Friday, 19 December 2008

Building A Bridge To The 18th Century - Neil Postman

I first read Postman’s work in 1972, just before going to College. It was his book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co written Charles Weingartner). Since then I have read much of his work, which made this book a touch disappointing as it is a re-statement of his position on a number of interrelated issues – although it makes a fitting final book and does explain why he takes the position he does.

In essence, his argument is that we need to step back from the headlong rush into a technology driven future and take control of futures. To do this, we need to look at the eighteenth century and see how Rationalist notions of progress were balanced with Romantic dislike of the tyranny of the machine.

There are wider issues under discussion, but Postman believes we have ditched a balanced approach (and may have done so as a result of the pernicious effects of technological advancements). He doesn’t offer answers to his concerns in the sense of trying to sell a particular vision of the future. What he does, as he has always done, is urge us all to question the world about us and not take it at face value.

Indeed, the most important part of the book (as it was with Teaching as a Subversive Activity) is suggesting ways in which we can ask questions – and pointing out why this is likely to meet with resistance.

For those of you who do not know Postman’s work, I would urge you to seek it out. This book is a good place to start as it gives an overview of his thinking. His was an important voice in educational discussion in the ‘60s and ‘70s and he rightly became an acclaimed cultural critic. His writing style is easy, yet he makes very cogent and often fundamental points about the problems of modern western culture. And once you get a sense of his position from this work, his others are well worth reading, thinking about, and acting upon.