Where It All Started

I am a big fan of the writing of Neil Postman. His 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner) was a major influence early in my teaching career and the concepts he discussed in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1988) only seem to get more real and frightening thirty years later.

In a recent post, Larry Cuban reprinted a talk Postman gave in 1998 titled Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change, based on his “thirty years of studying the history of technological change”. It’s full of sharp ideas and well worth your time to read. But this observation of American education seems especially prescient.

Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century? If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong. The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey. There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs. Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests. [emphasis mine]

Remember, this predates the glorification of standardized testing that was No Child Left Behind, although it was about the same period in which the Texas education “miracle” of George W. Bush and his first education secretary Rod Paige (then Houston superintendent), the godfather of NCLB, was taking shape.

Postman follows that accurate assessment of where our current educational system was born with this equally accurate assessment on the birthplace of 21st century American politics.

A second example concerns our politics. It is clear by now that the people who have had the most radical effect on American politics in our time are not political ideologues or student protesters with long hair and copies of Karl Marx under their arms. The radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry in America. They did not mean to turn political discourse into a form of entertainment. They did not mean to make it impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office. They did not mean to reduce political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial. All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast and unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them. [emphasis mine]

A one-paragraph explanation of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.