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.

Lessons From Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart ended his final Daily Show with this charge to those of us who will miss his voice of reason mixed with humor.

…I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against [BS] is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

It’s a lesson we should be teaching our students.

Ok, maybe his exact wording may not go over too well in schools. But the idea of developing a sense for when the world is being dishonest (or worse) with us is also not a new one. In the 50’s Ernest Hemingway wrote “Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.” and others have built on that idea since.

I first encountered the concept of helping students learn the art of crap detecting in college through Neil Postman’s wonderful book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”.1 In recent years Howard Rheingold has been preaching in his writing, videos, and mini course on crap detection on the need for all of us to master the skills to deal with bad information.

Someone could make a case that the “critical thinking” part of 21st century skills already addresses the idea of helping students learn to recognize misinformation. But that’s not the way it’s usually presented in schools.

Most curriculums that claim to include critical thinking usually wrap the process in highly structured activities designed for students to arrive at pre-determined conclusions. Artificial problems that only approximate real-life at best.

What Hemingway, Postman and Stewart are talking about is a much more complex learning process, not to mention more than a little messy. Skills many American adults still lack and certainly not something we do a good job of teaching in school.

Educating in the Rear View Mirror

From Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner 

One way of representing the present condition of our educational system is as follows: it is as if we are driving a multi-million-dollar sports car, screaming, ‘Faster! Faster!’ while peering fixedly into the rear-view mirror. It is an awkward way to try to tell where we are, much less where we are going, and it has been sheer dumb luck that we have not smashed ourselves to bits – so far. We have paid almost exclusive attention to the car, equipping it with all sorts of fantastic gadgets and an engine that will propel it at ever increasing speeds, but we seem to have forgotten where we wanted to go in it. Obviously, we are in for a helluva jolt. The question is not whether, but when.

I re-read this book, which I first encountered in grad school, over spring break, and almost a half century after they were written, too many of the authors’ observations still apply to our “present condition”.

And I think I’m actually looking forward to that “helluva jolt” we’re in for. Any theories on when it might finally arrive?

Essential Skepticism

I’ve always considered myself a skeptic, but have been a little fuzzy on how to explain to people what that means. Certainly I have a set of beliefs and convictions but always try to stay open to new information that may cause me to revise them. And I’ve certainly changed my mind about things over the years.

In a new joint project between the Huntington Post and the TED organization1, the editor of Skeptic Magazine2 addresses that question of what skepticism is and what being a skeptic means to him.

Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

He continues on to talk about having a “Baloney Detection Kit”, inspired by Carl Sagan, “which consists of a list of questions to ask when encountering any claim”. It’s a good list but certainly not a new idea.

I first encountered the concept of “crap detecting” in Neil Postman’s wonderful 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity3. And he borrowed the idea from Ernest Hemingway who told an interviewer that “to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

Here in the internet age, Howard Rhiengold carries forward the concept and preaches that the skills of crap detecting are even more important as we rely on the web for information.  

However, whether you call it “crap detecting” (my preference), “baloney detecting”, or simply skepticism, I agree with Postman’s view that this is an “essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today’s world”.

At least it should be. The centerpiece of every curriculum should be to help kids understand how to question the world around them, not in a cynical way or simply to be contrary, but to clarify for themselves what is worth their time and what is crap.


1 This association may give the Post a little more credibility but I’m not sure it enhances the reputation of TED.

2 One more publication I didn’t know existed.

3 The book is still in print but you can download the full text from here (pdf).

Centrifugal Bumblepuppy*

Just watching all the posts and announcements from the Consumer Electronics Show, wrapping up today in Las Vegas, is overwhelming. Thousands and thousands of new devices to make sure that no real work ever gets done.

As the electronics industry had its annual orgy of new toys, my warped little brain flashed back to a particularly relevant book which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

You might see the linkage in what Postman had to say in the foreword.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Postman’s discussion of the way many parts of our society are being converted into entertainment for the masses is extremely relevant for those of us who are teachers. As much as education critics would like to think so, schools don’t work in a cultural vacuum.

However, all of this is not to say I wouldn’t love a few of the new toys on display in Sin City this week. :-)

* I have no idea what Huxley meant by that but as a title for a post, it will certainly grab some attention in the rss feeds.