Neil Postman: 1931-2003
by Angela Penny
Every year around this time the New York Times Sunday Magazine publishes its "The Lives
They Lived" issue, which offers bite-sized profiles of the most fascinating, if
not well-known, personalities to pass on during the previous 12 months. It's strange, then,
that among the 34 luminaries covered, the Times staffers couldn't find room for
Postman, 72, an academic iconoclast and a founder of media studies.
The omission is tragic, too, because Postman's passing on Oct. 9 didn't garner
much coverage, either. An author, educator and founder of New York
University's Media Ecology program, Postman agitated tirelessly against the social
dangers of the entertainment industry's invasion of education.
In his 20 books and more than 200
articles, Postman called upon people to be less passive when
receiving information, regardless of its source. More than 30 years after the founding of his program,
its cautionary messages continue to be a warning sign
in today's media-saturated society.
Media Ecology was more than a program title; as a phrase it encapsulates Postman's
central concern: the conflict between independent thinking and the entrancing power of
new technologies. According to Postman, his most
important book was 1982's "The Disappearance of
Childhood," and from its first sentence Postman's concerns are clear: "Children are
the living messages we send to a time we will not
see." The book warns of a blurring between children's and adult concerns;
Postman observes that mass media expose children to phenomena that they're
not old enough to understand, such as violence, sex and death. Postman writes, "If all
the secrets of adulthood are opened to children, cynicism, apathy or ignorance
replace curiosity for them."
Postman even criticizes the sacred cow, "Sesame Street," because it "answered
questions that weren't asked." He argued that once children love and trust "Sesame
Street" and its characters, they become trapped by an
emotional connection that leaves them vulnerable to a
lifetime of manipulation by advertisers.
In 1984, people were thinking about how our culture compared to George Orwell's
vision. But just two years later, Postman wrote his most famous work, "Amusing
Ourselves to Death," in which he argues that Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," not "1984,"
more accurately described the current state of affairs. People craved entertainment
and pleasure, and media owners were only too happy to give it to them.
Postman explains in the book's forward that "Huxley feared those who would give us
so much [information] that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Huxley
feared that we would become a trivial culture. Huxley remarked that civil
libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to
take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." Seventeen years
later, Postman and Huxley have proven eerily prescient.
After receiving a Ph.D. in education, Postman began his career as an English teacher.
wrote his first book, "Television and the Teaching of English," in 1961, at a time
when TV was still in its primitive state, with a handful of mostly black-and-white channels
that were only on the air part of the day. But even then, he realized that all
the English teachers in the world weren't going to be able to offset the influence
of the new medium. Former student Jay Rosen, now the head of the NYU Journalism
department, quotes Postman on his blog: "Television, is the first curriculum, Postman wrote. School
Postman had a second critical success with 1969's "Teaching as a Subversive Activity";
In it, Postman
advocates an "inquiry-based" mode of education that teaches students how to think
instead of asking them to memorize random information. Thirty-four years later, it is still a popular media-studies text.
Postman's books have a satirical tone, and they often offer a worst-case scenario.
But then he himself was a bit of a radical in his personal life, shying away from new
technologies he found unnecessary, like electric windows in cars or personal computers.
He wrote in longhand. Postman didn't encourage people to follow his example, but he
did live his life as an alternative model. (He did watch some TV, though; he was a
fan of David Letterman because, he said, Letterman's humor made fun of the media and "broke the frame.")
Today Postman is second only to Marshall McLuhan as a giant in the media studies field, but
despite his critical success he is less well known outside academia. So maybe it's no
surprise that the Times left him out of its year-end retrospective. Though, given his
wariness of media icons, that may have suited him just fine.
E-mail Angela Penny at firstname.lastname@example.org.