Oct. 24, 2003
Vol. 17 No. 3


Social Critic and Educator
Neil Postman Dies at 72

By James Devitt

Steinhardt School of Education Professor Neil Postman, a world renowned social critic and educator, died on October 5 in Queens, N.Y. He was 72.

A faculty member at NYU for 44 years, Postman founded Steinhardt’s Program in Media Ecology in 1971 and was chair of the Department of Culture and Communication from 1989 until 2002. His colleagues described him as an education reformer, humanist, social visionary, and media critic who developed a wide audience for his writing and speaking. Postman was appointed a University Professor in 1993, the only professor at Steinhardt to hold this honor and one of only 17 at NYU. He was named the Paulette Goddard Professor of Media Ecology in 1998.

“My father’s affinity for youth and the youthful bantering of ideas is evidenced in the fact that he never retired from NYU,” Postman’s son Andrew said at his funeral. “He could have been a professor emeritus, but he never thought of himself that way, and neither do we.”

Postman was known for his work, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking, 1985), which criticized the television industry for treating the world’s most serious issues and problems as entertainment. The book, one of 20 Postman authored, has been translated into eight languages and sold 200,000 copies worldwide. Many of Postman’s works offered cautionary perspectives on the impact of television and other technologies. In The Disappearance of Childhood (Vintage, 1994), he argued that television homogenizes the worlds of children and adults by giving them access to vast amounts of information that was once reserved for adults. Postman’s other works included Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (Knopf, 1999) and Technopoly (Vintage, 1993).

Postman was particularly concerned about the effects of media on children.
“The lives of our children are shaped by what they will see and hear in the media,” he wrote in The Disappearance of Childhood. “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Many NYU colleagues had known Postman for decades and offered stirring accounts of his intellect and character.

“Neil Postman was a major figure on NYU’s faculty, a founding father of the Program in Media Ecology, and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication within the Steinhardt School of Education,” said Provost David McLaughlin. “He was a mentor to many—students, members of the faculty, and colleagues. He will be remembered and truly missed by our NYU community.”
“He was the most extraordinarily provocative educator I have ever met,” said Professor Terence Moran, program director of the Culture and Communication Department’s Media Ecology program. “Neil never assumed he knew more than everyone else in the room, and that approach allowed him to bring out what other people were thinking.”

Moran, fresh out of the Marine Corps, was a student of Postman’s beginning in the fall of 1962. While finishing his dissertation, Moran was enlisted by Postman to help start NYU’s Media Ecology program.

“Neil made me program director because he hated doing administrative work,” Moran said with a laugh.

“For more than 40 years, Neil Postman both shaped and embodied the values and commitments of the School of Education,” said former Steinhardt Dean Ann Marcus. “An education reformer and founder of the new field of media ecology, he had deep concerns for the quality of learning and thinking. In his teaching, mentoring, writing, and speaking he married the traditional commitments of the professor to the service of the public. NYU was, for him, a life commitment.”

“Postman’s intellectual pose, as well as his poise in public settings, as well as his great gift, which was terribly good humor, came down essentially to this: the trials of a civilized man in a century of barbarism,” wrote Journalism Professor Jay Rosen, a master’s and doctoral student of Postman’s from1980 to 1986, on his weblog, PressThink. “I have no count, but I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures—with reputation but no real discipline—have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.”

In an op/ed that ran in the Oct. 12 issue of the New York Post, Jonathan Zimmerman, an associate professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, wrote that Postman “was a fabulous story-teller in the grand New York tradition.

“But the way he said it — slowly, carefully, deliberately —was the main point. Like the stories he told, Neil Postman’s life was devoted to making all of us pause. ‘Don’t hurry,’ he told us. ‘Sit down. We’ll talk.’ Talk was vital to Neil, because he believed that modern society - and, especially, modern media - had cheapened it. In 20 books and countless articles, Neil warned that television and other new technologies were eroding our common discourse.”

Postman published more than 200 articles, including pieces for the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, the Saturday Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Le Monde. He was also a contributing editor at the Nation and, for 10 years, the editor of Et Cetera, the journal of general semantics.

Postman began his career as a teacher educator, authoring numerous textbooks in the 1960s, including Television and the Teaching of English (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1961), The Uses of Language (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), and Language and Reality (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967).

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Postman devoted his scholarship to teaching reform. Among his most prominent works in this area are Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Delacorte, 1969), co-authored with Charles Weingartner, and Teaching as a Conserving Activity (Delacorte, 1979).

In 1986, Postman was given the George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language by the National Council of Teachers of English. He was a holder of the Christian Lindback Award for excellence in teaching. In 1988, he was given NYU’s Distinguished Teacher Award.

Postman received a bachelor of science degree from SUNY-Fredonia in 1953 and a master’s degree in 1955 and an Ed.D. in 1958, both from Columbia University Teachers College.

Postman was born in New York City on March 8, 1931 and grew up in Brooklyn an avid Brooklyn Dodgers’ fan, as noted by his son Andrew during the eulogy. His funeral service on October 8 was held exactly 46 years after Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley announced he was moving his team to Los Angeles, never to return to Flatbush.

Postman is survived by his wife, Shelley, his son Andrew and two other children, Marc and Madeline, and four grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers the family has requested that donations be made to the Neil Postman Fellowship Fund c/o Dorothy Weaver, University Development Office, New York University, 25 W. 4th Street, 4th floor, New York, New York 10003.

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Neil Postman