Aldous Huxley’s dystopic prophecy from the Brave New World (1931), that no one would read books in the future because no one would want to read a book, has been at our doorstep for a while. Forget censorship, our modern civilization lulls itself to ignorance of its own accord.
It would seem strange then, to mount a campaign against ignorance and propaganda by rejecting the reading of books.
But the more I read Postman and Weingartner’s 1969 reform manual Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I feel that there hasn’t been a more successful or subtle argument against the reading of books than this one, because it is all done in the name of freedom.
I first encountered Neil Postman with Building A Bridge to the 18th Century (1999) – a much more tempered treatment of technological change and modern reason. However, his earlier works continue to be his most widely read and influential among educators, which is one reason why I think the discussion of technology in schools has remained basically where it was forty years ago.
The main crux of the argument lies here: Northrop Frye viewed mass media as fragmenting one’s inner life – the life of the mind. Neil Postman sees mass media as a chance to fragment the narratives of political authority by emphasizing a habit of thought antithetical to “linear thinking”. Postman’s niavety about the virtues of technology is striking, but after the post-modern revolution and the triumph of personal technologies that dilute meaning in everyday life, his rhetoric continues to be the standard bearer for proponents of “cutting-edge” digital literacy.
Allow me to sketch a slightly irreverent caricature of their position (which I will then clarify):
Imagine a world in which intellectual freedom consists not in knowing or understanding things, but ends simply in raising questions. This was, after all, Socrates’ modus operandi, was it not? The act of questioning undoes the balance of power and is the quickest way to making us feel wise about ourselves. It’s a lot more interesting and fun than learning facts. Besides, computers have made knowledge, or at least long-term memory, obsolete. The main task of the future is to “solve problems,” and there is no point in trying to solve the problems of the past when future problems will be wholly different. This is all sounding eerily familiar.
For Postman and Weingartner, this was the revamped “inquiry” method of education – where students do most of the asking, and teachers do most of the facilitating. Forty years later, it is still the “avante-garde” way of teaching.
The process was the outcome – the medium is literally the message. Train students in the habit of “crap-detecting,” and all will be well. It was a revolutionary approach during the height of the Vietnam war, capable of prying children from the clutches of the bureaucrat, the capitalist, and the propagandist. Mass media was their common denominator and it was up to educators to free students from GroupThink.
Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published the same year in English, and together with PW smashed the musty idol of rote-learning that kept American students deaf, dumb, and blind. Freire criticized rote-learning as the ‘banking method’ – tell the student what they need to know, and produce a complacent consumer in the end. Never mind the Marxist mumbo-jumbo, Freire’s one of us.
Postman and Weingartner were just restating what John Dewey had argued half a century before – we learn what we do. Teachers are co-learners with students as they play the game of life and democracy. Only teachers didn’t really understand what this meant – they continued to be the Sage on the Stage, worried about passing on cultural literacy to the next generation.
This wouldn’t do in an age where the media wolves would eat you for breakfast. Television threatened to eclipse the teachers’ relevance. The crux of the issue was the doctrine of progress. Teaching should keep pace with unforeseen technological progress. Humanities’ very survival requires innovation. In an age where change was the only constant, there were too many questions to answer, but progress must be made, at least the kind of progress that will keep us riding the wave of the future rather than being crushed in the undertow.
The inquiry revolution placed rote-learning on death-row, along with all its accomplices. Anything that smacked of an authoritative top-down approach was to be questioned and dispatched. Anything that imposed its own narrative on your mind, anything that forced you to think in a “linear” way, anything that had its own “story line” was not to be tolerated by the crap-detectors. Authorities are not to be trusted, and it is the authorities who regurgitate outdated traditions through the writing and reading of books.
Students’ brains are in the process of being rewired by constant flits and blips, and they are not to be interrupted with meaningless trivia from books. It is about survival. It is about survival in an era of constant change. Sink or swim. The future of civilization depends on it.
So put down those books which ask too much of your allegiance. Start asking questions, and continue doing so, knowing that this is your strong suit and your raison-d’etre.
(this shameless caricature of Postman and Weingartner’s approach has come to an end. You can tell I’ve been reading their book a lot since my rhetoric is of the inflammatory off the cuff 60s type)
To state it a little less passionately, the underlying logic of their position was this: as mass media increased its grip on citizen’s lives after the second world war, issues of propaganda and independence of thought came to the forefront educator’s minds. Rote-learning, it seemed, decreased the chances that citizens would be in the habit of questioning and making informed choices – a crucial element of any democracy.
One approach was to say that the way we teach is as, if not more, important than the content itself because of the habits of mind it produced. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan popularized the slogan “the medium is the message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan argued that it didn’t matter what content you viewed on television, the fact you were viewing it made you captive to the method of television, with its choppy sound bites and constant slogans. Your habits of thought were changed, not by the content, but by the medium. The solution was to emphasize processes of learning as having a more powerful effect than the content.
In 1969, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner published Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Following McLuhan, they revamped the famous “inquiry” method of teaching, emphasizing awareness and knowledge of the learning process itself as equal, if not more important, than content.
The same year, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was realeased in English. Freire criticized rote-learning as a method of authoritarian control. By applying the Marxist concept of praxis, he argued that no learning could be dissociated from practice – thought and action are inseparable. Revolutionary change requires theory to be applied, even in the classroom. Therefore teachers are c0-learners with their students in the effort to search for political freedom.
Meanwhile, the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, defended the Socratic approach to learning, but upheld a strong commitment to engaging with particular content and traditions in order to develop independence of thought.
What interests me is how Northrop Frye and Neil Postman responded differently to the challenge of rapid technological change. To be fair, Frye was writing mostly about secondary education, however he makes many of these points in his addresses to conventions of Ontario English High School teachers.
As I’ve mentioned before, Frye did not see much educational potential for new technologies, and basically thought of them as a distraction to true learning. When teaching the thoughts of great artists, relevance was to be avoided:
“Relevance is a disease for which education is a possible, though by no means a certain, cure.” (On Education, p. 16)
But listen to how current Frye’s approach to learning is today: he made it clear that it was of fundamental importance for the good teacher to focus on students’ prior knowledge in order to construct meaning out of the various fragments, inklings, and half-formed thoughts. Media generally distorted and fragmented thought, and it was the teacher’s job to provide structure of the subject matter in the student’s mind, so that it would come alive and confront them directly.
The teacher generally asked more questions than the student in order to encourage independent thought. Frye emphasized that in order for learning to be authentic, the student themselves had to take responsibility for making the subject matter relevant. The inquiry or socratic method is married to its subject matter – they cannot be separated, because the method is that which makes the subject alive in the students’ minds. Frye gave a wonderful defence of what great teaching could be, a practice that would not sacrifice standards of what it meant to be a civilized human being in favour of being a well-adjusted one.
Postman, on the other hand is a gun-slinging rhetorician – he shoots from the hip when it seems at all like it will make an impression, and he is far less precise or careful than Frye in defining his terms. For example, here is Postman discussing the problems of curriculum:
If the learning process must be visualized, perhaps it is most authentically represented in a Jackson Pollack canvas – a canvas whose colors increase in intensity as intellectual power grows (for learning is exponentially cumulative).
From all of this, you must not conclude that there is no logic to the learning process. There is. But it is best described as a “psycho-logic”, whose rules, sequences, spirals, and splotches are established by living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, above all, languaging nervous systems.
Here he is talking about the need to increase the learner’s competence as learners through the inquiry method, rather than pin down the winning curriculum and subject matter. The inquiry method focuses on ways of thinking rather than “subjects” and “knowledge.” Postman proposes this method as a way to achieve a kind of intellectual freedom.
Note that this freedom is contingent on technology. Postman sought ways to change educational practice in light of technological progress – for a good cause mostly: to escape a system of rote-learning where knowledge had seemingly no relevance to everyday life.
Both Frye’s and Postman’s attitudes are rooted in different views of human flourishing: Frye is concerned for the cultivation of human imagination and freedom of thought, which he believes is the basis of all freedoms. For Postman in 1969, the goal of education was a more utilitarian and pragmatic one, informed by evolutionary studies:
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.
You can see how this view is much more popular today than the ante-posmodern (ante bellum?) war on the presumption of “western civilization”. Learning with the latest technology is seen as a survival skill rather than a side-show to the real effort: fostering the growth of the human spirit in every individual.
For Postman, the inquiry method is our method of survival in an era of constant change. For millenia, tribes depended on the passing down of traditions for survival, but in an era with constant change, the goal of education is to figure out what traditions are relevant, and which are to be discarded. There is a lot at stake here – for example, the tradition of reading books: hard bound, paper filled, weighty and ever present books.
Let’s look at how these different perspectives work out in practice – one focused on intellectual freedom and developing the highest human capacities, and the other predicated on survival.
These aren’t necessarily opposed to on another – Frye is definitely concerned with survival, which he views as a kind of freedom. The question is one of clarity and priority – can Postman define what he means by “survival” so as not to run along with technological change for its own sake?
Mass media is capable of mass deception, so Postman proposes “crap-detecting” as a survival technique. Crap-detecting is basically the ability to step back from one’s surroundings and question authority – it is a habit of thought and not necessarily knowledge. The “anthropological principle” is the basis for this questioning – knowing that we are one tribe among many. Postman aimed to disturb an education system which did not question US foreign policy during the Cold War.
The ability to take an ironic stance towards the customs of your society is crucial to the development of intellectual freedom, which is why Socrates figures at the heart of both Frye and Postman’s educational theory. But their interpretation of what this entails is quite different.
Frye’s response to the challenges of political extremism and mass conformity is to uphold academic freedom and encourage the reading of books. While I doubt Postman would reject reading books in school, his method of attaining intellectual freedom is to reject “linear” ways of thinking – which he sees as a t0p-down authoritarian method of control.
Instead of critiquing modern technology for its tendency to fragment our experiences, Postman enlists Marshall McLuhan to find virtues in it, and ultimately to conform our minds to it.
One of McLuhan’s insistent themes has been that the electric age has heightened our perception of structure by disrupting what he calls the lineality of information flow…. (28)
His examples are the same as Frye’s – television commercials, short news bites, fragmented news articles. But suddenly, now that the goal of education is married to technological progress (survival), the fragmentation of our experience becomes a virtue:
McLuhan contends that, without the distraction of a story line, we get a very high degree of participation and involvement in the forms of communication, which is another way of saying the process of learning. One has to work hard, and one wants to, at discovering patterns and assigning meanings to one’s experiences. The focus of intellectual energy becomes active investigation of structures and relationships, rather than the passive reception of someone else’s story.
And there you have Postman’s revolutionary 60s dogma, rising like the morning sun: suddenly, because of widespread skepticism and confusion caused by modern media, we all become philosophers!
Any personal experience with Twitter or Facebook today would serve to refute this statement. Yet we continue to believe it because we want to believe it. We especially want to believe that technological progress will solve our problems, make us better friends, and increase our wisdom. Our brains will adapt, and we will progress to the next stage of evolution. The competing dogmas of non-teleological evolution and the liberal view of progress resolves its cognitive dissonance in favour of progress every time (a deeply troubling realization in the face of current DNA tinkering).
Postman, to take that hateful postmodern trope and put it to work, “does violence” to Socrates, grabs him by the cloak, and demands that he must conform to modernity. Just as Dewey interpreted classic philosophers as pragmatists, Postman re-makes Socrates as a modern day Marshall McLuhan:
Socrates had no story line to communicate and, therefore, no syllabus. His teaching was essentially about process; his method, his message. (29)
Now that Socrates no longer has a goal in mind (self-knowledge is not a goal?) Postman can substitute his own: survival. Postman falls into McLuhan’s rhetorical trap. It is similar to the trap of Marxist praxis – the ideal of theory and practice combined. It’s an elegant solution to a far more complex problem… and it has unfortunate practical consequences.
There is a disconcerting likeness between Postman and McLuhan’s defense of technology and Michel Foucault’s rejection of “linear” logical arguments. The postmodern and post-colonial rejection of “linear” western thought has sought political freedom at the expense of freedom of thought.
Nothing could be further than Frye’s view – that reading, or engaging in prolonged linear acts of consciousness, is the key to freedom. It is all the more striking in that both Frye and Postman are concerned about rampant conformity. Frye warned that a literacy based only on interpreting the newspapers, media, and television was a training in making conforming acts. Reading books, rather, was the only technology that would afford us a continuous act of judgment, and thus the most active form of learning:
“The act of reading as a continuous act of judgment is the key to equality, and the key to freedom. Its purpose is the maintaining of the consistent consciousness which is the basis of human freedom and of human dignity.”100
In the absence of great books and thus inner dialogue, it is no wonder students today have far less self-knowledge, and thus interest, about their place in the world. They are happy with this fragmented existence, and educators are happy to call digital literacy an indispensable part of “the good life.”
Like I said, Postman revised his views on rationality in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century in favour of “linear” thought and cultural literacy. This was a sane response to the heightened fragmentation in the 90s and also a welcome addition to the largely salvageable “inquiry method.” Independent discovery guided by competent and non-obstructive teachers is the basis of a renewed construction of personal and political identity.