Neil Postman

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Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose...

Neil Postman (8 March 1931 - 5 October 2003) was a prominent American educator, media theorist and cultural critic, associated with New York University for more than forty years.


  • A definition is the start of an argument, not the end of one.
    • Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (1976)

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)

  • In order to understand what kind of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in a classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details. (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called "convergent questions," but what might more simply be called "Guess what I am thinking " questions.
  • In plain, what passes for a curriculum in today's schools is little else than a strategy of distraction... It is largely defined to keep students from knowing themselves and their environment in any realistic sense; which is to say, it does not allow inquiry into most of the critical problems that comprise the content of the world outside the school ( of the main differences between the "advantaged" student and the "disadvantaged" is that the former has an economic stake in giving his attention to the curriculum while the latter does not. In other words, the only relevance of the curriculum for the "advantaged" student is that, if he does what he is told, there will be a tangible payoff.)
  • Suppose all of the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared. Suppose all of the standardized tests — city-wide, state-wide, and national — were lost. In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this "catastrophe" into an opportunity to increase the relevance of schools. What would you do? We have a possibility for you to consider: suppose that you decide to have the entire "curriculum" consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly, from the point of view of the students. In order to get still closer to reality, add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and future. ...What questions would you have on your list? Take a pencil and list your questions...
  • We can justify the list we will submit on several grounds. First, many of these questions have literally been asked by children and adolescents when they are permitted to respond freely to the challenge of "What's Worth Knowing?" Second, some of these questions are based on careful listening to students, even though they were not at the time asking questions. Very often children make declarative statements about things when they really mean only to elicit an informative response. In some cases, they do this because they have learned from adults that it is "better" to pretend that you know than to admit that you don't. (An old aphorism describing this process goes: Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.) In other cases they do this because they do not know how to ask certain kinds of questions. In any event, a simple translation of their declarative utterances will sometimes produce a great variety of deeply felt questions.
  • We have framed... some questions which in our judgement, are responsive to the actual and immediate as against the fancied and future needs of learners in the world as it is (not as it was). ... There seemed to be little doubt that, from the point of view of the students, these questions made much more sense than the ones they usually have to memorize the right answers to in school. Contrary to conventional school practice, what that means is that we want to elicit from the students the meanings that they have already stored up so that they may subject these meanings to a testing and verifying, reordering and reclassifying, modifying and extending process. In this process the student is not a passive "recipient"; he becomes an active producer of knowledge. The word "educate" is closely related to the word "educe." In the oldest pedagogic sense of the term, this meant a drawing out of a person something potential or latent. We can after all, learn only in relation to what we already know. Again, contrary to common misconceptions, this means that, if we don't know very much, our capability for learning is not very great. This idea — virtually by itself — requires a major revision in most of the metaphors that shape school policies and procedures.
  • Reflect on these questions — and others that these can generate. Please do not merely react to them.
    • [1] What do you worry most about? What are the causes of your worries? Can any of your worries be eliminated? How? Which of them might you deal with first? How do you decide? Are there other people with the same problems? How do you know? How can you find out?
    • [3] What bothers you most about adults? Why? How do you want to be similar or different from adults you know when you become an adult?
    • [4] What, if anything, seems to you to be worth dying for? How did you come to believe this? What seems worth living for? How did you come to believe this?
    • [5] At the present moment, what would you most like to be — or be able to do? Why? What would you have to know in order to be able to do it? What would you have to do in order to get to know it?
    • [8] When you hear or read or observe something, how do you know what it means? Where does meaning "come from"? What does "meaning" mean? How can you tell what something "is" or whether it is? Where do words come from? Where do symbols come from? Why do symbols change? Where does knowledge come from? What do you think are some of man's most important ideas? Where did they come from? Why? How? Now what? What's a "good idea"? How do you know when a good or live idea becomes a bad or dead idea? Which of man's ideas would we be better off forgetting? How do you decide? What is "progress"? What is "change"? What are the most obvious causes of change? What are the least apparent? What conditions are necessary in order for change to occur? What kinds of change are going on right now? Which are important? How are they similar or different from other changes that have occurred? What are the relationships between new ideas and change? Where do new ideas come from? How come? So what? If you wanted to stop one of the changes going on right now (pick one), how would you go about it? What consequences would you have to consider? Of the important changes going on in our society, which should be considered and which resisted? Why? How? What are the most important changes that have occurred in the past ten years? twenty years? fifty years? In the last year? In the last six months? Last month? What will be the most important changes next month? Next year? Next decade? How can you tell? So what? What would you change if you could? How might you go about it? Of those changes which are about to occur, which would you stop, if you could? Why? How? So what?
    • [9] Who do you think has the most important things to say today? To whom? How? Why? What are the dumbest and most dangerous ideas that are "popular" today? Why do you think so? Where did these ideas come from?
    • [10] What are the conditions necessary for life to survive? Plants? Animals? Humans? Which of these conditions are necessary for all life? Which ones for plants? Which ones for animals? Which ones for humans? What are the greatest threats to all forms of life? To plants? To animals? To humans? What are some of the strategies living things use to survive? Which are unique to plants? Which are unique to animals? Which are unique to humans? What kinds of human survival strategies are (1) similar to those of animals and plants? (2) different from animals and plants?
    • [11] What does man's language permit him to develop as survival strategies that animals cannot develop? How might man's survival strategies be different from what they are if he did not have languages? What other "languages" does man have besides those consisting of words? What functions do those languages serve? Why and how do they originate? Can you invent a new one? How might you start? What would happen, what difference would it make, what would man not be able to do if he had no number (mathematical) languages? How many symbol systems does man have? How come? So what? What are some good symbols? Some bad? What good symbols could we use that we do not have? What bad symbols do we have that we might be better without?
    • [12] What's worth knowing? How do you decide? What are some ways to go about getting to know what's worth knowing?
  • These questions are not intended to represent a catechism for the new education. These are samples and illustrations of the kind of questions we think worth answering. Our set of questions is best regarded as a metaphor of our sense of relevance. If you took the trouble to list your own questions, it is quite possible that you prefer many or them to ours. Good enough. The new education is a process and will not suffer from the applied imaginations of all who wish to be a part of it. But in evaluating your own questions, as well as ours, bear in mind that there are certain standards that must be used. These standards must also be stated in the form of questions:
    • [1] Will your questions increase the learner's will as well as capacity to learn? Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning? Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn?
    • [2] In order to get answers, will the learner be required to make inquiries? (Ask further questions, clarify terms, make observations, classify data, etc?)
    • [3] Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry)?
    • [4] Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the uniqueness of the learner?
    • [6] Would the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?
  • What can be called "consciousness of the process of abstraction" That is, consciousness of the fact that out of the virtually infinite universe of possible things to pay attention to, we abstract only certain portions, and those portions turn out to be the ones for which we have verbal labels and categories. What we abstract, i.e., "see," and how we abstract it, or see it, or see it or think about it, is for all practical purposes inseparable from how we talk about it.
  • A third kind of semantic awareness is an extension of the consciousness of abstracting, namely an awareness of varying levels of abstraction. Words vary in the degree to which they correspond to verifiable referents. Some words are relatively more abstract or general, and some words are relatively more concrete or specific. Related to this fact is a fourth kind of semantic awareness, which might be called the "direction of meaning." That is, with increasingly abstract or general words, (i.e., those farther removed from operationally verifiable referents), the direction of meaning shifts accordingly from "outside" to "inside." With increasingly concrete or specific words (i.e., those whose referents can be more easily verified operationally), the direction of meaning shifts accordingly from "inside" to "outside." The conventional semantic terminology for these directions of meaning are intensional (internal or inside) and extensional (external or outside). Closely bound to these directions of meaning are, of course, different kinds of meaning. The primary semantic distinction made in kinds of meaning is between connotation (intensional, subjective, personal meaning) and denotation (extensional, objective, social meaning).
  • Scientific language, which Korzybski used as his model of sane language, is almost exclusively extensional and denotative, or at least tries to be. The language of the mentally ill, most obviously "un-sane," is almost totally intensional and connotative. This is the language that does not correspond to anything "out there," and this is, in fact, how and perhaps even why the user is mentally ill. Korzybski's concern with keeping the conscious "connection" or correspondence between language and verifiable referents is, for all practical purposes, paralleled by the process of psychotherapy. In this process, which is largely "just talk," the purpose is to foster closer and more accurate correspondence between the patient's language and externally verifiable meanings. As a semanticist would say, the process of psychotherapy is aimed at shifting the patient's word choices from those having a highly intensional, connotative meanings to others carrying more denotative meanings. A person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia might use perfectly "correct" English in an unassailably "logical" way, but the problem with his language is that it does not correspond to anything "out there."
  • A fifth kind of semantic awareness has to do with what might be called the "photographic" effects of language. We live in a universe of constant process. Everything is changing in the physical world around us. We ourselves, physically at least, are always changing. Out of the maelstrom of happenings we abstract certain bits to attend to. We snapshot these bits by naming them. Then we begin responding to the names as if they are the bits that we have named, thus obscuring the effects of change. The names we use tend to "fix" that which is named, particularly if the names also carry emotional connotations... There are some semanticists who have suggested that such phrases as "national defense" and "national sovereignty" have been... maintained beyond the date for which they were prescribed. What might have been politically therapeutic at one time may prove politically fatal at another.
  • A variation of the "photographic" effect of language consists of how blurred the photograph is. "Blurring" occurs as a result of general class names, rendering distinctions among members of the class less visible. One of the most common manifestations of the lack of this kind of semantic awareness can be found in what is called "prejudice": a response to an individual is predetermined because the name of the class in which the person is included is prejudiced negatively. The most obvious and ordinary remark made in cases of this kind, "They are all alike," makes the point clear.
  • If every college teacher taught his courses in the manner we have suggested, there would be no needs for a methods course. Every course would be a course in methods of learning and, therefore, in methods of teaching. For example, a "literature" course would be a course in the process of learning how to read. A history course would be a course in the process of learning how to do history. And so on. But this is the most farfetched possibility of all since college teachers, generally speaking, are more fixated on the Trivia game, than any group of teachers in the educational hierarchy. Thus we are left with the hope that, if methods courses could be redesigned to be model learning environments, the educational revolution might begin. In other words, it will begin as soon as there are enough young teachers who sufficiently despise the crippling environments they are employed to supervise to want to subvert them. The revolution will begin to be visible when such teachers take the following steps (many students who have been through the course we have described do not regard these as "impractical"): 1. Eliminate all conventional "tests" and "testing." 2. Eliminate all "courses." 3. Eliminate all "requirements." 4. Eliminate all full time administrators and administrations. 5. Eliminate all restrictions that confine learners to sitting still in boxes inside of boxes. ...the conditions we want to eliminate... happen to be the sources of the most common obstacles to learning. We have largely trapped ourselves in our schools into expending almost all of our energies and resources in the direction of preserving patterns and procedures that make no sense even in their own terms. They simply do not produce the results that are claimed as their justification in the first place — quite the contrary. If it is practical to persist in subsidizing at an ever-increasing social cost a system which condemns our youth to ten or 12 or 16 years of servitude in a totalitarian environment ostensibly for the purpose of training them to be fully functioning, self-renewing citizens of democracy, then we are vulnerable to whatever criticisms that can be leveled.
  • The elimination of conventional tests... is necessary because, as soon as they are used as judgement-making instruments, the whole process of schooling shifts from education to training intended to produce passing grades on tests... "Courses" turn out to be contingent upon testing. A "course" generally consists of a series of briefings for the great Trivia contest. It's a kind of rigid quiz show. And it seems to work only if the contestants value the "prize." The prize, of course, is a "grade." An appropriate grade entitles the participant to continue playing the Trivia game. All the while, let's not forget, very little, if any, substantive intellectual activity is going on.
  • Conventional "requirements" ...are systems of prescriptions and proscriptions intended solely to limit the physical and intellectual movements of students — to "keep them in line, in sequence, in order," etc. They shift focus of attention from the learner (check [Goodwin] Watson again) to the "course." In the process, "requirements" violate virtually everything we know about learning because they comprise the matrix of an elaborate system of punishment, that in turn, comprise a threatening atmosphere in which positive learning cannot occur. The "requirements," indeed, force the teacher — and administrator — into the role of an authoritarian functionary whose primary task becomes that of enforcing the requirements rather than helping the learner to learn. The whole authority of the system is contingent upon the "requirements."
  • Adminstrators are another curious consequence of a bureaucracy which has forgotten its reason for being. In schools, adminstrators commonly become myopic as a result of confronting all of the problems the "requirements" generate. Thus they cannot see (or hear) the constituents the system ostensibly exists to serve — the students. The idea that the school should consist of procedures specifically intended to help learners learn strikes many administrators as absurd — and "impractical." ...Eichman, after all, was "just an adminstrator." He was merely "enforcing requirements." The idea of "full time administrators" is palpably a bad one — especially in schools — and we say to hell with it. Most of the "administration" of the school should be a student responsibility. If schools functioned according to the democratic ideals they pay verbal allegience to, the students would long since have played a major role in developing policies and procedures guiding its operation. One of the insidious facts about totalitarianism is its seeming "efficiency." ...Democracy — with all of its inefficiency — is still the best system we have so far for enhancing the prospects of our mutual survival. The schools should begin to act as if this were so.
  • About the last place any of us can expect to learn anything important about the realities we have to cope with in our wistful pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is a classroom. If we decided that schools must do whatever is necessary to help students to learn the concepts and skills relevant to the nuclear space age, we wouldn't spend much time sitting inside of small boxes inside of boxes — even with all the fancy hardware being developed to jazz up the Tivia contest. It's probably true that most of what we all know we didn't learn in school anyway. Moreover, developments in electronic information processing make the school as it presently exists unnecessary. ..the "new education." Its purpose is to produce people who can cope effectively with change. To date, none of the new "educational technology" has that as its purpose. Remember Santayana's line: Fanaticism consists of redoubling efforts after having forgotten one's aim. The developments in "educational technology" are intended to do all of the old school stuff better... but that's not the aim of the new education.
  • Print, in even more revolutionary ways than writing, changed the very form of civilization. ...the Protestant Revolution was contemporaneous with the invention of moving type. ...the printing and distribution of millions of Bibles made possible a more personal religion, as the Word of God rested on each man's kitchen table. The book, by isolating the reader and his responses, tended to separate him from the powerful oral influences of his family, teacher, and priest. Print thus created a new conception of self as well as of self-interest. At the same time, the printing press provided the wide circulation necessary to create national literatures and intense pride in one's native language. Print thus promoted individualism on one hand and nationalism on the other.
  • Print also created new literary forms and altered ideas of literary style. Medieval poetry was conceived for the ear, and each poem had to stand the test of recitation. In addition, medieval audiences were not always interested in the poet himself, since his work was known to them only through the interpretations of minstrels, who frequently rephrased poems to suit their own image and images. The printed page changed these conditions. Slowly, the printed poet came into a new relationship with his reader. He learned not to be so repetitive as his predecessors since a reader could be depended upon to return as often as needed to uncompromised passages. ...After the flowering of dramatic poetry during the Elizabethan Age, the printed page substituted for the theater, and millions of children came to know Shakespeare only through this form.
  • In schools, print shifted the emphasis from oral to written and visual communication. Teachers who had been only partly concerned within instructing their students in how to read became by the mid-sixteenth century concerned with almost nothing else. Since the sixteenth century, the textbook has been a primary source of income for book publishers. Since the sixteenth century, written examinations and written assignments have been an integral part of the methodology of school teaching; and since the sixteenth century, the image of the isolated student who reads and studies by himself, has been the essence of our conception of scholarship. In short, for 400 years Western civilization has lived in what has been characterized as the "Age of Gutenberg." Print has been the chief means of our information flow. Print has shaped our literature and conditioned our responses to literary experience. Print has influenced our conception of the educational process. But ...print no longer "monopolizes man's symbolic environment," to use David Riesman's phrase. That monopoly began to dissolve toward the middle of the nineteenth century, when a more or less continuous stream of media inventions began to make accessible unprecedented quantities of information and created new modes of perception and qualities of aesthetic experience. ...1839 ...Daguerre developed the first practical method of photography. In 1844, Morse perfected the telegraph. In 1876, Bell transmitted the first telephone message. A year later, Edison invented the phonograph. By 1894, the movies had also been introduced. A year after that, Marconi sent and received the first wireless message. In 1906, Fessenden transmitted the human voice by radio. In 1920, regularly scheduled radio broadcasts began. In 1923, a picture was televised between New York and Philadelphia. In that same year, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden created a totally new idea in magazines with Time. In 1927, the first "talkie" appeared; and in 1923, Disney's first animated cartoon. In 1935, Major E. H. Armstrong developed the FM radio. In 1936 came Life magazine. In 1941, full commercial television was authorized. These are just some of the inventions that form a part of the "communications revolution" through which we are all living. To these, of course could be added the LP record, the tape recorder, the comic strip, the comic book, the paperback book. ...the point here is ...that the perceptual-cognitive effects on us of the form of these new languages be understood.
  • The way to be liberated from the constraining effects of any medium is to develop a perspective on it — how it works and what it does. Being illiterate in the processes of any medium (language) leaves one at the mercy of those who control it. The new media — these new languages — then are among the most important "subjects" to be studied in the interests of survival. But they must be studied in a new way if they are to be understood, they must be studied as mediators of perception. Indeed, for any "subject" or "discipline" to be understood it must be studied this way.
  • You cannot avoid making judgements but you can become more conscious of the way in which you make them. This is critically important because once we judge someone or something we tend to stop thinking about them or it. Which means, among other things, that we behave in response to our judgements rather than to that to which is being judged. People and things are processes. Judgements convert them into fixed states. This is one reason that judgements are often self-fulfilling. If a boy, for example, is judged as being "dumb" and a "nonreader" early in his school career, that judgement sets into motion a series of teacher behaviors that cause the judgement to become self-fulfilling. What we need to do then, if we are seriously interested in helping students to become good learners, is to suspend or delay judgements about them. One manifestation of this is the ungraded elementary school. But you can practice suspending judgement yourself tomorrow. It doesn't require any major changes in anything in the school except your own behavior.
  • The BASIC FUNCTION of all education, even in the most traditional sense, is to increase the survival prospects of the group. If this function is fulfilled, the group survives. If not, it doesn't. There have been times when this function was not fulfilled, and groups (some of them we even call "civilizations") disappeared. Generally, this resulted from changes in the kind of threats the group faced. The threats changed, but the education did not, and so the group, in a way, "disappeared itself" (to use a phrase from Catch-22). The tendency seems to be for most "educational" systems, from patterns of training in "primitive" tribal societies to school systems in technological societies, to fall imperceptibly into a role devoted exclusively to the conservation of old ideas, concepts, attitudes, skills, and perceptions. This happens largely because of the unconsciously held belief that these old ways of thinking and doing are necessary to the survival of the group. ...Survival in a stable environment depends almost entirely on remembering the strategies for survival that have been developed in the past, and so the conservation and transmission of these becomes the primary mission of education. But, a paradoxical situation develops when change becomes the primary characteristic of the environment. Then the task turns inside out — survival in a rapidly changing environment depends almost entirely upon being able to identify which of the old concepts are relevant to the demands imposed by the new threats to survival, and which are not. Then a new educational task becomes critical: getting the group to unlearn (to "forget") the irrelevant concepts as a prior condition of learning. What we are saying is that the "selective forgetting" is necessary for survival.
  • The new education has as its purpose the development of a new kind of person, one who — as a result of internalizing a different series of concepts — is an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant, liberal personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival. The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we all must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the quest-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called "learning how to learn."

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)

Published in ETC Vol. 37 (1980)
  • As technical people, we are apt to be preoccupied with scores, not competence...
  • We do not know nearly as much as we should about how children learn language, but if there is one thing we can say with assurance it is that knowledge of grammatical nomenclature and skill in sentence-parsing have no bearing whatsoever on the process.
  • Of all things to be learned, in school or out, languaging, as I prefer to call the process, is least like a mechanical skill. It is, in fact, the most intimate, integrated, emotion-laden learning we do. At no point can we separate what we know and what we are from how our linguistic powers develop...
  • It may come as a surprise to our technocrat philosophers, but people do not read, write, speak, or listen primarily for the purpose of achieving a test score. They use language in order to conduct their lives, and to control their lives, and to understand their lives. An improvement in one's language abilities is therefore ...observed in changes in one's purposes, perceptions, and evaluations. Language education... may achieve what George Bernard Shaw asserted is the function of art. "Art," he said in Quintessence of Ibsenismn, "should refine our sense of character and conduct, of justice and sympathy, greatly heightening our self knowledge, self-control, precision of action and considerateness, and making us intolerant of baseness, cruelty, injustice, and intellectual superficialty and vulgarity." ...For my purposes, if you replace the word "art" with the phrase "language education," you will have a precise statement of what I have been trying to say.
  • In the development of intelligence nothing can be more "basic" than learning how to ask productive questions. Many years ago, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Charles Weingartner and I expressed our astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward this language art. ...The "back to the basics" philosophers rarely mention it, and practicing teachers usually do not find room for it in their curriculums. ...all our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question-asking is our most important intellectual tool... There are at present no reading tests anywhere that measure the ability of students to address probing questions to the particular texts they are reading... What students need to know are the rules of discourse which comprise the subject, and among the most central of such rules are those which govern what is and what is not a legitimate question.
  • Definitions, like questions and metaphors, are instruments for thinking. Their authority rests entirely on their usefulness, not their correctness. We use definitions in order to delineate problems we wish to investigate, or to further interests we wish to promote. In other words, we invent definitions and discard them as suits our purposes. And yet, one gets the impression that... God has provided us with definitions from which we depart at the risk of losing our immortal souls. This is the belief that I have elsewhere called "definition tyranny," which may be defined... as the process of accepting without criticism someone else's definition of a word or a problem or a situation. I can think of no better method of freeing students from this obstruction of the mind than to provide them with alternative definitions of every concept and term with which they must deal in a subject. Whether it be "molecule," "fact," "law," "art," "wealth," "gene," or whatever, it is essential that students understand that definitions are hypotheses, and that embedded in them is a particular philosophical, sociological, or epistemological point of view.
  • In the field of education. I refer to the meaning of the word "basic," ...the meaning given to this word by some educators is not its "real" meaning. The word "basic,"... has been assigned certain meanings in order to further an education philosophy which is thought to be both sensible and effective. ...neither you nor I are under any obligation to accept their definition of what is "basic." ...In short, the definition of something is usually the starting point of a dispute, not the settlement.
  • Since most subjects studied in school consist largely of theories... language education must include not only the serious study of what truth and falsehood mean in the context of a subject, but also what is meant by a fact, an inference, an assumption, a judgment, a generalization... In this way students will be learning both the language of a subject and the methods of inquiry in that subject, since inquiry consists of nothing else but the generation of questions, the invention of definitions and metaphors, the separation of facts from inferences, the forming of generalizations...
  • There is a rhetoric of knowledge, a characteristic way in which arguments, proofs, speculations, experiments, polemics, even humor are expressed. ...speaking or writing a subject is a performing art, and each subject requires a somewhat different kind of performance from every other. Historians, for example, do not speak or write history in the same way biologists speak or write biology. is worth remembering that some scholars-one thinks of Veblen in sociology, Freud in psychology, Galbraith in economics - have exerted influence as much through their manner as their matter. The point is that knowledge is a form of literature, and the various styles of knowledge ought to be studied and discussed.
  • All reading, in truth, is reading in a content area. To read the phrase "the law of diminishing returns" or "the law of supply and demand" requires that you know how the word "law" is used in economics, for it does not mean what it does in the phrase "the law of inertia" (physics) or "Grimm's law" (linguistics) or "the law of the land" (political science) or "the law of survival of the fittest" (biology). To the question, "What does `law' mean?" the answer must always be, "In what context?"
  • A reading test measures one's ability to read reading tests, and reading tests are in themselves... somewhat akin to the world of crossword puzzles or Scrabble or the game of twenty questions. Some people play these games well, and all praise is due them for their skill. But if we ask, What aspect of the world do they comprehend in doing these games well? the answer is, Only the world within the games themselves.
  • The question, "How well does one read?" is a bad question... essentially unanswerable. A more proper question is "How well does one read poetry, or history, or science, or religion?" No one I have ever known is so brilliant as to have learned the languages of all fields of knowledge equally well. Most of us do not learn some of them at all.
  • As one learns the language of a subject, one is also learning what the subject is. ...what we call a subject consists mostly, if not entirely, of its language. If you eliminate all the words of a subject, you have eliminated the subject.
  • There are two levels of knowing a subject. There is the student who knows what the definition of a noun or a gene or a molecule is; then there is the student... who also knows how the definition was arrived at. There is the student who can answer a question; then there is the student who also knows what are the biases of the question. There is the student who can give you the facts; then there is the student who also knows what is meant by a fact. I am maintaining that, in all cases, it is the latter who has a "basic" education ; the former, a frivolous one.
  • Since there is no such thing as complete knowledge of a subject, one is always working to improve one's reading, writing, etc., of a subject. As Thomas Henry Huxley said, "If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, is there anyone who knows so much as to be out of danger?" .... The problems of learning to read or write are inexhaustible.
  • Of writing that is filled with mechanical and grammatical error, as compared with writing that conforms to the rules of standard edited English. Surely, we do not want to say that there is a necessary correlation between mechanical and editorial accuracy and intellectual substance. There are many books that are mechanically faultless but which contain untrue, unclear, or even nonsensical ideas. Carefully edited writing tells us, not that the writer speaks truly, but that he or she grasps... the manner in which knowledge is usually expressed. The most devastating argument against a paper that is marred by grammatical and rhetorical error is that the writer does not understand the subject.
  • It is precisely through one's learning about the total context in which the language of a subject is expressed that personality may be altered. If one learns how to speak history or mathematics or literary criticism, one becomes, by definition, a different person. The point to be stressed is that a subject is a situation in which and through which people conduct themselves, largely in language. You cannot learn a new form of conduct without changing yourself.
  • The meaning I have given here to "language education" represents it as a form of metaeducation. That is, one learns a subject and, at the same time, learns what the subject is made of. ...If it be said that such learning will prevent students from assimilating the facts of a subject, my reply is that this is the only way by which the facts can truly be assimilated. For it is not education to teach students to repeat sentences they do not understand so that they may pass examinations. That is the way of the computer. I prefer the student to be a programmer.

Informing Ourselves To Death (11 October 1990)

  • A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided. The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion. Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.
  • The Benedictine monks who invented the mechanical clock in the 12th and 13th centuries believed that such a clock would provide a precise regularity to the seven periods of devotion... here is a great paradox: the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; and it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose. ...Gutenberg thought his invention would advance the cause of the Holy Roman See, whereas in fact, it turned out to bring a revolution which destroyed the monopoly of the Church.
  • The world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact ...that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise. ...The medieval world was... not without a sense of order. Ordinary men and women... had no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not rational, at least coherent. ...The situation we are presently in is much different. ...sadder and more confusing and certainly more mysterious. ...There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore... we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.
  • In the Middle Ages, there was a scarcity of information but its very scarcity made it both important and usable. This began to change, as everyone knows, in the late 15th century when a goldsmith named Gutenberg, from Mainz, converted an old wine press into a printing machine, and in so doing, created what we now call an information explosion. ...Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.
  • But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. ...matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems. ...The tie between information and action has been severed. ...It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it.
  • We no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don't know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.
  • Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? ...If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?
  • What causes us the most misery and pain... has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. 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. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is... a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most need to confront — spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.
  • Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it.
  • In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people — perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.
  • They will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge... instantaneous global communication... the way to mutual understanding... Virtual Reality... the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.
  • Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." ...Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." ...Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." ...the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you ...what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us... There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)

  • Cultures may be classed into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. ...until the seventeenth century, all cultures were tool-users. ...the main characteristic of all tool-using cultures is that their tools were largely invented to do two things: to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion, as in the construction of castles and cathedrals and the development of the mechanical clock. In either case, tools (...were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced. With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization...
  • In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives...
  • Two opposing world-views — the technological and the traditional — coexisted in uneasy tension. The technological was the stronger, of course, but the traditional was there — still functional, still exerting influence... This is what we find documented not only in Mark Twain but in the poetry of Walt Whitman, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the prose of Thoreau, the philosophy of Emerson, the novels of Hawthorne and Melville, and, most vividly of all, in Alexis de Tocqueville's monumental Democracy in America. In a word, two distinct thought-worlds were rubbing against each other in nineteenth-century America.
  • With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy.
  • Technopoly is a state of culture... state of mind... the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology... its satisfactions... its orders... This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's superhuman achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved. They also believe that information is an unmixed blessing, which through its continued and uncontrolled production and dissemination offers increased freedom, creativity, and peace of mind. The fact that information does none of these things — but quite the opposite — seems to change few opinions, for unwavering beliefs are an inevitable product of the structure of Technopoly. In particular, Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down.
  • The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information. ...control mechanisms are strained... When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquillity and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.
  • Because of what computers commonly do... With the exception of the electric light, there never has been a technology that better exemplifies Marshall McLuhan's aphorism "The medium is the message." ...the "message" of computer technology is comprehensive and domineering. The computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and professional levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable. ...this is... nonsense. Our most serious problems are not technical, nor do they arise from inadequate information. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it shall not be because of inadequate information. Where people are dying of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing whatever to do with any of these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them.
  • We can imagine that Thamus [or Amun: this is a reference to a discussion on the value of writing in Plato's Phaedrus] would also have pointed out to Gutenberg, as he did to Theuth, that the new invention would create a vast population of readers who "will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction... with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom"; that reading, in other words, will compete with older forms of learning. This is yet another principle of technological change we may infer from the judgment of Thamus: new technologies compete with old ones — for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view. This competition is implicit once we acknowledge that the medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competitions can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool — the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.
  • In the United States, we can see such collisions everywhere... but... most clearly in the schools, where two great technologies confront each other in uncompromising aspect for the control of students' minds. On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response. Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. ...children who cannot organize their thought into logical structure even in a simple paragraph, children who cannot attend to lectures or oral explanations for more than a few minutes at a time... They are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side — at least for the moment.
  • Who knows what schools will be like twenty-five years from now? Or fifty? In time, the type of student who is currently a failure may be considered a success. The type who is now successful may be regarded as a handicapped learner — slow to respond, far too detached, lacking in emotion, inadequate in creating mental pictures of reality. Consider: what Thamus called the "conceit of wisdom" — the unreal knowledge acquired through the written word — eventually became the pre-eminent form of knowledge valued by the schools. There is no reason to suppose that such a form of knowledge must always remain so highly valued.
  • In introducing the personal computer to the classroom, we shall be breaking a four-hundred year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word. Orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility... Print stresses individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy. Over four centuries, teachers, while emphasizing print, have allowed orality its place in the classroom, and have therefore achieved a kind of pedagogical peace between these two forms of learning, so that what is valuable in each can be maximized. Now comes the computer, carrying anew the banner of private learning and individual problem-solving. Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?
  • Technological competition ignites total war, which means it is not possible to contain the effects of a new technology to a limited sphere of human activity... What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school.


  • I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.

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