“Public education does not serve a public” Neil Postman writes in his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School , “It creates one.”
And the one it creates, at least in the United States, is one bound by “false gods.” These tiny deities often go unnoticed but that doesn’t mean their effects are unnoticeable.
As the subtitle suggests, purpose is what Postman’s book is all about.
As Scott London writes in his review of it, “The ‘school problem’ has two dimensions, as he sees it. One is the engineering aspect: the means by which young people acquire an education. The other is the metaphysical aspect: the underlying purpose or mission — the “end” — of education.”
In a culture obsessed with the 10-Step How-To, the engineering aspects get an overwhelming amount of attention. Although this has its place, they should be “addressed after decisions are made about what schools are for.”
Postman highlights the metaphysical aspect of the problem by showing the nimbleness of the “false gods” (economic utility, consumerism, technology, multiculturalism) that bind us in their web of thin purpose.
His weakest arguments pertain to the perils of multiculturalism, but, as Bradley Levinson writes “Postman worries that the narrative of multiculturalism ‘makes cultural diversity an exclusive preoccupation” (p. 51), and thereby renders a narrative of unified national purpose nearly impossible to achieve.”
What are some shared narratives that can provide a compelling purpose for school?
1. Spaceship Earth
The term, popularized by Bucky Fuller is meant to convey the image of Earth as an interconnected all-affects-all whole. You dig into what the Spaceship is made of and how it works (ecology, geology, biology etc.), who is the crew (anthropology), and what is the course (astronomy).
2. Fallen Angel
The multi-century journey of knowledge through countless human minds depends upon errors made and errors corrected. Looking into major historical errors and why they were made is essential to instilling humility in the overarching shared narrative that would pull school forward.
As Postman writes:
“That we may be mistaken, and probably are, is the meaning of the `fall’ in the fallen angel. The meaning of `angel’ is that we are capable of correcting our mistakes, provided we proceed without hubris, pride, or dogmatism; provided that we accept our cosmic status as the error-prone species”
3. The American Experiment
His critique of schooling largely pertains to the United States where he was a teacher and lived, so he advocates an understanding of its foundations devoid of indoctrination (as much as possible). As Levinson writes in his great review “civics ought to be taught through inquiry, not celebration.”
This inquiry is focused around 4 key questions:
1. Is it possible to have a coherent and stable culture while having religious and political freedom?
2. Is it possible to have a stable and coherent culture while having many traditions,races, and languages?
3. Is it possible to have free public education for all?
4. Is it possible to keep the best of American traditions while having uncontrolled technological development?
4. The Laws of Diversity
“The point is that profound but contradictory ideas may exist side by side, if they are constructed from different materials and methods and have different purposes.” Postman writes, “Each tells us something important about where we stand in the universe, and it is foolish to insist that they must despise each other.”
This strand of the shared narrative would focus on the study of language, religion, customs, and art.
Foreign languages would be taught early on, mixed with a “map is not the territory” approach that understands that science, poetry, and literature are different styles of approaching truth. The religious expressions and customs of other cultures would be examined for their own sake and to provide a model for better understanding one’s own culture. Art would be primarily viewed as a language of the heart.
5. Word Weavers/World Makers
The knowledge of a particular subject “mostly means knowledge of the language of that subject” and so Postman suggests a study of “ the most potent elements with which human language constructs a worldview.”
They are: definitions, questions, and metaphors.
What does the process of defining look like and how do you do it? What are questions and how are they constructed? What is the role of metaphors?
The How To
Hopefully the above narratives will provide “an inspired reason for schooling” that would counteract the tendency of students to “enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”
But how should it be taught?
The engineering aspect.
Postman suggests breaking up the detrimental assumption that teachers are always right by admitting to students that I am a fallible human being and your job is to spot my mistakess.
This is one reason why Postman detests the smooth journey of disembodied knowledge presented in textbooks. They don’t show the struggle of learning, the human journey of making Errors and the reflective process of fixing them.
“Textbooks, it seems to me, are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning.” because, as Postman writes “Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward the truth.”
Although Postman’s book largely pertains the schooling system in the United States, his 5 narratives are intellectual goldmines for any curious mind. As he reminds us “at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.”