Neil Postman

Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century

Neil Postman has been described as a cultural critic, an educator, and a communications theorist. His research and teaching interests include media and learning.

He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a truck driver, studying at the State University of New York (SUNY), earning his BS in 1953 and at Columbia University, earning his MA in 1955 and his EdD in 1958. He then taught linguistics at San Francisco State College.

An internationally recognized scholar, he has lectured all over the world, and in 1985, gave the keynote address at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In 1986, he won the George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language by The National Council of Teachers of English. In 1988, he was given the Distinguished Teacher Award--one of many awards received in his 38 years of teaching at New York University. In 1988 and 1989, he served as a member of the New York State Commission on Cameras in the Courts. In 1991, he was the Laurence Lombard Visiting Professor of The Press and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He has published 21 books and some 200 articles, in a wide variety of magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Time Magazine, The Saturday Review, The Harvard Education Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Stern, and Le Monde. For 10 years, he was the editor of Et Cetera, the journal of General Semantics. Currently, he is on the Editorial Board of The Nation magazine.

At the moment, Postman is Paulette Goddard Professor of Media Ecology as well as Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at SUNY, the largest private university in the United States. Postman teaches (among other things) a course on the history of technology, which considers the social effects of new technologies.

He is a prolific author, writing (some would say) in the tradition of George Orwell and H.L. Mencken. Throughout his career, Postman has argued that it is wrong-headed to place our faith in new technology--he believes that technology can never replace human values.

a glance at some of Postman's publications
  1. with Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)

    This book appeared during those hectic days when many intellectuals were talking about educational reforms. We think of Paul Goodman, who in Growing up Absurd (1960) popularized the phrase "Rat Race" as an image of the ruthless dubious moral struggle for career success. This book sold no less than 500,000 copies.

  2. Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (1976)

    Postman identifies habits of thought we never knew we had. He talks about subtle distinctions in meaning and the interplay between the words we use and the world we use them in. In some ways, the tendency to confuse words with things (reification) is the most seductive source of stupid, crazy talk, since the structure of language encourages this habit.

  3. Amusing ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985)

    Contrary to popular belief, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell prophesied quite different things. Orwell warns us that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. By contrast, Huxley suggests that we will come to love our oppression, i.e., we will adore the technologies that undo our capacity to think. In this popular book about the politics and the epistemology of media, Postman supports Huxley's case, arguing that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about or why they had stopped thinking.

    This book has sold about 200,000 copies. It sells well in Europe. Why is this? Postman claims that Europeans are about 10 years behind the Americans in terms of their relationship to technology. They see some of the harmful effects technology has had, and so they become more wary. Americans have always had a great appetite for the latest gadget. So Europeans ask themselves: Can we maximize the benefits of new technologies while minimizing the negative effects?

  4. Conscientious Objections: Stirring up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education (1988)

    In this collection of essays, Postman casts a shrewd eye over contemporary culture, revealing the worst--and the best--of our habits of discourse, tendencies in education, and obsessions with technological innovation. In this book, he prods readers into re-thinking many of their basic assumptions. He raises questions like: Should education transmit culture or defend us against it? Is technological innovation really progress? Is childhood anything more than a sentimental concept?

  5. Technopolopy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)

    In this book, Postman elaborates on themes that have become familiar to readers of his earlier books, such as: The uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. That is, Postman argues, technology creates a culture without moral foundation and reorders our fundamental assumptions about the world. New technologies alter our understanding of what is real: this is another way of saying that embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world one way rather than another. The term technopoly describes a society which believes that "the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment ... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and controlled by experts." The United States is the first culture to become a technopoly.

  6. with Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (1992)

    Postman and Powers spend some time talking about the economic and the economic basis of news. The thesis here is: It is impossible to make sense of the world if you watch TV news only. You have to read a lot to make sense of what you watch on TV news. They also talk about the decisions that are made regarding what people see and in what order.

  7. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Education (1995)

    Postman argues that the decline of education in the United States can be traced to a lack of vision, i.e., a narrative which gives meaning to the world. Such a narrative has credibility, complexity, and symbolic power around which people can organize their lives. We have to have a clear vision of what we want education to be, what we want to achieve.

  8. Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past can improve our Future (1999)

    In order to have an agreeable encounter with the 21st century, Postman argues, we will have to take into it some good ideas. This means casting our minds back to the 18th century, taking stock of the good ideas, ideas which have advanced our understanding of our selves.

    Ultimately, Postman argues, society needs a central narrative by which it organizes itself, one which "provides a sense of hope, ideals, personal identity, a basis for moral conduct, explanations of that which cannot be known." In the past, in the West, the Bible provided such a (central) narrative.

Study Guide

Read the following passages (and questions) carefully, with a view to explaining how they contribute to the argument Postman makes in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century. Be sure you can put these statements into your own words. What evidence can you cite in each case to support Postman? to challenge Postman? How do readers judge the merits of his truth claims?

some preliminary considerations

  1. What biographical information would help readers appreciate Postman's project?

  2. What evidence do you detect to suggest that Postman approaches his task from a "humanist" perspective?

  3. How should we as Canadians respond to Postman?

Prelude / Introduction / Chapter 1, pp. 3-20

  1. Explain the significance of Postman's story about John Peter Zenger (pp. 3-4).

  2. Put Postman's purpose/thesis into your own words.

  3. Explain why the following metaphors are/are not appropriate" All of us are speeding along a highway with our eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror (p. 5) and If we forget the past, we are condemned to relive it (pp. 5-6).

Chapter 1 / pp. 7-20

  1. Explain the following statement (p. 7): Language not only represents reality falsely, but there is no reality to represent.

  2. Postman writes (p. 9) that we need a major narrative to explain why we are here and what our future is to be. What evidence would readers cite to support this claim? to challenge it?

  3. Postman wants to show that Enlightenment ideas can offer us a "humane direction" to the future. How can we judge the value of his advice?

Chapter 2 / Progress, pp. 21-35

  1. Postman speaks of "rationalism" as the impulse that drove the Enlightenment. (a) Summarise (briefly) the key points Postman makes on pp. 21-24. (b) Identify the major figures associated with "rationalism."

  2. Explain how the radicalism of rationalist thought paved the way for the growth of natural science (p. 24)? Identify the major thinkers who promoted the pursuit of science.

  3. According to Postman, the rationalists developed the theory of "progress," which he regarded as one of the great gifts of the Enlightenment. (a) How does Postman define "progress" (p. 26)? Give some examples. (b) Postman traces the concept to Francis Bacon. What evidence does he give for this reading of history? (c) In what ways can we say that "progress" is a gift?

  4. Postman tells us that, about the middle of the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau "sounded a dissenting note." (a) How (according to Postman) does Rousseau express his opposition to rationalism? (pp. 30-31). (b) What intellectual/cultural movement grows out of this opposition?

  5. Explain the term "moral progress" (p. 32). In what sense(s) can we say that "poetic imagination" is the impulse driving of "moral progress"? Elaborate briefly.

Chapter 3 / Technology, pp. 36-57

  1. Thinkers in the 18th century "invented" the idea of progress--and quickly encouraged people to approach the concept with scepticism (p. 36). The gift is to be found in the intelligence of the questions raised about progress. What question is Postman thinking of?

  2. Many North Americans regard technology as the "engine" of spiritual progress (p. 38). Explain this metaphor briefly. In what ways can one say that technological progress goes hand-in-hand with moral progress (p. 40)?

  3. Discuss the computer (pp. 39-40) as a "technology" that goes hand-in-hand with moral progress.

  4. The slaughter of the First World War convinced people to revise their views on progress, i.e., they realized that progress is not natural, that history does not "unfold" in a positive direction (pp. 40-41). However, Postman argues, people still cling to progress, but in a rather novel way, i.e., we equate technological innovation with moral, social, and psychic progress. In your view, what examples support his case? What explanation can you give for this practice?

  5. Postman (pp. 42-53) suggests that we should ask five questions about new technology. Paraphrase each question. Are some questions more helpful than others?

Chapter 4 / Language, pp. 58-81

  1. According to Postman, another great gift of the 18th century is the standard literary form we call expository prose. How does he define this mode of communication? What thinkers were involved in this development?

  2. Postman argues that the scientific revolution in the 18th century was also a revolution in language (p. 61). Explain (and illustrate) this provocative statement. Who were the masters of expository prose?

  3. What case does Postman make for saying that essay writing is the standard form in which to express ideas (p. 68)?

  4. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many thinkers (Postman writes) have tried to explain the relationship between language and reality (p. 71). What major positions or arguments dominate this discussion?

  5. Postmodernism in general and Jacques Derrida in particular (Postman claims) promote a dangerous way of thinking about language and reality. Summarise the case he makes. What lesson(s) should we draw from Postman's discussion?

Chapter 5 / Information, pp. 82-98

  1. Enlightenment philosophers regarded the ability to read as the key to cultivating social, political, and moral consciousness (p. 83). Clarify this statement.

  2. Compare and contrast our understanding of "information" and 18th century thinkers' (Diderot's say) understanding of information (pp. 86-87).

  3. Explain how (according to Postman) the invention of telegraphy and photography effected a change in the meaning of information (pp. 87-89). Do you agree with him?

  4. Postman writes: I try to redefine "information," "knowledge," and "wisdom," so as to help people make sense of the world (pp. 90, 95). How does he define these terms? Are you convinced by his discussion?

  5. Explain the following statement: Newspapers should get out of the information business and into the knowledge business (pp. 92-93).

Chapter 6 / Narratives, pp. 91-115

  1. Explain the following statement: The 21st century will be troubled if we cannot find a way around "radical historicism" (p. 99).

  2. Why does Postman distinguish "philosopher" from "philosophe" (p. 103)?

  3. Postman claims that human beings cannot live without a transcendental narrative (pp. 101, 106). Explain (and illustrate) this proposition.

  4. John Stuart Mill called his story "the religion of humanity" (p. 112). What did he mean by this phrase?

  5. We in the West are inheritors of two great tales: the tale of Genesis and the tale of Darwin (p. 114). How can the re-telling of these tales help us cross the bridge into the 21st century?

Chapter 7 / Children, pp. 116-35

  1. According to Postman, childhood was the invention of the 17th century (p. 116). Summarise (briefly) the argument he makes.

  2. Postman writes that, as the concept of childhood moved into the 19th and 20th centuries, crossing the Atlantic on its way to the New World, two intellectual strains made up the idea (p. 121). Explain these strains.

  3. John Dewey and Sigmund Freud established (Postman writes) the mode of discourse that was used in talking about childhood in the 20th century. Explain this statement.

  4. If the technology of a culture (as Postman puts it) makes it impossible to conceal anything from the young, in what sense can we say that childhood exists (p. 125)?

  5. Three institutions (Postman writes) play a role in reclaiming childhood (pp. 127-34). Identify these, and explain how they can reclaim childhood.
Chapter 8 / Democracy, pp. 136-54

  1. Postman explains that, during the 17th century, thinkers revived the concept of "democracy" (p. 137). Summarise his discussion briefly. How did John Locke contribute to this process?

  2. As we move into a new century, Postman writes, we realize that the word "democracy" has a more of less settled meaning (pp. 139-40). What does he mean by this statement?

  3. The modern conception of democracy (Postman argues) has been tied to the printed word (pp. 144-45). Explain this statement.

  4. Postman writes: We should review three characteristics of the 18th century conception of democracy (pp. 147-53). Identify these characteristics, and paraphrase the lessons we should take from the process.

Chapter 9 / Education, pp. 155-74

  1. Three legacies of the 18th century (Postman writes) have a direct bearing on education in North America today (pp. p. 155). Outline these legacies briefly.

  2. Postman writes that, gradually, teaching and learning came to be regarded as "transactional" in nature (pp. 155-57). What does he mean by this statement?

  3. The idea that "education is a natural resource" (Postman writes) dates from the 18th century (pp. 157-69). What argument does he make to support this view?

  4. Postman claims the idea that a "proper education" must have as one of its goals the cultivation of a skeptical outlook dates from the 18th century (p. 160). Explain this statement briefly.

  5. Summarise (briefly) the five suggestions Postman makes to promote "reason" and "skepticism" (pp. 161-72).

return to the GNST 357 Home Page