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We Are Not Amused

With all the media saturation we have to live with these days, it’s rather ironic that the death of Neil Postman on October 5th was completely overwhelmed by the election campaign of an action movie star. Postman was one our most literate and interesting social critics and writer of the definitive analysis of the growing news-as-entertainment culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Although published in 1986, you’d swear that in parts of the book he was writing about the entertainment election recently in California or the overwhelming torrent of infotainment programming spread all over broadcast and cable. Fortunately, he always wrote with wonderful sense of humor to leven the warnings.

My first exposure to Mr. Postman’s thoughts was in college when a professor assigned his book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I vividly remember Postman’s discussion of the need for teachers to help students develop a well tuned "crap detector" to help them think for themselves and sift through the propaganda swirling in the media of that day. It’s even better advice many years later considering all the crap we have to wade through in the early 21st century. He went on to write many more insightful books and articles about the state of education in America (including "Teaching as a Conserving Activity" in which he revised some of his ideas in the earlier work).

In 1993, Postman wrote another book that grabbed my attention just as I was moving into my first technology training job. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman talked about how society was moving from one that uses technology to one that was being used by it. Read the book and then look around. His warnings about our unquestioning dependence on technology, and the spread of misinformation that it permits, are fast coming to pass. Postman’s concerns about teachers being "outtaught" by media outlets predicted exactly what is happening with the Internet in many of our classrooms today.

If you’ve never read anything by Mr. Postman, start with any of the books above or the articles linked from his page on EdTechNot. And thanks to Jim Forde, editor of that site, for alerting me to the passing of Neil Postman. You may also want to read the excellent obituary on Salon if you are a subscriber (or are willing to put up with their "day pass" free registration process).

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1 Comment

  1. Wow…I didn’t even know Postman died! Thanks for the retrospective. I have very fond memories of reading Postman’s books as a young, idealistic (and unemployed) teacher when they were first published. Postman,John Holt,Jonathan Kozol,and other cutting-edge writers used to inspire me with the desire to go out and change the [educational] world. Of course, once hired in an actual school in the real world, I had to conform to the system in my own way, but I like to think there’s still something of the subversive in me as I break the mold in one way or another in my classroom and school…

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