Saturday, October 05, 2013

Neil Postman Ten Years On

Neil Postman died ten years ago today. The sadness I feel still is hard to describe.

In the e-mail that brought me news of his death from lung cancer at the age of 72, Lance Strate described Neil, very accurately, as "the mentor of hundreds, in fact thousands of graduate students, and so the loss is personal as well as professional. We will miss him as a friend, colleague, teacher, and father."

I have to say right off the bat that I was not one of those people to whom Lance refers. I cannot claim Neil Postman as a mentor. A teacher and an inspiration? Yes. But not a mentor. Frankly, he frightened and intimidated me (not deliberately, of course; the insecurities were all mine) and reminded me of my own self-perceived intellectual inadequacies. (In fairness to the topic, if anyone deserves credit – or perhaps I should say blame – for mentoring me, it would be Neil’s NYU colleague Christine Nystrom, who was able to encourage and coax from me my best thinking and writing.) Yet Neil supported and helped me in so many ways--academically, professionally, personally—and, as it turns out, influenced my thinking far more deeply than I understood at the time, that the shock of his passing has barely abated in ten years. How I’d love to sit and talk with him now about our shared media ecology.

I first heard of Neil Postman while working on my Master’s Degree in Communication at New York Institute of Technology around 1976. A couple of serendipitous events occurred. One, I took a course with a professor named Irving Weingarten who, during my time at NYIT, defended his dissertation and received his Doctorate in Media Ecology from New York University and introduced me to Neil’s work. Two, I took a course with Philip Miele – “Vocabulary of the Media Critic” – whose core text was Harold Innis’s “The Bias of Communication.” I had, of course, read Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” as an undergraduate – depending on your point of view, either essential reading or de rigueur at the time – and was of course fascinated by him and his aphoristic probes. But I had an uneasy feeling that one could make of much of McLuhan’s wisdom just about anything one wanted. A Nostrodamus for the electronic age. There was great vision and imagination – even poetry – in McLuhan’s probes but not a whole lot of specificity.

Innis, on the other hand, supplied the structure and method that I felt lacking in McLuhan’s work. Innis told me, in different words, that the medium is the message. But he also supplied me with historical examples that provided a foundation upon which I could build an understanding of exactly what that phrase meant. And Irv Weingarten turned me on to Neil’s writing and the concept of a “media ecology,” so similar to what I was reading in McLuhan but so much more grounded in common sense and reason. My first encounter with Neil’s work was “Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk” (1977), followed almost immediately by “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (1969). By the time I was awarded my Master’s degree in 1980, I knew I had to get into that “Media Ecology” program at NYU. Money, work, life being what they are, it took me six more years.

Neil was a humble, funny, gregarious person who, at the same time, was a towering, imposing figure. He was also, at the time of my arrival, the author of a new book that everyone seemed to be talking about, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business.” At the risk of repeating myself, I had enormous difficulty finding the same comfort level with Neil as so many others in the program so easily managed to do. At first, my end of our infrequent exchanges were limited pretty much to a stumbling “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “I’m not sure, sir.” Oh, I answered questions and gave my opinion when called upon to do so, but I’m pretty sure my mouth dried and my tongue tied every time I had to speak with him. At the end of the first semester, in our “Seminar in Media Ecology: Analysis,” my colleagues and I in the class of ‘90 cohort had to write and submit a brief (mine was 35 pages) history of a medium, after which we defended it orally in front of Neil and Chris Nystrom. I’ll never forget the feeling of horror and humiliation as I sat across from the two of them and watched Neil hold my paper between his thumb and forefinger, dangling it to his side as though it were a soiled tissue picked up from the floor, while he leaned back in his chair, took a deep drag on his cigarette, paused, and said only this: “Peter…your writing is so…florid…” Chris rescued me, even remarking that she enjoyed my writing, but if I could have melted into the woodwork at that moment, I surely would have. I must also say (with considerable pride but also immeasurable relief) that in time Neil came to appreciate and perhaps even respect both my writing and my thinking.

Over the years, I learned so much from Neil, as well as from Chris, Terry Moran, Henry Perkinson, John Mayher, and others. It was impossible not to learn in this program. I learned about and read the works of John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Alfred Korzybski, I.A. Richards; of Alfred North Whitehead and Suzanne Langer; of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul; of Marx, Engels, and Freud; of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas; and of course, of Marshall McLuhan. For Neil, there was no educational replacement for the information technology of the Gutenberg era, the printed book. As he explained to Jay Rosen with typical understatement, “We’re just trying to give people a good liberal arts education,” and that good liberal arts education was the education of literacy, the education of the Enlightenment. I got to know Neil Postman as an eminently reasonable – and rational – man; but a man for whom reason was simply one piece of the human intellect, incomplete without its complementary counterpart, imagination. And the imagination, seat of the emotional life, was the foundation of empathy.

“From the beginning,” Neil said in the keynote address at the inaugural convention of the Media Ecology Association, “we were a group of moralists.” This appealed to me, because I am something of a media moralist myself. It was what attracted me to the program in the first place. I could see this moralism subtly in Innis, more overtly in Ellul. But it was absent in McLuhan. McLuhan had once said “A moral point of view too often substitutes for understanding in technological matters” (I have an imaginary discussion of this point with McLuhan here). I couldn’t understand why, in the act of understanding media, one would not be moved to improve the situation of the people that those media serve. And so my affinity for Neil’s thinking grew. “It was our idea,” Neil continued in his 2000 keynote, “to have an academic department that would focus its attention on the media environment, with a particular interest in understanding how and if our media ecology was making us better or worse. Not everyone thought that this was a good idea—Marshall McLuhan, for one. Although McLuhan had suggested that we start such a department at NYU, he did not have in mind that we ought to interest ourselves in whether or not new media, especially electronic media, would make us better or worse. He reminded me several times of the lines in Stephen Vincent Benét’s long poem John Brown’s Body. At the end of the poem, Benét makes reference to the Industrial Revolution and finishes with these lines:

“Say neither, it is blessed nor cursed.

“Say only ‘It is here.’

“No room for moralists there. McLuhan claimed that we ought to take the same point of view in thinking about modern media: that they are neither blessed nor cursed, only that they are here. He thought that this moral neutrality would give the best opportunity to learn exactly how new media do their stuff. If one spent too much time on the question of whether or not that stuff was good, one would be distracted from truly understanding media. As a consequence, although I believe McLuhan liked me, I feel sure he would not have much liked my books, which he would have thought too moralistic, rabbinical or, if not that, certainly too judgmental.”

Neil Postman was a true heir to the legacy of the Enlightenment: a proponent of propositional language and thought who wrote clear, concise, rational prose; a man of imagination and transcendence who knew that humans were more than the sum of their material parts. Far from being the Luddite he is generally accused of being, Neil rejected the idea that all technological change constituted “progress” and refused to be controlled by technology – or the people who market them – but enthusiastically embraced those technologies – and only those – that measurably improved the quality of human life. And he did not apologize for that.

He did not hesitate to point a finger at the mendacity of marketers who sell newness for its own sake or to ridicule the baseless and unsupported claims of the acolytes of our new digital religion. “
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.”

But throughout human history, Neil also acknowledged, it was technologies that shaped the information, psychic, and spiritual environments that allowed people to make things better. In true humanist fashion, Neil left us some questions to think about when trying to make judgments about which value system would be served by a given technology: “The first question is this: To what extent does a medium contribute to the uses and development of rational thought? Here is a second question: To what extent does a medium contribute to the development of democratic processes? A third question—related to the previous two—is: To what extent do new media give greater access to meaningful information? Here is a final question: To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?” Neil would never rejectaAny technology that provided suitable answers to those questions.

Ten brief years after his death, one of my fondest memories of Neil is sitting in the courtyard of Fordham's Lincoln Center campus at lunchtime during the first MEA conference. My Mom had just died, and I was nursing my Dad through his final (three year) illness. Much of my personal life, at that moment, was a shambles. Neil came and sat with me and we just talked about life--its difficulty, its tragedy, and its beauty. I was impressed not so much by what he said – what does one say, after all, to someone who believes his life is falling apart? – but by the sheer humanity of the gesture. I really don’t remember the specifics of our conversation, but I’ll never forget the moment. One of the reasons that Neil was the teacher, thinker, and writer that we know him to be is that he was – for all the criticisms of his "Luddite" work – wholly alive and in love with life and the phenomenon of human intelligence. He had a profound faith in ALL of us. Those moments with Neil – no longer the “towering figure” I stammered before but the compassionate friend who listened to me – are burned into my memory forever.

Ten years ago this semester I began a new phase in my career and my life out here on the prairie, and I was unable to attend the various memorials and social events in Neil's honor. I was unable to be in NY for his funeral, although I would dearly have loved to pay my respects in person to all who knew Neil. My sympathies remain with all of you who continue to mourn Neil's passing, just as my joy will always be with those of you who celebrate his life and carry on his work. I am proud to count myself among your ranks. I honestly believe it is time for a “Neil Postman Renaissance.” We need a corrective to the orgy of technophilia that has surrounded this false information “revolution” for the last two decades. We need a direction and while Neil Postman is not that direction – and would blanch at any suggestion to the contrary – his work may provide with clues to that direction.

At the end of his 2000 MEA keynote, Neil (who was snarky before snarky was cool) made it clear that he, if no one else, envisioned Media Ecology as a logical extension of Enlightenment and Renaissance humanism, in which no answers are given, but methods for questioning are constantly improved and the end of this intellectual activity is the improvement of the human condition. He concluded “by saying that as I understand the whole point of media ecology, it exists to further our insights into how we stand as human beings, how we are doing morally in the journey we are taking. There may be some of you who think of yourselves as media ecologists who disagree with what I have just said. If that is the case, you are wrong.”


Neil Postman Bibliography


•Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century:  Ideas from the Past that Can Improve Our Future.  New York: Knopf, 1999.

•The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School.  New York, Knopf, 1995

•The Disappearance of Childhood:  Redefining the Value of School.  New York: Vintage Books, 1994, c.1982.

•Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  New York: Vintage Books, 1993

•Conscientious Objection:  Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education.  New York: Vintage Books, 1992, c.1988.

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

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

•Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk:  How We Defeat Ourselves by the Way We Talk and What to Do About It.  New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.

•Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  New York: Delta Book Publishing, 1971, c.1969.

•Languages of Discovery.  New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1967.

•The Uses of Language.  New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1967.

•Exploring Your Language.  New York:  Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1966.

•Linguistics: A Revolution in Teaching.  New York: Delta Book Publishing, 1966.

•The New English: A Forward Look.  New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1965.

•Discovering Your Language.  New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1963.

•Television and the Teaching of English.  New York: Appleton Centruy Croft, 1961.


•with Donald N. Wood.  Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy:  The Failure of Reason and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century.  Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.

•with Steve Powers.  How to Watch TV News.  New York: Penguin, 1992.

•et al.  Myths, Men and Beer:  an Analysis of Beer Commercials on Broadcast Television.  Church Falls, VA.:  Foundation for Traffic Safety, 1987.

•with Charles Weingartner.  The School Book: for People Who Want to Know What all the Hollering Is About.  New York: Delacorte Press, 1973.

•with Charles Weingartner.  How to Recognize a Good School.  Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1973.

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

•with Charles Weingartner.  Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  New York: Delacorte Press, 1979, c. 1969.

•with Charles Weingartner.  Linguistics:  A Revolution in Teaching.  New York: Delacorte Press, 1966.

•with Howard C. Damon.  The Language of Discovery.  New York:  Delacotre Press, 1965.

•with Howard C. Damon.  Language and System.  New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1965.

•et al.  Television and the Teaching of English.  New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1961.



•Language in America: A Report on Our Deteriorating Semantic Environment.  New York: Pegasus, 1969.

•The Roots of Fanaticism.  Ed. with Howard C. Damon.  New York: Holt Reinhart and Winston, 1965.


•“Science and the Story that We Need.   First Things.  No. 69 (1997), 29-32.

•“Making a Living, Making a Life: Technology Reconsidered.”  College Board Review.  No. 176-177 (1995), 8-13.

•“Virtual Students, Digital Classroom.”  The Nation. No. 261 ign (1995), 377-378ff.

•“The American Experiment”  Education Week, Vol. 15 (1995), 56.

•“Error of Our Ways.”  Teacher Magazine.  Vol. 6 (1995), 32-37.

•“Technology as Dazzling Distraction.”  The Education Digest.  Vol. 59 (1994), 25-28.

•“Deus Machina”  Technos.  Vol. 1 (1992), 16-18.

•with Camille Paglia.  “She Wants Her TV! He Wants His Book!”  Harper’s Vol. 282 (1991), 44-51, 54-55.

•“What is a Conservative? (And Why Reagan Is Not One).”  Utne Reader (Mar/Ap, 1989), 75.

•“Learning by Story.”  The Atlantic.  No. 264 (1989) 119-124.

•“The Educationist as Painkiller.”  English Education.  (1988), 7-17.

•“The Blurring of Childhood and the Media.”  Religious Education, Vol. 82 (1987) 293-295.

•“The Limits of Language.”  Etc.  Vol. 43 (1986), 227-235.

•“TV News as Vaudeville.”  The Quill.  Vol. 74 (1986), 18-23.

•“Media and Technology as Educators.”  Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. (1985), 183-200.

•“Social Science as Theology.”  Etc.  Vol. 41 (1984), 22-32.

•“The Day Our Children Disappear: Predictions of a Media Ecologist.”  Phi Delta Kappa.  Vol. 62 (1981), 382-386.

•“Fine Tuning the Balance Between Education and Media Culture.”  Teacher.  Vol. 98 (1980), 28-30.

•“Language Education in a Knowledge Context.”  Etc.  Vol. 37 (1980), 25-37.

•“Landmarks in the Literature: the Limits of Language.”  New York University Education Quarterly.  Vol. 11 (1979), 29-32.

•“The Ascent of Humanity: a Coherent Curriculum.”  Educational Leadership.  Vol. 37 (1980), 300-303

•“Order in the Classroom!”  Atlantic.  Vol. 244 (1979) 35-38.

•“The First Curriculum.”  Phi Delta Kappa.  Vol. 61 (1979), 163-168.

•“The Information Environment.”  Etc.  Vol. 36 (1979), 234-245.

•“Landmarks in Literature: Where Have All the Critics Gone?”  New York University Education Quarterly. Vol. 9 (1977), 28-31.

•“What an Educator Means When He Says…”  Journal of the International Association of Pupil Personnel Workers.  Vol. 20 (1976), 153-156.

•“Whatever I Call It, It Is.”  Etc.  Vol. 31 (1974), 37-44.

•with Charles Weingartner.  “Two Tests to Take - to Find Out if Yours Is a Great School.”  American School Board Journal.  Vol. 161 (1974), 23-26.

•“Media Ecology: A Growing Perspective.”  Media Ecology Review.  Vol. 3 (1973), 10-11.

•“Illich, Pro and Con.”  Social Policy.  Vol. 2 (1971), 33-42.

•“The New Literacy”  Grade Teacher.   Vol. 88 (1971), 2-52.

•“The Politics of Reading.”  Harvard Educational Review.  Vol. 40 (1970), 244-252.


Jude Tingley said...

Beautifully written, felt, reasoned. I'm printing this out & keeping it.
And oh, what a terrific bibliography!

Peter K Fallon, Ph.D. said...

Thank you, Jude. It's a well-traveled bibliography available widely on the Internet. I did not compile it. Ironically, Neil probably would have disapproved.