Neil Postman Dies

Neil Postman died on Sunday. He was 72.

In the fall of 1984 I was living in Toronto, attending Grade 13 at the Ontario Science Centre Science School. One day I found myself in the Bob Miller Book Room on Bloor Street browsing through the remainder bin, and there I stumbled across a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity, written in 1969 by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. I was intrigued by the title, and bought the book. I think I paid $1.99.

I went home and read the book from cover to cover in one weekend. For a young mind like mine, coming off the back end of 12 years of mostly dreary formal education, it was a compelling, mind-expanding read, unlike any book I’d read before. Here were two guys writing about an entirely different approach to education and learning, an approach designed to outfit students with what they termed “crap detectors,” grounded in real world experience. I was hooked.

The next week I was scheduled to present a “book report” in my biology class. Reasoning that people were biological as much as anything else, I conspired to use Postman and Weingartner’s book as my topic. I believe, if memory serves, I received a failing grade, my choice of topic not being sufficiently biological to sync with the curriculum.

I did learn, however, that my biology teacher, the excellent Judy Libman, had read Teaching as a Subversive Activity herself at a similar time in her life. And so, despite the failing grade, our common experience, and the discussion that followed, forged a friendship beyond the borders of curriculum and biology, and we keep in touch to this day.

I read and re-read the book many times that year, and from there read Ivan Illich, and learned about Rochdale College, and Summerhill, and other “different” approaches to education. And the lessons I learned were enough of an inspiration to get me enrolled in the teacher training program at Trent University the next year: I was ready to take Postman and Weingartner’s theory and turn it into practice.

That idea didn’t pan out: I realized within weeks that becoming an elementary school teacher was doomed to destroy me, if only because I was going to be forced to adopt a peer group of teachers who loved their own school years and were poised to keep the fun on going. I truly couldn’t imagine spending a career making small talk in the teacher’s room with my status quo loving fellow students. My fate was sealed when I was invited into my teacher education professor’s office one afternoon and asked if I could be, well, a little less iconoclastic about things. Apparently my contrarian nature was getting in the way of others’ learning. I think it was my suggestion that we reconsider teaching children how to read, and instead teach them how to watch TV, that pushed things over the edge. And so I drifted out of teacher education.

That same year I was also enrolled in Computer Studies 100. The professor for that course was Stephen Regoczei, a quirky Hungarian in his first year teaching at Trent. At the end of the first lecture — a massive hundred-person affair, uncharacteristic for Trent — I approached him and, now infamously, told him that I thought taking his course might “get in the way of my education.” To my surprise — iconoclasts don’t often have their icons invite them for coffee — he invited me back to his office to discuss this idea, and what resulted from that encounter was a collegial friendship that’s lasted almost 20 years now (Stephen is coming to the Zap your PRAM conference later this month).

Stephen too, it turned out, had read Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and its effects on him had been similar to its effects on me. At this point, I knew I was on to something.

Postman went on to write many more books, including Teaching as a Conserving Activity in 1979, which many, most of whom didn’t actually read the book, took as a recanting of his first book. It wasn’t: it was more a sequel.

I left university after a year and, in a way, have spent the time since then carving out for myself a kind of self-education based on the principles that Postman and Weingartner espoused: learning from experience, following my curiosities, taking different paths, meeting different people, exploring the vocabularies.

About 5 years ago I found myself at something of a life impasse. I had been working for 15 years as one form of computer programmer or another, and while I was earning a good living, working on interesting projects, I wasn’t sure I could go on working in a field the core beliefs of which — “better living through technology” — I didn’t actually, in my heart of hearts, believe. And yet what else could I do?

I decided to write Neil Postman a letter. I went on at some length about how I’d read his books, and followed his thinking, and thanked him for his inspiration. And then I laid out my personal situation, and finished by asking if he might offer any advice.

And he wrote back!

I received in the mail, several weeks later, a well considered reply to my request. He said, to paraphrase, that although he generally hesitated to offer advice, he would, in my case, make an exception. He suggested that, rather than abandoning my work with technology, I seize the opportunity, as someone both versed in the use of tools and aware of their dangers, and write about, learn about, and otherwise explore my technological world. In short, he suggested that I try to leverage my skilled doubts into some valuable, helpful criticism.

And so that’s what I’ve tried to do.

This weblog is one result. My work on the radio is another. And the approach I take with my clients, which urges a gentle, sensible application of technology rather than a frenzied, religious adoption of it, has Postman’s stamp on it as well.

If you read one piece of Postman’s writing, I would suggest it be Informing Ourselves to Death, the text of a speech he gave to a group at IBM in the early 1990s. In it he summarizes his own views of our technology-drenched society, and talks about where “information,” our current drug of choice, fits in. No other document I’ve ever read so closely mirrors my own views and doubts about my choosen field.

I always thought that, someday, I would get a chance to thank Neil Postman in person for the tremendous influence he’s had on my life. I didn’t get that chance, alas. And so, although it’s a pale imitation, I’ll say thank you one last time here.

Neil Postman will be missed.