Questioning Technology: Why Education?
To hear Bill Gates tell it, the answer to America's education problem is to make sure every kid has access to a personal computer. To Neil Postman, the computer is just another false god. What kids really need, says Postman, is something to believe in -- a transcendent narrative that gives meaning to education. Both men, with books to sell, are on the lecture circuit espousing some of the most important ideas of our time. Unfortunately, Gates is getting the BIG press coverage and unfortunately his awed media questioners don't have a clue how to challenge the world's richest man on his own turf. Neil Postman does. Postman, the New York University culture critic and author, is on an intellectual tear in an attempt to strip away the warped reasons we use these days to tell kids why they need to get an education. Education, argues Postman, must be presented with a purpose. Traditionally, that purpose has been encapsulated in a narrative, or story. That story tells of origins and envisions a future. It instructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority and gives a sense of continuity and purpose. To make education work we need a compelling story. "One that has sufficient credibility, complexity and symbolic power so that's possible to organize one's life and one's learning around it," said Postman. "Without such a transcendent narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without purpose schools become houses of detention, not attention." In an earlier era, Postman said, America offered its children such narratives, which, in effect, were answers to the question: what are schools for? One of the greatest was the narrative of democracy. Thomas Jefferson helped write that story. In Jefferson's mind, public schools weren't designed so much to serve the public as to create the public. Schools would ensure that citizens know when and how to protect their own liberty. Another narrative was the great melting pot. In this story the lost and lonely are offered a common bond to America's history and future. It was here they got the promise of freedom. " It pains me to say that great American narratives are not as powerful as they once were," said Postman. " As significant narratives have faded from view they have been replaced by stories that are thin, crass and certainly without transcendent meaning. As a consequence, the idea of public schooling is placed in jeopardy." Four narratives -- or 'gods' with a small 'g,' as Postman calls them -- are driving American public education today. They are: * The god of economic utility. This one tells young people they are what they do for a living and therefore the main purpose for learning is to prepare for entry into economic life. "The idea is to teach the young how to make a living, not how to make a life," said Postman. * The god of consumership. Here the young are told that the surest way to earn favor is to buy things. It tells them they are not what they do but what they own. "It's principal commandment is the slogan seen on some T-shirts: 'Whoever Dies With the Most Toys Wins,'" said Postman. "This is, of course, a dominant narrative of television which exposes the young to 600,000 television commercials in the first 20 years of their lives." * The god of technology. This story insists the main purpose of learning is to help the young accommodate themselves to vast technological change. "This narrative is based on the false and somewhat hysterical premise that never before has there been so much technological change as now," said Postman. For those who believe our century is unsurpassed in technological innovation, Postman listed "just a few inventions of the 19th Century: telegraphy, photography, the rotary press, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the Trans-Atlantic cable, the electric light, radio, movies, the locomotive, rockets, the steamboat, the X-ray, the revolver and the stethoscope, not to mention canned food, the penny press, the modern magazine, the advertising agency, the modern bureaucracy and even the safety pin. "Next to this the information superhighway, email and virtual reality do not to me seem to be so stunning and disorienting and it puzzles me why so many intelligent educators have latched into a 'gee whiz' mode about technology," said Postman. * The god of tribalism, separatism or multiculturalism. Some curriculums, he said, are used to promote exclusivity, a point of view that expresses the love of a tribe above all else. Learning that implies separateness from and hostility toward others. Of the four contemporary narratives, Postman said their existence suggests a spiritual emptiness in our culture. "A sense of confusion about what schools are for and about what they can be for," he said. "This emptiness and confusion are the major problem facing public education in America." Though it will be difficult, Postman said there is now opportunity to create new narratives for public schools. This, he said, will not come from the schools themselves (they are "state agencies") but from the society at large. "Schools are mirrors of social beliefs," he said, "giving back what citizens put in front of them." Postman suggested three new public school narratives that should be considered: * The Story of Spaceship Earth. A narrative of global consciousness where human beings are stewards of the Earth, caretakers of a vulnerable space capsule. "It's a relatively new narrative, not fully developed, but filled with excitement for young people," Postman said. "It evokes in young people a sense of responsibility and commitment and it's a story with power to bond people. It makes the idea of racism irrelevant and ridiculous." The narrative, said Postman, makes clear the interdependence of human beings and their need for solidarity. Waste and indifference is depicted as evil. If any part of the spaceship is poisoned, everyone suffers. This says the extinction of a rain forest in Brazil is not just a Brazilian problem, the pollution of the ocean is not just a Miami Beach problem and the depletion of the ozone layer is not just an Australian problem. * The Story of the Fallen Angel. In this story, human beings -- whatever our past may have been -- are now in a situation where we must live forever in a state of imperfect understanding. We make mistakes all the time. It's in our nature to make mistakes. The curriculum here is the study of error and our heroic effects to overcome it. Students are taught to accept our cosmic status as the error-prone species. In this narrative, for us to believe we are God-like or perfect is among the most serious sins of which we are capable. "The Greeks call the sin hubris. The Christians call it pride. Scientists call it dogmatism," said Postman. "The meaning of Angel is we are capable of correcting our mistakes provided that we proceed without hubris, pride or dogmatism." * The Story of America as an Experiment. A narrative of "stunning and dangerous questions" that offers a sense of national pride without psychopathic nationalism or the belief that America is superior to all other countries. "Is it possible to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people? And who are the people anyway? And how shall they proceed in government themselves? And how shall we protect individuals from the power of the people? And should we do all of this in the first place? "The point is these questions are still unanswered and will always remain so," said Postman. " The American Constitution is not a catechism but a hypothesis. It is less the law of the land than an expression of the lay of the land as it has been understood by various people at different times." Endless questions over democracy, citizenship and human rights have been debated by various nations over the centuries and we still don't the know the answers. " There's the rub and the beauty and value of the story," said Postman. "So we argue and experiment and complain and rejoice and argue some more without end. In this story we needn't conceal anything from ourselves. No shame need endure forever and no accomplishment merits excessive pride. All is fluid and subject to change." This story, said Postman, allows student participation in the great American experiment and teaches "which things are worth arguing about and what happens when those arguments cease." In suggesting the three new narratives for public education, Postman said he doesn't mean to imply that his proposed stories represent absolute truth. "These are simply ways of finding meaning in life and in learning," he said. In light of Postman's ideas, Bill Gate's self-serving endorsement of computers in education looks pretty lame. Without a national media that even comprehends the issues at stake in contemporary education, Gates is allowed to put out his drivel without challenge. Postman, on the other hand, is the man with a message that needs to cut through the mass media clutter.Neil Postman's new book is The End of Education (Knopf). Bill Gates' book is The Road Ahead (Viking).