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Redefining the Value of School
By Neil Postman
Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

In The End of Education, Neil Postman returns to a question he has explored on and off since he began his career as an elementary school teacher: education. It's a topic that has dominated the cultural debate in America, with varying degrees of intensity, for the better part of the twentieth century. You would think that everything that could be said on the subject would have been said well enough by now. But no. Every year a new spate of books appears tackling the same old themes: diversity in the classroom, the pros and cons of various teaching methods, declining standards, core curricula, violence in our schools, etc. But Postman sidesteps these issues and takes a broader view. His aim in this book, he says, is to redefine the crisis of education in America — from means to ends.

The "school problem" has two dimensions, as he sees it. One is the engineering aspect: the means by which young people acquire an education. The other is the metaphysical aspect: the underlying purpose or mission — the "end" — of education. Postman believes that the debate over the future of America's schools focuses too much on engineering concerns — curricula, teaching methods, standardized testing, the role of technology, etc. — while very little attention is paid to the metaphysics of schooling. As the title suggests, he feels that "without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better."

For education to be meaningful, Postman contends, young people, their parents, and their teachers must have a common narrative. Narratives are essential because they provide a sense of personal identity, a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct, and explanations of that which cannot be known. The idea of public education requires not only shared narratives, but also the absence of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness. "What makes public schools public," writes Postman, "is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods." As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, John Dewey and other great educators understood, public schools do not serve a public so much as create a public. But in order to do that they depend on the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.

Postman's most compelling argument, in my view, revolves around what he takes to be the "false gods" of modern education. What keeps our schools from being effective, he says, is the lack of commonly accepted stories, or the inadequacy of those we have in giving meaning and direction to schooling. At the moment, he says, education is geared toward economic utility, consumerism, technology, multiculturalism and other bogus objectives. Narratives such as these are incapable of providing a rich and sustaining rationale for public education.

He goes on to describe five narratives that may serve us better: "Spaceship Earth" (the notion of humans as stewards of the planet); "The Fallen Angel" (a view of history and the advancement of knowledge as a series of errors and corrections); "The American Experiment" (the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous argument); "The Laws of Diversity" (the view that difference contributes to increased vitality and excellence, and, ultimately, to a sense of unity); and "The Word Weavers/The World Makers" (the understanding that the world is created through language — through definitions, questions, and metaphors).

Postman also offers a number of admittedly radical innovations toward making schools more effective. He argues that textbooks should be altogether eliminated because they have a deadening effect on students and promote a view of education as the acquisition of immutable facts. He proposes that teachers offer incentives to students who find errors in their teachers' lessons. And he feels that the subjects of archeology, geology and astronomy be given the highest priority since they imbue students with a sense of awe and global interdependence.

These proposals notwithstanding, Postman stresses that his main purpose is to promote a serious conversation about the underlying reasons for education — not about policies, management, assessment, and other engineering matters. While these are important, he states, "they ought rightfully to be addressed after decisions are made about what schools are for."

Overall, this is a very convincing argument, and, as usual, Postman makes it most eloquently. At one point in the book, he acknowledges a debt of gratitude to George Orwell, one of his intellectual heroes. This seems fitting, I think, since Postman writes much the way Orwell did. The prose is clear, informal, and strikingly persuasive.

In one of my favorite essays, "The Prevention of Literature," Orwell wrote: "To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox." If Postman's book is written off by some as hopelessly impractical, or vaguely utopian in nature, as it no doubt will, don't be fooled. That's the voice of political orthodoxy. No genius I know of has ever said, "Oh, that's impractical." Brilliant thinkers say, "Let's look at this from a new angle." That, in effect, is what Postman has done with this book.

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Related book reviews: Scott London surveys Neil Postman's Technopoly and Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. See also his interview with Postman from the radio series Insight & Outlook (requires RealPlayer).


Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.