“There is no surer way to bring an end to schooling than for it to have no end.” (pg. 4)
Neil Postman is an acclaimed educator, author, and critic, most famous for his critically acclaimed, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). Having read that book myself, and having glimpsed his somber yet stirring portrait of entertainment-based culture, I was not surprised to see him applying his keen futurist insights to the field of education.
Postman’s provocatively titled The End of Education is a meaty piece of educational theory. And his poetic and even prophetic manner make it a meal worth savoring. In this rich text, he probes the question of what education is for. In other words, what is the end-goal of education?
The author explores this question by surveying how formal and institutional modes of education are often burdened with conflicted commitments, unclear goals, and a discordant framework. The result is educators and students lacking a clear sense of purpose. Their education is aimless. Chapter 1, “Some Gods that Fail,” elaborates some of these vanishing and errant aims in terms of what he calls the “crisis of narrative” (pg. 23). Education dies for want of a reason to live. Typically, however, pseudo-purposes, misguided aims, and confused reasoning prop up education like a dying patient on a walker long before any death knell can be heard.
When these narratives cannot instill coherence, unity, and meaning within education they fail as narratives. In those cases, conventional schooling cannot stand up straight, but there is always a waiting room full of candidates ready to step in and replace the fallen institution. Conventional education can be readily replaced with political indoctrination, religious fanaticism, or mechanistic conditioning. For conventional schooling to maintain some degree of integrity as genuine liberal arts education then it must maintain healthy viable narratives that can distinguish education from its competitors.
To illustrate this crisis of narrative, Postman offers four problematic narratives, which he calls “false gods.” He claims that allegiance to these worldview commitments is destructive. Then he spends a considerable portion of the opening chapter (pgs. 3-18) explaining this loaded language about “gods.” In short, he means nothing religious here. He’s only pointing out that there are deeply held commitments and beliefs about education which weave together educational theory and practice along certain narrative lines. Postman’s list of faulty narratives includes economic utility, consumerism, technology, and multiculturism.
- Economic utility: School promises students, “if you will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done” (pg. 27). Another way to say it is, “You are what you do” (pg. 33).
- Consumerism: School teaches that “goodness inheres in those who buy things; evil in those who do not . . . You are what you accumulate.” (pg. 33). This is in the same ballpark as materialism (wanting stuff) and commercialism.
- Technology: School can rightly approach technology with wild-eyed enthusiasm. In the “theology” of the technology god there is a “confident and typical sense of unreality . . . a cheery gee-whiz tone” where technology is virtually venerated as an infinite bastion of hope for the future (pg. 39)
- Multiculturalism: Not to be mistaken with cultural pluralism—which Postman affirms—this is also known as “tribalism,” or “separatism” and asserts that schools should prioritize criticism of euro-centric or otherwise “white” perspectives on history and culture while promoting the accomplishments and contributions of non-european and non-white culture (pg. 50-58).
You can probably imagine how these controversial claims would be in contemporary conversations about educational practice, especially number four, “Multiculturalism.” Postman offers several pages of explanation and critique for each of these “false gods” over the course of chapters two and three (pgs. 19-58).
In chapter four, “Gods That May Serve” he suggests, what he thinks are, better narratives that can and should be incorporated into modern classrooms. Incidentally, these are each developed into the final five chapters of the book.
- The Spaceship Earth (Ch. 5): Modern schools should affirm conservationism which, as he expresses it, can be thought of as the mutual responsibility and care for our shared “spaceship”, our one and only natural habitation in the universe, planet earth. This facet encompasses many disciplines such as natural science, engineering, and technology (pgs. 93-113).
- The Fallen Angel (Ch. 6): The working anthropology should affirm that we human beings are flawed but correctable. This is neither Pollyanna nor pessimistic, but a balanced affirmation of the dignity and depravity of mankind. This facet broaches the humanities and social sciences (pgs. 114-128).
- The American Experiment (Ch. 7): The idea of “America” is a critically important hypothesis still being tested. Postman shows shades of patriotism but with a balanced admission that the United States is still a work in progress and a social framework in its experimental stages. This facet encompasses government, economics, history, and similar fields (pgs. 129-142).
- The Law of Diversity (Ch. 8): American education should build up cultural unity through a rich appreciation and exploration of diversity including cross cultural exposure, foreign languages, and world history. This balanced support between unity and diversity is delicate and difficult but necessary to avoid the errors of tribalism and racism (pgs. 143-171).
- The Word Weavers/The World Makers (Ch. 9): Language is the set of building blocks for worldview and thoughts, and no education is complete without studying how language impacts our ways of thinking and understanding the world. Postman’s point here is subtle; this is not about studying English or foreign Language, this is about linguistics, it’s about meta-language. He’s suggesting we take seriously, perhaps as the foremost problem in education, the question of how language relates to reality. This narrative is broached in such fields as Critical Thinking, Logic, and Philosophy, and of course Linguistics or Philology (in college). But it can equally be addressed through a good meta-level discussion in English class, or a linguistic components in history or language arts class. (pgs. 172-194).
This book is not a primer or how to manual. It is a provocative piece of educational theory which should inspire any eager teacher whether in homeschool, private school, or public school settings. Teachers looking for curriculum ideas will find this book helpful but only indirectly, since Postman is not recommending specific books or lesson plans or neatly packaged strategies for education. Instead, he’s giving advice as a veteran educator, advice that can inform your own classroom and help you push against some unhealthy trends when you are deciding how your classroom will run.
The writing style is reflective and interesting, but not overly heady. He manages to frame his big ideas in clear picture language and short sentences so the reading level shouldn’t be intimidating for most readers. Postman is not in the habit of writing innocuous non-controversial books. This book is no exception. In past books, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Technolopoly (1992), he focused his critique on the perilous love affair between mankind and his machines, specifically our addictions to entertainment and convenience. He has a reputation for being neither a bright-eyed optimist nor a despairing pessimist. Postman would best be described as an “edgy” futurist, and a realist when it comes to technology. That attitude plays a big role in Postman’s perspective on contemporary education.
In this book, Postman clearly aims to advance the conversation in philosophy of education, and is willing to start some arguments to keep the conversation going. This book has some fascinating suggestions for practical projects, and testing ideas, but overall, these are only to illustrate his revisionary view of U.S. education. Quite possibly every reader will find something disagreeable in here, as well as something persuasive. Personally, I found him to be flirting a little too loosely with moral and cultural relativism at points (pgs. 151, 187, et al.). Undoubtedly, his idea that schools should teach ecumenically about religion will stir some ire among many readers (pgs. 151-162). We’ll discuss two potentially controversial, items here.
Postman reflects a broad and bipartisan brand of patriotism when he suggests that U.S. schools should “try to tell a story about America that will enable students to feel a sense of national pride.” (pgs. 70-71) He goes on to say, “students deserve that, and their parents expect it.” (71). He does acknowledge that there are right and wrong ways to do this, but some readers may find this unabashed patriotism offensive.
Without repeating Postman’s full defense, that ire might be deflated somewhat when we see that the effort to affirm the better parts of one’s own country of origin is a critical part in establishing a livable sense of social identity, personal history, and a well-rounded—even multicultural—appreciation of other countries. Each of those countries has their own ethno-cultural histories, and a growing crop of students who draw their identity at least in part from the mythology and history of their respective nations of origin. Instead of fighting tooth and nail against an “ethnocentric” history, we can instead acknowledge that some bias is inescapable, and we can let that bias instead drive us to represent our best selves. As long as we allow honest self-critique, and retain a reasonably fair understanding of evidence, we don’t have to be scandalized by that fact that every other country is inculcating patriotic pride in their children too. Political progressives and conservatives, however, are liable to disagree over whether that patriotism is more positive than problematic.
Postman does acknowledge the looming pitfalls with any unchecked or underinformed patriotism. He’s not suggesting some sort of “my country right or wrong” mindlessness. Instead, he “propose[s], then, the story of America as an experiment, a perpetual and fascinating question mark. . . . The American Constitution [for example] is not a catechism, but a hypothesis. It is less the law of the land than an expression of the lay of the land as it has been understood by various people at different times” (pg. 71). The reader will have to decide for himself how well Postman’s intriguing angle of approach resolves any standing problems with patriotism.
Perhaps the most counter-cultural part of this book is Postman’s derision of “multiculturalism.” Here he is liable to invite a lot of enemies who use the term “multiculturalism” to describe most every diversity effort seeking to appreciate and understand different cultural contributions in society/the world/one’s community. But Postman’s main problem may be terminology more than ideology since he would agree to that practice under the title of “cultural pluralism” (pg. 50). It is useful to remember, before reacting too hastily to the author’s terminology, that he voices strong support of cultural and racial diversity in his text and recognizes the importance of diversity in forming a fuller educational experience.
Students of educational theory will find The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School clever and captivating, albeit controversial. Teachers and administrators alike would do well to consider Postman’s proposals in this book since his theories aren’t meant to float aimlessly in the atmosphere. They are made for application. Students may even find this book a helpful stepstool into the school attic, so to speak, where they can see meta-level meaning in their own education.