Post Your Opinion
Hey, Quit Being So Constructive
by David Eddie

In honour of Neil Postman's Luddism and anti-technology stance, I'm writing this review on a manual typewriter. I hope my editors don't mind. Postman himself has written all twenty of his books with a felt-tipped pen (though I assume he has them typed before he hands them in). He doesn't have e-mail, voicemail, call waiting, or a computer, and certainly no television, the medium he eviscerated in his best-known book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. He does own a fax; though he is "struggling to overcome the metaphysical implications," he finds this device too damn convenient to eschew.
I should probably admit right off the bat that I'm a big fan, that I've always found myself in deepest agreement with the Postman viewpoint. One of the things I've always loved about him is the depth of his pessimism, and his refusal to sugarcoat his acidulous criticisms with saccharine "solutions". At the end of Amusing Ourselves to Death, for example, after 160 pages excoriating the morass of moronism in a La Brea tar pit, he offers a few perfunctory paragraphs suggesting possible ways out; but he makes it clear he holds out little hope for the future, and he ends on a dark note: "[Aldous Huxley] believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster.. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking."
Since then, someone has obviously said to him (for some reason I imagine a tanned Hollywood-agent type, though in reality it was probably a pallid New York editor), "Neil, baby, your vision is too dark, too harsh. You can't just criticize things all the time; how about more solutions to the problems you point out? And how about tossing in a few jokes?" In his latest book, The End of Education, the criticism-to-solution ratio is inverted: after a couple of quick chapters sketching out the problem, Postman sets about solving it. And the tone is an odd admixture of jocularity and defensiveness, as if being America's foremost cultural critic were starting to take its toll, and he had been spending too much time defending his point of view on talk shows and in hotel-room interviews.
The title is a double entendre: Postman foresees the end (finale) of the education system as we know it, unless we are able to agree on what the end (purpose) of our educational system is. "Preparation for the work force" is not enough in Postman's cosmology. Say everyone got a good job, house, family, security; what then? What is the point of our society? Postman argues that since the fall of religion, man has lacked a narrative around which to base his life, and that this fact is sadly reflected in our educational system.
That strikes me, the big fan, as a Big Idea, and of course in any Postman book you will get one Big Idea and several other great ideas besides. But the solutions Postman suggests to this and other problems of the educational system strike me as specious-it seems they've struck others that way, too, because Postman complains in a prefatory comment that when he's advanced these ideas before, they were "largely ignored, mostly on the grounds that readers believed they were included as an attempt at humour," and he compares himself to Conan Doyle, who always felt as if his best work were overshadowed by an opium-smoking, violin-playing cipher in a deerstalker. But indeed it's hard to take him seriously. He suggests, for one thing, that "we could improve the quality of teaching overnight, as it were, if math teachers were assigned to teach art, art teachers science, science teachers English," etc. His reasoning is that if teachers found their subjects as baffling and as boring as their students do, they would have more sympathy for the students' point of view. Personally, I don't buy it: in my high school, a gym teacher taught math for one semester, and it was a disaster for both us and him; whereas anyone who has ever had a teacher in love with a subject knows how inspiring it can be. I wouldn't be what I am today if it weren't for my high school English teacher, Nora Maier. (And sometimes when I consider my bank balance I wish she'd been a little less inspiring.)
Another idea Postman advances with a straight face is: abolish all textbooks. "Most textbooks are badly written and, therefore, give the impression the subject is boring." Can't argue with that, but if you ask him what he would replace them with, his answer, "again, not meant humorously," is: "When Jonas Salk's vaccine eliminated polio, did anyone ask, But what will replace it?" This kind of thoughtless answer, bordering (though Postman denies it) on flippancy, is unworthy of him, I think.
Speaking of humour, I have only one thing to say. Some great writers and thinkers should try to be funny, and some should not. Neil Postman belongs to the latter category. At best, he is as dry as a dust-bowl ghost town during Prohibition; at worst, like all unfunny people who try to crack jokes, he makes one a tad uncomfortable. For example, in the service of one or another of his points, he tells a couple of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, explaining, "One is permitted, I believe, to make fun of one's own group." Still, they're cheap generalizations, and don't suit his generally thoughtful tone. Postman has always been funniest when he is angriest; jocularity doesn't suit him.
Another odd thing he does in this book, which took me completely by surprise, is using TV to illustrate his points. This really doesn't suit him. Listen:
"One probably should resist taking the Enterprise as metaphor too far, but it is worth noting that in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Klingons and the Earthlings have become friends and seem to worry about how to civilize the Romulans. Does this remind us of how America and `the evil empire' have now joined their destinies and are trying to find recognizable and admirable values in each other's culture?"
Oh, yeah, Neil, I think that's what the writers intended. This is where Postman is weakest: he who lives in a house without the glass teat should not throw TV references around.
Of course, as I said before, in any Postman book, there's going to be plenty to think over, astonishing breadth and depth of erudition, and simple homespun wisdom. Only Postman could write this sentence: "Every time we clean our homes, or our streets, or use information to solve a problem, or make a schedule, we are combating entropy, using intelligence and energy to overcome (that is, postpone) the inevitable decay of organization." Likewise, I can't imagine anyone but Neil Postman making the striking, so-simple-it-should-be-obvious observation that commercials are our parables, "the Parable of the Person with Rotten Breath, the Parable of the Stupid Investor, the Parable of the Lost Traveller's Checks," etc. A Postman book always contains enough to think about for months. I just wish he wouldn't try to convert, or entertain the masses, that he would continue to preach to the converted (like me); stop trying to light candles, and continue to curse the darkness.

David Eddie's first novel, Chump Change, will be published by Random House Canada in the fall.


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