Category Archives: Neil Postman

My Problem

man-reading-with-magnifying-glass-new-york-1959Most of the reading I do online is extractive—I’m looking for something on Wikipedia or dropping through layers of Google links to assess my best chance for success. When I reach a hopeful destination, I scan. I dart around paragraphs alighting on key terms and use the “find” function when simple searching doesn’t work. Then I move on, grazing impatiently on acres of electronic text like a horse fly in an inconceivably expansive and ripe landfill.

Reading for pleasure is different—immersive rather than extractive—and, when I can slow down enough to do it, no compulsion rushes me. My eyes sweep left and right in steady rhythm, happy when words disappear and imagination falls into another world. Oddly, the satisfaction of immersive reading assures more detail sticks. Desire is a better taskmaster than desperation, and an engaged mind beats a restive one.

You can read books extractively and electronic texts immersively—the problem isn’t the technology but the user—yet every technology carries its secret ideology, its assumptions about what’s valuable and important, what’s advantageous and essential. The ideology of electronic media is speed. It promises facility, accessibility, and infinite resources. And its assurance of a ready pay-off requires a different sort of persistence unlike the stick-to-it-iveness of standard reading. If at first a user doesn’t find what he or she wishes electronically, the best solution is to abandon ship and search for another ship and another and another, etc because, in the cyberworld, any pause elicits instant irritation. Electronic media has changed my reading habits, and often I find myself slipping over surfaces I once penetrated. My mind grows impatient. I watch words cross the page and curse the uneven surfaces of challenging prose rather than trying to fit my own mind to it. A dark voice cries, “Where’s the answer here and how far to the end… or another alternative?”

I have nothing against Kindles, iPad, Nooks, or any other electronic reader, laptop, or desktop computer. When I remind myself, “This is a book too. You don’t need to be in a hurry,” I encounter them just the way I do paper books, looking to step into the reading rather than ski on it. I’m lucky, though. I know the old ways. I learned to read from paper, and its low-tech format trained me in plodding attention. No built-in distractions lurked in the document itself. I’m more than capable of distracting myself, so I wonder how I might have turned out if glowing words dotted the page and alternative routes popped-up on every edge. I’m not a fast reader but a thorough one—I learned to get as much as I could from the one page given me. I had to be patient. Picking up and leaving wasn’t much of an option.

Students who have read more electronic than physical text feel quite impatient. They arrive irked by the 20 pages I’ve assigned. “What were we supposed to get out of that chapter?” they ask, or they say, “I didn’t follow that at all. What was he going on and on about?” Their chief concern is a quiz asking about minor details they worry they missed. For some, it seems all the details are minor… or major. When your purpose is extraction, every text is a pile, and cohesive elements that ought to hold the pile together or make sense of it—like narrative, argument, development, or progression—are irrelevant and/or annoying. Students who are bold enough to admit they hate reading tell me it’s too slow. Not enough happens fast enough, and much of what they encounter has no obvious (enough) point.

I understand. I feel their frustration. The first moments of reading, before I flip the switch from extractive to immersive, feel like gripping an electronic fence. I wonder if I can hold on. The secret is to quiet the impatience of a mind now hopelessly addicted to diversion, nomadism, and faith in greener grass. If I can commit my mind to following sentences and paragraphs before me, I find immersive pleasure again, but it’s hard and, in the technological context to which I’ve become accustomed, it seems alien.

Technophiles at school suggest this distrust of electronic reading may be my problem. Being trained in an outmoded technology, they say, I’d rather cling to what I know. I’m too timid to give up my precious paper, they imply, even though anyone can see technology promises greater ease, variety, innovation, and novelty. Maybe they are right, but, nonetheless, I can’t help being grateful for my past, happy I have an extractive to immersive switch to flip. That switch doesn’t work as well in some of my students. Technology doesn’t exclude or eliminate immersive reading and can never do so—I know that—but with each improvement I’m finding depth harder to find.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Worry

The Death of Memory

In education—as perhaps in all things—we are what we do. John Dewey thought so, and Marshall McLuhan believed the message of any class resides in the sort of learning valued there. Without making a single explicit statement about what’s important, teachers implant habits that shape students’ sense of what learning is.

In Neil Postman’s 1969 treatise on education, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, he looked at classrooms of the time and saw education centered on content. He observed students facing forward, watching and listening to their instructors transmitting knowledge gleaned from authorities greater than themselves. Later, he said, students would be asked to demonstrate their own belief in these authorities on tests or in other assessments. “Mostly they are required to remember,” Postman said, “They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true.”

This educational model may persist in places, but at my school, observing, deriving definitions and rules, and performing useful intellectual operations seem commonplace and central. Many teachers regard class as a sort of mental training ground where students exercise their ability to observe, to compare and contrast, to discern patterns in data, to recognize blueprints behind the solutions they find. The McLuhanian message of current classroom practice is that knowledge is less important than using it. A well-trained brain is a tool, and improving its operation is the worthiest aspiration of education.

I’m generally happy with this emphasis on doing. It makes teaching fun, practical and variable, open to inventive and interesting activities. Most importantly, current techniques put students at the center of education.

But I’m not entirely happy. Postman also noted every change produces unanticipated consequences, losses as well as gains. While our methods encourage resourceful and flexible minds, the popularity of emphasizing experience over content, training over knowledge, and application over retention undermines the crucial skill Postman addressed originally, remembering. Students spend so much time using information that their memories are largely untested and untrained and certainly undervalued.

Put data to interpret or analyze before my students, and they are impressive. Ask them to repeat a procedure they’ve practiced multiple times, and they hum like machines. However, if you ask them to recall the content we encountered last month, last week, or even yesterday, they may flounder. Many read for the overall plot and broad themes, not to remember particulars. Most feel responsible for broad concepts and patterns first. The only important details are ones with immediate use. And, once used, most of those details slip away.

Sometimes they remember last night’s reading the way you might recall a movie watched some time ago. When I take them to the brink of a scene or piece of dialogue, they suddenly retrieve what’s next. Information that’s out of context, however, often appears elusive. They struggle with questions like “Who can describe another time Huck apologizes?” and “What are some words Huck used to describe his father in this chapter?” At my school, I am one of the few English teachers who still gives tests—“I don’t care whether they remember names” some colleagues say—but when I do, even my best students stumble on fill-in-blanks and other objective assessments. “I always do so badly on the trivia sections of your tests,” one protested recently.

Some of my students still seek the pride of knowing and feel compelled to attain a thorough and exact memory of books, but some of their peers regard them skeptically and find their compulsion strange and suspect… surely brown-nosing. These skeptics need frequent reminders that discerning interpretations arise from discerning knowledge. They take notes if I insist, but they have trouble judging relevance for themselves. Often they assume someone somewhere has already written it down. They can seek information from the electronic devices circling them like satellites. There are e-texts ready for searching and, should they be stuck on what the author is trying to accomplish, some e-source is ready to explain and point out relevant details they’ve forgotten or overlooked. The goal is to remember content until the assessment or exam—if it hasn’t been replaced with a project—and then jettison it.

Please understand, I’m not insulting my students’ intelligence. Quite the contrary, many are smarter than I am and, properly trained, many could have memories far more powerful than mine. But remembering just isn’t that important in current education. Though teachers still regard learning as cumulative, it adds up differently. And, taking cues from their teachers, students seek to accumulate study skills rather than knowledge. They regard the “stuff’ we study as training material, a means to an end. One welcome side effect of putting practice ahead of memory is that students rarely ask, “Why do we need to know this?” Their assumption—and possibly our assumption—is that they don’t.

And maybe educators should be glad the bad old days of memorizing and regurgitating masses of arcane information are largely gone. Still, I wish we could restore some of that old school emphasis on remembering. As much as I enjoy the improvisational activity of my classroom and believe training brains should be the chief aspiration of education, I suspect I might enjoy teaching even more with exact detail to discuss and debate. For me, memory is a foundation education can’t do without.

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Future School

This summer, I’ve been battling myself—the firebrand in me who sees education as a vital route of innovation and change versus the curmudgeon who, after 25 years in the classroom, thinks we’re well off the path, have got education all wrong, and are going to hell in a hefty.

My dilemma boils down to a pretty fundamental question, “What are schools for?” or, stated more colorfully by my inner curmudgeon, “What the hell are we doing?”  Five weeks remain to declare a winner, and the outcome determines the spirit I’ll carry into the new school year.

I’ve been teaching a summer school class on film adaptations of literature, and, as I was nearing the third week, it occurred to me that, in our post-literate world, I could be teaching a course of the future.  Movies can take the place of books as a way of teaching analysis—students seem more interested in watching than in reading and, after all, analysis is analysis regardless of its object.

My revelation isn’t at all far-fetched. Both books and movies invite a person to venture into the minds of makers, addressing how the form of the object communicates intentions and implications.  Both teach that precise and discerning  observation creates insight.  What a person needs to know to “read” movies is every bit as vast as what students apply to reading.  More importantly, extensive exposure allows students to approach cinema with well developed curiosity and expertise.  Compared to their reading skills, their viewing skills are much further along, and they could, as a result, get further with film studies than with literary criticism, now the fetishistic interest of a few scholars.

And, increasingly, students are less experienced with reading.  Most don’t do much reading outside class, and those who do often read novels specifically marketed to them and written on reading levels at or below their present capacity. Many of my students aren’t equipped—or, more accurately, trained—to absorb the complicated prose I foist on them.  And many haven’t the patience to develop the disciplined habit of reading closely.  They do enjoy movies, though.  They might be more willing to scrutinize them.

I just get rolling with this vision of Future School, however, when the word “surrender” crawls across my cerebral cortex, and my inner crisis rears.  What is the purpose of school, to meet the students where they live—and maybe even anticipate where they are headed—or to preserve what, over time, civilization values as essential?  It’s a quixotic question—do we tilt at windmills or face the reality that only we care about windmills at all?

Neil Postman asked similar questions in two books, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) and Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979).  In the first, he wanted students who try the relevance of every assignment and ask of every fact, “Whose fact are you?”

In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, however, Postman recanted a little.  Students need to be engaged, yes, because pursuing curiosities determines how much you learn and want to learn.  But can students understand what’s essential for them to know?  Who gets to decide that?

He replaced his school-as-laboratory with a school-as-thermostat.  The society at large is the first curriculum, he said, endowing students with most of what they know and understand.  Schools are the second curriculum.  They provide feedback to the first.  If the first curriculum rises or falls too much, the second curriculum regulates it—like a thermostat—keeping civilization at a safe level.  In other words, when society says “Watch movies and television, listen to iPods, surf the web, Facebook, and text,”  school says, “let’s not forget that reading is a gateway to all that preceded you.”

Writing in 1979, Postman recognizes “A generation being raised in an information environment that, on one hand, stresses visual imagery, discontinuity, immediacy, and alogicality. It is antihistorical, antiscientific, anticonceptual, antirational.”  That bias toward ephemeral and sensory media suggests a need for school that might “help conserve that which is both necessary to human survival and threatened by a furious and exhausting culture.”  School, Postman suggests,

…is one of our few remaining information systems firmly organized around preelectronic patterns of communication. School is old times and old biases. For that reason, it is more valuable to us than most people realize, but, in any case, provides a clear contrast to the newer system of perception and thought.

Postman reminds me of the historical view of middle ages monasteries.  They preserved culture against an onslaught of aliterality and rescued legacies of Greek, Roman, and Arabic civilization.

I get queasy identifying with medieval monks—like every teacher, I want to be relevant and current—and so I’m torn.  I could be retooled to teach film, just as I’ve been retooled to teach with computers, smart boards, websites, and all the proliferating forms of edutainment. I wonder sometimes, however, if I’m ready to give up on methods of study that taught me. My skepticism at seminars entitled “Teaching New Millennium Students” or “Reaching Digital Natives” feels justified. If my students are as good at digital media as everyone says they are—and presenters are always telling me I will never catch up with them—then the first curriculum doesn’t need me at all.

I acknowledge literary analysis may already be irrelevant, may become irrelevant or may be relevant in unexpected ways, but am I ready to say it’s not worth being able to read challenging literature closely and appreciatively?  No.

My father grew more and more conservative in his later years, and I learned to dismiss his views as rationalizing.  From my point of view, he was protecting what he understood and appreciated best.  But now I am my father, and I’m wondering who will win this battle, the hip teacher keen to be where students are or the curmudgeon all too ready to serve up gallons of fortifying elixir just to help them appreciate a spoonful of Shakespeare.

I really don’t know.

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