Stirring Up Trouble About Technology, Language, and Education

Interview by Eugene Rubin

Neil Postman is a critic, writer, communications theorist, and professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University. Educated at the State University of New York and Columbia University, he holds the Christian Lindback Award for Excellence in Teaching and in 1987 was given the George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language by the National Council of Teachers of English. He was for ten years editor of Et Cetera, the journal of general semantics.

He has written 17 books on a range of topics from the crisis in our schools, to the effect of television on our public and political life, to the nature of modern childhood and education. Throughout, his position is that of the “conscientious objector”— standing aside from what he sees as institutionalized mistakes or commonplace stupidities, and raising questions about them.

He is married and has three children, and lives in Flushing, New York.

Aurora: You say that T.V. is leading to the rapid disappearance of childhood in North America and that this is a social disaster. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Postman: Well, the notion of childhood, while it might conceivably have a biological basis, is largely a social artifact. We know, for instance, in the medieval world there was no such thing comparable to what we today call childhood. There were basically two stages of life: infancy and adulthood, with infancy ending at about the age of seven.

This form of social organization was the product of the kind of communication system that existed. That is to say, it was largely an oral culture in which most of the important social transactions occurred through speech in face-to-face situations. So in order to be an adult, one had to learn how to speak, which most people do by the age of seven.

In the sixteenth century, this began to change because the communication environment changed with the invention of the printing press. After the printing press, one had to earn adulthood by becoming literate. People are biologically programmed to learn how to speak, but they are not biologically programmed to be literate. This required the development of the modern school. And for the first time in centuries, a certain segment of the population was segregated from the rest of the population and sent to a special place, namely school, in order to learn how to become literate. After a while, the term schoolboy became synonymous with a certain age group, which developed into the idea of childhood—a special stage of life that was to act as a bridge between infancy and adulthood.

For about 350 years, we in the West have been developing this idea of three stages of life: infancy, childhood, and adulthood. Now, we have a new element in the communication environment called television, which is making the idea of childhood increasingly untenable; and it is doing this in several ways. One is that it makes the content of the adult world available to the young without them having to learn any special coding system such as the printed word. Previously adults revealed the secrets of adult life—by secrets, I mean the social, political, and sexual secrets that adults know but that are not considered appropriate for children to know—to the young in stages and in psychologically assimilable ways.

Now, television reveals all these secrets all at once, simultaneously to everyone in the culture, so that it becomes impossible to control the socialization of the young. Slowly, the whole period that we call childhood becomes less distinct than it once was. For example, there was a time not so long ago, when alcoholism was strictly an adult affliction. There really were no child alcoholics. Now figures show that it is quite common. We know, of course, about drug addiction and how common that is in our young. We even know about sexual diseases and sexual activity itself. We certainly know about crime. I have some interesting crime statistics which show how fully engaged the young are in crime, whereas as recently as 1959 crime by the under 18 population was not a major issue in the culture. So my argument is simply that television makes it increasingly impossible to sustain the idea of childhood and that in North America, especially, we can see its rapid disappearance.

Aurora: As an educator, I would say that is stimulating and very thought provoking, but as a parent it scares me. You say you know of no immediate solution to this problem. Is it really as hopeless as you suggest?

Postman: Well, for parents who are aware of what's happening and who have the time and affluence to exert influence on the socializing of their own children, there still is the possibility of providing a child with a childhood. But that requires parents to pay a great deal of attention to, among other things, the media influences on their children. More and more, there are not, enough parents whose lives meet those conditions. In America we have fewer two-parent families. Even in two-parent families more and more both parents are working so that what happens is that the socializing of the children is given over to the media. Parents need to regulate how much time their children can watch television and what they can watch, what films they can see and even what records they can have. They must talk to their children a lot about what they are exposed to in these media. If parents are paying considerable attention to what's happening, then I think it's possible to provide children with a childhood. But, if you are too busy or your life circumstances, for whatever reason, don't permit that, then NBC, CBS, Steven Spielberg, Coca-Cola, and Procter and Gamble will simply do the job.

Aurora: Many people would argue that what we need to do is simply throw the box into the garbage. Do you agree with that?

Postman: I don't think there is any possibility of that, so I don't really think too much about it. As a social critic of sorts, I try to focus my attention on what is possible. Now, I do think that it is possible, at least in some countries, to limit the overpowering influence of a medium like television. For example, Denmark has just done its first advertiser-supported television station with limitations on commercials. They allow no commercials for cigarettes, liquor, beer, banks, medicine, religious organizations, political organizations, or those aimed at young children. Moreover, the Danes do not believe that television should be on twenty-four hours a day.

In the States, of course, it's too late for restrictions of that sort to be put into place. Americans wouldn't tolerate it. Besides, the ideology of the present administration and of the recent administration is what I call “free-market extremism.” Ronald Regan was anything but conservative; I call him a free-market extremist by which I mean that he believes, as apparently does President Bush, in the development and exploitation of technology for economic gain. So there is not very much of a likelihood that there would be a social policy that would restrict the growth of any medium.

However, in western Europe some very serious thought is given to the question of how, through education, social policy, or political action the influence of television on cultural life can be controlled. I've been spending so much of my time in Europe because there are people there who are still taking that question seriously. Whether or not such a question has any meaning in the United States is another matter, and generally I don't think it does.

Sometimes people ask me if I'm a Luddite, if I really want to bust up all the machinery, and my answer is an emphatic no. I want our social organizations and people generally to take some control over technology. More and more of what I see happening is that people have not thought deeply about how technology works in their culture, how it can undo things and change things that cultures actually need. So, what is required here is not to break up the machinery but an almost quantum increase in the sophistication and knowledge about technology that people presently have.

Aurora: I think we're in a similar political situation in Canada in terms of the political views of the role of media. Would you say that it's too late to argue loudly for a return to noncommercial T.V. in North America?

Postman: Well, your country and mine both have a noncommercial system. We have the PBS, but it's a relatively insignificant form of television in America. But in my own thinking I'm moving beyond the issue of television and thinking about, writing about, and sometimes screaming about the role of technology generally in culture. Americans are now doing with computer technology what they did with television technology. That is, they are not paying any attention to its psychological and social effects on the culture. They are just going ahead blindly, asking only, what will this new technology do? They are neglecting the question, what will the new technology entirely undo?

In a book I am now writing I try to set out certain principles about the role of technology in cultural life that I would like people to begin paying some attention to. Especially here in the States we seem quite prepared to change our definitions of family, childhood, intelligence, knowledge, privacy, piety, everything just to accommodate the demands of new technology, not only video technology but also computer technology and other technology. I think this is a mistake, and it signifies a culture that is on a self-destructive path. So, lately, I've been showing up at conferences about the computer technology as well as conferences about television and other media.

Aurora: You state that shows such as Sesame Street demand that entertainment take precedence over the rigors of learning. This is not necessarily the common view of such shows. Mr. Rogers and Big Bird are national heroes and are praised by most parents. What do you say to these parents?

Postman: Well, in the first case, I would make a distinction between Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. In fact, research on those kids who watched Mr. Rogers, more or less consistently, and those who watched Sesame Street, more or less consistently, shows some very significant differences between those viewers. Mr. Rogers is largely conducted in what you might call “real time.” It doesn't really use all the possibilities of television like quick editing and many visual tricks.

My complaint about Sesame Street is that it makes children love television, not school. It is a terrific television show and really uses all the resources of a visual image-based medium. If the claim is that Sesame Street makes kids like school, then it is only in the sense that kids will like school if it's like television. It may be that watchers of Sesame Street are learning their letters and numbers, but they are also learning many other things about learning. They are learning that it must always be entertaining, that learning is largely a matter of images, and that learning has to involve immediate gratification. All these collateral learnings turn out in the end to be much more important than whether kids are actually learning their letters and numbers. Most kids learn letters and numbers in due time, anyway. And that is the basis of my complaint.

Aurora: Tell me, did your kids watch Sesame Street?

Postman: Well, you're going to be kind of surprised at how old my kids are. They were not Sesame Street watchers. They tended to be Mr. Rogers watchers. In our house there were always lots of books around. We read to the kids. Our house was filled with words, printed words and talk about printed words, and that helped a lot in their development. I think an environment like that goes a long way towards shaping the attitudes of children.

Our oldest child is 31, and he turned out to be an astrophysicist; the next one is 27, and he's a writer; and our daughter, who is 24, is a teacher. So even if they watched Sesame Street, I think they would have turned out more or less the same because we acted in our home as a kind of counter environment to television. That's what I was talking about before. I think it's possible for parents to function as a counter environment to the environment created by the dominant media and thereby provide children with what the dominant media are not providing.

Aurora: Your description of that kind of parent may be in the minority of the population. Could it be that our future great thinkers will be those who have managed to isolate themselves from the effects of media and the T.V., and all others will eventually be passive followers? Would that be a fair?

Postman: That is kind of frightening. But in the next fifty years, those who will learn early and well to be literate will probably form some sort of elite, which has its good side and its bad side. No one likes to contemplate a culture in which there is kind of an elite priesthood that has access to special codes, namely print. It sounds like a prescription for an authoritarian culture to develop. What will be fifty years after that is very murky. I mean, it may be that in the end literacy will no longer be of any importance to the culture.

Aurora: You've said that the decline of language in both its spoken and written form is resulting in a decrease in thinking and an increase of what you term stupidity. It seems that the main culprit is the new medias and in particular, T.V.

Postman: Well I think there is no question that image-based media, which includes television, film, advertising in its various forms, photography and so on, have made the word a less powerful and binding medium in the culture. We can't get away from that. Now, I would argue that that necessarily implies a decline in what we have traditionally meant by reasoning be-cause our idea of reasoning and of critical thought, analytical thought, detached thought, has been intimately linked with the written word. To the extent that the written word is moved to the periphery of the culture and the visual image takes its place in the centre, there would be a natural decline in what we might call intelligence or intellectual thought.

Aurora: You say that instead of educating children to believe what they are told, as a traditional education does, we should be educating them to disbelieve. That suggests a radical change in the curriculum and activities of our schools. How would you suggest we do that?

Postman: Well, I started to give an answer to that twenty years ago in a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity and again thirteen years later in Teaching as a Conserving Activity. I think the most important thing we can do for our students is to help develop in them a sense of detachment and analytic skill so that they can look at their own culture with courage, calm, and intelligence. I would certainly agree that the present curricula for the most part try to get students to believe what their culture believes. It would be necessary to rethink what we mean by a curriculum.

This doesn't mean that teachers have to be malcontents, but it does mean that we have to find a way of getting students to know how to think. Now, it's very easy to say we need to teach students how to think, but it is not entirely clear how we can get students to learn to think. At every teacher's conference I go to, I hear speakers say that this is what we need to do, but it is very difficult to find one who has a plan for how this might be done.

One possible way of doing that is to abandon the whole idea of trying to make students intelligent and focus on the idea of making them less dumb. This is not just some semantic razzle-dazzle but is exactly the procedure that physicians and lawyers follow, which is one of the reasons I would guess they make so much money. Doctors do not generally concern themselves with what is good health; they concentrate on what is sickness. And lawyers don't think too much about what is justice; they think about what is injustice. Using this model in teaching would imply identifying and understanding various forms of stupidity and then working to eliminate as many of those as we could.

The trouble with trying to make kids more intelligent is that intelligence is very difficult to define. It tends to be vague and makes people lapse into clichés, but if we concentrate on stupidity we can be very concrete. In one of my essays in Conscientious Objections I try to identify half a dozen types of stupid talk that I think are cureable.

Aurora: But many people might easily suggest that what doctors and lawyers do are not what they should be doing. They should be concerned with health.

Postman: I think they're wrong. I hear a lot of people say that the trouble with doctors is that they should be more holistic; they should think more about what is good.

Maybe I shouldn't have answered so quickly—there probably is something to that. But I think that doctors function best when they can be concrete. When you go to a doctor, you probably go because there is a problem, and his first question is going to be, “What's bothering you?” And then you're going to say, “It's my shoulder, and I can't lift my left arm.” That kind of transaction has a concreteness to which it holds the promise of the doctor being a precise kind of practitioner. So, I'm going to hold on to this idea a little while longer. I think there may be something in it.

Aurora: Can you imagine the evolution of T.V. or what we would call modern media into something that you could view more positively?

Postman: Yes, I could imagine it. One of the lessons I want to teach is that media always have unforeseen consequences and always take unpredictable turns. It's quite possible that while we are having this conversation, some kid is being born in a Toronto hospital who will twenty-five or thirty years from now think of something to do with television that no one now can even imagine. I can't think now of what such a form might be, but I always hold out the possibility that some unforseen turn will be taken with some technology. It's quite possible that computer technology, for instance, will turn out to be a great ally of print—in order to know how to program a computer you would have to think about thinking. I don't have the kind of imagination that can picture what change might occur, but I think it's possible.

Aurora: Yes, let's keep our fingers crossed.

Books by Neil Postman

Conscientious Objections: stirring Up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985.

The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.

Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Delacorte Press, 1979.

The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools Around. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delacorte Press, 1969.

Article originally published Fall 1989

An Aurora Update

Neil Postman passed away October 5, 2003.

Internationally recognized scholar and critic, he was the author of 17 published books. His most recent work was Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. His articles have been published and have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper's, Time Magazine, The Saturday Review, The Harvard Education Review, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, Stern, and Le Monde. In 1986 he was given the George Orwell Award for clarity in Language by the National Council of Teachers of English. Other awards include the Christian Lindback Award for excellence in teaching and Distinguished Teacher Award--one of many awards received in his 38 years of teaching at New York University.

Related Links:

Foreword from Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman criticizes the mass media, including cultural icons such as Sesame Street.

Informing Ourselves to Death: A speech to the German Informatics Society on the disadvantages of computer technology.

PBS Online Forum with Neil Postman


Updated March 2012

Citation Format

Rubin, Eugene (2001). Neil Postman: Stirring Up Trouble About Technology, Language,. Aurora Online: