Neil Postman


American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic

Author Quotes

Reflect on these questions ? and others that these can generate. Please do not merely react to them. [1] What do you worry most about? What are the causes of your worries? Can any of your worries be eliminated? How? Which of them might you deal with first? How do you decide? Are there other people with the same problems? How do you know? How can you find out? [3] What bothers you most about adults? Why? How do you want to be similar or different from adults you know when you become an adult? [4] What, if anything, seems to you to be worth dying for? How did you come to believe this? What seems worth living for? How did you come to believe this? [5] At the present moment, what would you most like to be ? or be able to do? Why? What would you have to know in order to be able to do it? What would you have to do in order to get to know it? [8] When you hear or read or observe something, how do you know what it means? Where does meaning "come from"? What does "meaning" mean? How can you tell what something "is" or whether it is? Where do words come from? Where do symbols come from? Why do symbols change? Where does knowledge come from? What do you think are some of man's most important ideas? Where did they come from? Why? How? Now what? What's a "good idea"? How do you know when a good or live idea becomes a bad or dead idea? Which of man's ideas would we be better off forgetting? How do you decide? What is "progress"? What is "change"? What are the most obvious causes of change? What are the least apparent? What conditions are necessary in order for change to occur? What kinds of change are going on right now? Which are important? How are they similar or different from other changes that have occurred? What are the relationships between new ideas and change? Where do new ideas come from? How come? So what? If you wanted to stop one of the changes going on right now (pick one), how would you go about it? What consequences would you have to consider? Of the important changes going on in our society, which should be considered and which resisted? Why? How? What are the most important changes that have occurred in the past ten years? twenty years? fifty years? In the last year? In the last six months? Last month? What will be the most important changes next month? Next year? Next decade? How can you tell? So what? What would you change if you could? How might you go about it? Of those changes which are about to occur, which would you stop, if you could? Why? How? So what? [9] Who do you think has the most important things to say today? To whom? How? Why? What are the dumbest and most dangerous ideas that are "popular" today? Why do you think so? Where did these ideas come from? [10] What are the conditions necessary for life to survive? Plants? Animals? Humans? Which of these conditions are necessary for all life? Which ones for plants? Which ones for animals? Which ones for humans? What are the greatest threats to all forms of life? To plants? To animals? To humans? What are some of the strategies living things use to survive? Which are unique to plants? Which are unique to animals? Which are unique to humans? What kinds of human survival strategies are (1) similar to those of animals and plants? (2) different from animals and plants? [11] What does man's language permit him to develop as survival strategies that animals cannot develop?How might man's survival strategies be different from what they are if he did not have languages? What other "languages" does man have besides those consisting of words? What functions do those languages serve? Why and how do they originate? Can you invent a new one? How might you start? What would happen, what difference would it make, what would man not be able to do if he had no number (mathematical) languages? How many symbol systems does man have? How come? So what? What are some good symbols? Some bad? What good symbols could we use that we do not have? What bad symbols do we have that we might be better without? [12] What's worth knowing? How do you decide? What are some ways to go about getting to know what's worth knowing?

Technopoly is a state of culture... state of mind... the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology... its satisfactions... its orders... This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's superhuman achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved. They also believe that information is an unmixed blessing, which through its continued and uncontrolled production and dissemination offers increased freedom, creativity, and peace of mind. The fact that information does none of these things ? but quite the opposite ? seems to change few opinions, for unwavering beliefs are an inevitable product of the structure of Technopoly. In particular, Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down.

The new education has as its purpose the development of a new kind of person, one who ? as a result of internalizing a different series of concepts ? is an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant, liberal personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival. The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we all must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the quest-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called "learning how to learn."

The world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact... that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise...The medieval world was... not without a sense of order. Ordinary men and women... had no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not rational, at least coherent...The situation we are presently in is much different...sadder and more confusing and certainly more mysterious...There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore... we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.

Two opposing world-views ? the technological and the traditional ? coexisted in uneasy tension. The technological was the stronger, of course, but the traditional was there ? still functional, still exerting influence... This is what we find documented not only in Mark Twain but in the poetry of Walt Whitman, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the prose of Thoreau, the philosophy of Emerson, the novels of Hawthorne and Melville, and, most vividly of all, in Alexis de Tocqueville's monumental Democracy in America. In a word, two distinct thought-worlds were rubbing against each other in nineteenth-century America.

What can be called "consciousness of the process of abstraction." That is, consciousness of the fact that out of a virtually infinite universe of possible things to pay attention to, we abstract only certain portions, and those portions turn out to be the ones for which we have verbal labels and categories. What we abstract, i.e., "see," and how we abstract it, or see it, or see it or think about it, is for all practical purposes inseparable from how we talk about it.

Writing is defined as a conversation with no one and yet with everyone.

Reflections on one?s mortality curiously makes one come alive to the incredible amounts of inanity and fanaticism that surround us, much of which is inflicted on us by ourselves. Which brings me to the next point, best stated as Postman?s Third Law:

Television?s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography?s way of knowing; that television?s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase serious television is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice?the voice of entertainment

The point is that television does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by 'better' such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with 'image.' But not because politicians are preoccupied with presenting themselves in the best possible light. After all, who isn't? It is a rare and deeply disturbed person who does not wish to project a favorable image. But television gives image a bad name. For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. And therein lies one of the most powerful influences of the television commercial on political discourse.

The written word endures, the spoken word disappears.

Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration

What causes us the most misery and pain... has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is... a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most need to confront ? spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.

You cannot avoid making judgments but you can become more conscious of the way in which you make them. This is critically important because once we judge someone or something we tend to stop thinking about them or it. Which means, among other things, that we behave in response to our judgments rather than to that to which is being judged. People and things are processes. Judgments convert them into fixed states. This is one reason that judgments are often self-fulfilling. If a boy, for example, is judged as being "dumb" and a "nonreader" early in his school career, that judgment sets into motion a series of teacher behaviors that cause the judgment to become self-fulfilling. What we need to do then, if we are seriously interested in helping students to become good learners, is to suspend or delay judgments about them. One manifestation of this is the ungraded elementary school. But you can practice suspending judgment yourself tomorrow. It doesn't require any major changes in anything in the school except your own behavior.

School has never really been about individualized learning, but about how to be socialized as a citizen and as a human being, so that we, we have important rules in school, always emphasizing the fact that one is part of a group.

Terrence Moran, inherently prone to strengthen the image and part of the media can obtain a historical perspective, he is right on target. According to Moran and persistence context, the absence of a sense of the available pieces of information and cannot be combined to form a coherent whole. As we refuse to remember, recall also does not find it completely useless. Instead, according to remember assets are being removed. Because remember, if it's something more than nostalgia, if a contextual absolutely essential; of cases arranged for her models requires nothing can be deduced from it. If policy and news image snapshot does not offer such a context. A mirror reflects only what we wear today. What you wear is silent on yesterday. These assumptions there is a meaning, then at this point Orwell, at least in terms of Western democracy is wrong once again. Orwell foresaw the fall of history, but it would do government, the Ministry of Truth type of an organization in a systematic manner in the case of banning useless believed to delete the records of history. However, with Huxley's more accurate predictions, nothing will be needed to implement the rough roads. A public image, urgency and treatment policy aims to provide, seemingly auspicious as the technologies, since equally successful, perhaps even permanently, and no objection encounter can destroy.

The pre-eminent reason for schooling. It may properly go by the name of the god of Economic Utility. If you pay attention in school? you will be rewarded with a well-paying job.

There are many books that are mechanically faultless but which contain untrue, unclear, or even nonsensical ideas. Carefully edited writing tells us, not that the writer speaks truly, but that he or she grasps ... the manner in which knowledge is usually expressed.

Unforeseen consequences stand in the way of all those who think they see clearly the direction in which a new technology will take us. Not even those who invent a technology can be assumed to be reliable prophets... Gutenberg, for example, was by all accounts a devout Catholic who would have been horrified to hear that accursed heretic Luther describe printing as 'God's highest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.' Luther understood, as Gutenberg did not, that the mass-produced book, by placing the Word of God on every kitchen table, makes each Christian his own theologian -- one might even say his own priest, or better, from Luther's point of view, his own pope. In the struggle between unity and diversity of religious belief, the press favored the latter, and we can assume that this possibility never occurred to Gutenberg.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.

You cannot learn a new form of conduct without changing yourself.

Scientific language, which Korzybski used as his model of sane language, is almost exclusively extensional and denotative, or at least tries to be. The language of the mentally ill, most obviously "un-sane," is almost totally intensional and connotative. This is the language that does not correspond to anything "out there," and this is, in fact, how and perhaps even why the user is mentally ill. Korzybski's concern with keeping the conscious "connection" or correspondence between language and verifiable referents is, for all practical purposes, paralleled by the process of psychotherapy. In this process, which is largely "just talk," the purpose is to foster closer and more accurate correspondence between the patient's language and externally verifiable meanings. As a semanticist would say, the process of psychotherapy is aimed at shifting the patient's word choices from those having a highly intensional, connotative meanings to others carrying more denotative meanings. A person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia might use perfectly "correct" English in an unassailably "logical" way, but the problem with his language is that it does not correspond to anything "out there."

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. There have been times when this function was not fulfilled, and groups (some of them we even call "civilizations") disappeared. Generally, this resulted from changes in the kind of threats the group faced. The threats changed, but the education did not, and so the group, in a way, "disappeared itself" (to use a phrase from Catch-22). The tendency seems to be for most "educational" systems, from patterns of training in "primitive" tribal societies to school systems in technological societies, to fall imperceptibly into a role devoted exclusively to the conservation of old ideas, concepts, attitudes, skills, and perceptions. This happens largely because of the unconsciously held belief that these old ways of thinking and doing are necessary to the survival of the group?Survival in a stable environment depends almost entirely on remembering the strategies for survival that have been developed in the past, and so the conservation and transmission of these becomes the primary mission of education. But, a paradoxical situation develops when change becomes the primary characteristic of the environment. Then the task turns inside out ? survival in a rapidly changing environment depends almost entirely upon being able to identify which of the old concepts are relevant to the demands imposed by the new threats to survival, and which are not. Then a new educational task becomes critical: getting the group to unlearn (to "forget") the irrelevant concepts as a prior condition of learning. What we are saying is that the "selective forgetting" is necessary for survival.

The problem in the 19th century with information was that we lived in a culture of information scarcity, and so humanity addressed that problem beginning with photography and telegraphy and the - in the 1840s. We tried to solve the problem of overcoming the limitations of space, time, and form.

There are two levels of knowing a subject. There is the student who knows what the definition of a noun or a gene or a molecule is; then there is the student... who also knows how the definition was arrived at. There is the student who can answer a question; then there is the student who also knows what are the biases of the question. There is the student who can give you the facts; then there is the student who also knows what is meant by a fact. I am maintaining that, in all cases, it is the latter who has a "basic" education ; the former, a frivolous one.

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American Humanist Author, Media Theorist and Cultural Critic