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“Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.” – Neil Postman, in The End of Education.

What’s the point of school? Why do we educate our youth? Postman explores these questions and much, much more in his thought-provoking look at our systems of learning, in the cleverly titled The End of Education (1995). The title certainly implies a double-meaning, but leans much more heavily towards the use of the word “end” as a goal, rather than a conclusion. In analyzing why we teach, Postman suggests five narratives that educators may use “to provide an end – that is, a purpose – to schooling.” Postman points out that we all have narratives in our lives, whether they’re religious, scientific, or something else altogether. He clarifies: “By narrative, I mean a story of human history that gives meaning to the past, explains the present, and provides guidance for the future.” The narratives (each of which is given its own chapter) he suggests are:

  1. The Spaceship Earth – “The story of human beings as stewards of the Earth, caretakers of a vulnerable space capsule.” As an astronomy major, this chapter was particularly interesting to me, as Postman describes astronomy as “the subject that most explicitly depicts our planet as a spaceship, and its study inevitably raises fundamental questions about ourselves and our mission.” In thinking of the Earth as a spaceship in a vast universe, Postman argues that archaeology, anthropology, and astronomy should be stressed in our curriculums, as we attempt to better understand our spaceship’s past, its crew, and its relative role in the grand picture of the cosmos.
  2. The Fallen Angel – A religious metaphor explains that as humans, we make mistakes, but we are entirely capable of correcting them. Teachers should be encouraging students to find mistakes – in the teacher’s words, the textbook’s writings, any voice of authority – and analyze them through discussion. This narrative goes on to suggest some radical ideas, such as getting rid of all the textbooks in order to make the subjects less boring, and express more human personality through the passions of the educators. In fact, Postman goes on to describe textbooks as “enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning.” This narrative looks at education as a Great Conversation, and good conversations need to have more than one voice.
  3. The American Experiment – The idea that education is an experiment, “a perpetual and fascinating question mark” and that we should seek to “provide our youth with the knowledge and  will to participate in the great experiment”, that is, to teach them how to argue, how to question, and how to critically analyze those questions.
  4. The Law of Diversity – This narrative invokes the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which states, in its most basic form, that all of the energy and matter in the universe tends to ‘sameness’ as entropy increases) in that Postman contends that we must fight the effects of entropy and celebrate diversity. Postman demonstrates “how the vitality and creativity of humanity depends on diversity”, that we grow as humans through the “intermingling of different ideas”, and ultimately that the law of diversity “makes intelligent humans of us all.”
  5. The Word Weavers/World Makers – This last narrative is based on the notion “that we use language to create the world” and our ability to speak is part of what makes us human. We have continued to transform the world through language with the use of “surrogate languages” such as writing, printing, photography, radio, television and the computer – tools which have “transformed the world – sliced it, framed it, enlarged it, diminished it.”

Postman’s writings have made me acutely aware of the importance of the narratives which educators subscribe to, and how these are portrayed in the classroom.

Do we live in a society dominated by technology?

In Technopoly (1992), one of Postman’s earlier books, the prolific author makes the compelling argument that throughout human history, our technologies have increasingly dehumanized us, as each new technology “increases the available supply of information.” As we struggle to cope with the new influx of information, we use “control mechanisms that are themselves technical”, thus extending the supply of information. It appears to be an exponentially increasing spiral we cannot escape from. Postman’s cautionary advice in a world that functions as a Technopoly is to be aware of our technologies, and understand their histories, for “Without defences, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.”

One of Postman’s most powerful suggestions is that education should focus on each subject through a historical lens. Too often, we teach about the present without any mention of the past; we jump into math and physics problems without realizing where the formulas and concepts are derived from. Instead, by teaching each subject through the lens of history, we can give our youth “a sense of coherence in their studies, a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness in what they learn.” If we subscribe to the belief that “human’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge” (as Jacob Bronowski suggests in the Ascent of Man), then this historical approach will help immensely in our understanding of the world we live in. Teaching every subject as history will help students to begin to understand “that knowledge is not a fixed thing but a stage in human development, with a past and a future.”

I’ve long held this belief about the need for stressing the history of each subject, and it felt great to hear it from a well-articulated voice such as Postman’s. Too often I’ve seen students question why they need to learn something, or they lose sight of the context of the questions they are asked to solve. By providing a look at the bigger picture, through the teaching of our subjects through historical perspectives, we are better able to grasp the nature of what is being asked of us. I think that students too often see school as something they need to do as a pre-requisite for the ‘real world’, and in doing so, lose sight of the beauty of learning for the sake of learning. People often come to this realization long after they have left public school, and then express frustration that they got so little out of their 12 years in the system. Perhaps my view is naive, and an historical approach will not solve anything at all. I will however, attempt to give it a try, sprinkling in a dash of historical perspective to my lessons whenever I can.

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