assignments; and are reluctantly concluding that the principal means by which student interest may be engaged is entertainment.” (148-49). 

Postman admits that he doesn’t have strong solutions for the shriveling cultural spirit that he observes (155-63). He is not optimistic about Americans abandoning television nor about attempts to improve the programming. The only hope he sees is education, though he admits that even education may be powerless. Interestingly, Postman (in 1985) claims that he “believe[s] the computer to be a vastly overrated technology.” (161). More accurately he predicted:

[Americans will give computers] their customary mindless inattention, which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus a central thesis of computer technology--that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data--will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved. (161) 

I need to do a lot more thinking about this book. Postman makes a compelling case for the shallowness of the Age of Show Business, but I am more hopeful than Postman that students, with the help of professors, can see this shallowness and work in more meaningful directions. While many of us have been immersed in the Age of Show Business for our entire lives, we professors should aspire to much more than mere amusement in education. There is great value in working through dense, difficult material over long periods of time. This difficult work may not be enjoyable in the short-term for students, but it is indispensable for deep work and growth to maturity. Sadly, the pull of the Age of Show Business is quite strong, and maybe the amusing Matt Damon will be cast for the role of professor in future classes. For all our sake, let's hope not.

Books, Haskell Murray, Teaching, Technology | Permalink


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