Monday, March 30, 2015

BookPastor >> "The End of Education" (Neil Postman)

TITLE: The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
AUTHOR: Neil Postman
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1996, (210 pages).

This book has a very clever title. The word "end" has a dual meaning. It could mean finality of education. It could also mean the purpose of education. As far as one of America's most famous cultural critic is concerned, it is both. Carefully, he explains both in terms of "motivation" and "metaphysical." The former is a means toward some end. The latter represents the purpose and meaning of it all. For if there is no purpose, then truly the final nail on the education coffin would have been struck. In Part One of the book, Postman deals with the necessity of gods, saying that it is not the religious type of divinity but that of a reason for learning. It is the kind that motivates us to press on. It is necessary in the sense that it helps propel us forward. Such a motivation is good unless that it is based upon wrong gods. Postman insightfully observes four major gods that have choked the true purpose of education. The first is that of "Economic Utility" that promises a good job and money as long as one studies hard, gets good results, and succeeds in the educational system. The problem is, do the jobs out there require all the knowledge and skills that the schools provided the students? Is there a guarantee of jobs? Is the Economic Utility model more of a mockery on humans? The second false god is that of "Consumership," where the accumulation of knowledge seems to be the order of the day. The one with the "most toys wins," so say this god. With this god, "you are what you accumulate." It boosts materialism, hoarding of knowledge, and all kinds of advertising, which in itself has its fair share of complexities and ethical challenges. The third false god is "Technology" and here Postman shines in observing that those who worship such a god will increasingly find schools unnecessary. After all, if one can learn all the content and information via technology, why bother with teachers?  With increasing amount of information, people keep wanting more and more without a proportional sense of understanding why and why. He debunks the notion of technology breaking down the rich-poor divide. The fourth god is that of "Multiculturalism" that essentially subverts best educational methods and techniques in favour of multicultural criteria. He spends time explaining himself, assuring readers that he is not against multiculturalism, but only against the impoverishment of education that results from an inappropriate use of the multiculturalism card.

Part Two of the book contains Postman's five narratives to aid the redemption of education. His key point is that if any "narrative" does not serve us well, it may lead to the end of education. The first narrative is that of a "steward of the earth" described by Postman as "Spaceship Earth" narrative. It brings about an increased interdependence of people regardless of race or religion. Seeing the earth as the whole of man's responsibility is an added incentive for various people to work together. Earth is man's only spaceship and if man does not care enough for it, we will all perish. The second narrative is of a "Fallen Angel" that represents our tendency to be imperfect and make mistakes. Thus, the use of science in education is essentially helping us to correct our mistakes, knowing that we can try but we will never solve everything. There is a fundamental uncertainty in human capability. That is why this narrative is a good corrective against man's pride in seeking absolute perfection by his own. The third narrative is "the American Experiment." He cautions us from making education a "period" or an "exclamation mark" as if schooling will perfect one's education. No. Instead, learn to live as with "question marks." Even the American constitution that separates Church and State is to protect both Church and State from each other. Postman maintains that the Declaration of Independence is more of an "argument" rather than a doctrine cast in concrete. The narrative of the American Experiment enables students to graduate with open minds and endless learning.  The fourth narrative is "the Law of Diversity" in which Postman offers an alternative to the "god of multiculturalism" mentioned earlier. Here, we learn to celebrate diversity without needing to pit any one's culture as superior over others. Education must not be dependent on any one culture or race. It needs to benefit all. It needs to be constructive. It needs to elevate the benefit of the community above the self. In honouring the diversity of us all, education with this narrative will be richer, more creative, and help make us more intelligent about humanity. The fifth narrative is that of "Word Weaver/World Makers." This is about speech, language, and creativity through words.

Postman ends with a plea for the educator to learn to teach students how to formulate questions, design metaphors, and cultivate the art of learning through language and narrative. One powerful point he makes is that while technology has entered the classroom, there is still a lack of "technology education," or learning how to use technology well. He cautions:
  • Technology changes everything, so beware
  • Technology has different emotional and intellectual biases, so take care
  • Technology has different political, sensory, and social biases
  • Technology have different content 
Lest readers think that Postman is seeking to debunk all things technology, he is not. He is seeking to wake up a sleepy generation that has uncritically accepted technology, lock, stock and barrel. This book certainly needs to be read by anyone interested in public education. While the warnings appear to paint Postman as some kind of a technological doomsday prophet, I think it is more of a desire for redemption. For a cultural critic is not simply one to throw stones at culture and walk away, but to point out the blind spots that planners, leaders, administrators, and educators often miss. 


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