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Building a Bridge to Neil Postman

"Arguing in My Spare Time" No. 2.19

by Arnold Kling

Oct. 17, 1999

May not be redistributed commercially without the author's permission.

If media-studies professor Neil Postman understood marketing, he would have titled his new book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Philosophes." Instead, he chose "Building a Bridge to the 18th Century," which is just as cute but probably not as likely to rise to the top of the best-seller list.

Postman and I disagree about the Internet. He hates the Net for the same reason that he hates television. I love the Net for the same reason that he hates television. That is, relative to television, I see the Net as an alternative that offers hope, while he sees it as one more impediment to enlightenment, or Enlightenment.

Apart from that minor quibble, Postman's views are very congenial to me. In his climactic chapter on education, which is worth the price of the entire book, he advocates five habits (falling two short of the magic number).

1. Ask questions. Postman says that "question-asking is the most significant tool human beings have." I agree. In fact, when I used to interview job candidates for positions of financial analyst or programmer, I would give a one-minute job description and then ask, "What questions do you have?" My hiring decision was based primarily on the quality of the questions asked by the applicant.

2. Respect language. Postman argues that people need to learn the differences between clear, meaningful language and manipulative gobbledygook. It was in that spirit that when I found that my 14-year-old was going to be assigned a "Seven Habits" book in school, I immediately ordered for her a copy of Wendy Kaminer's "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional." Kaminerís work contains a brutal dissection of the (lack of) meaning of Covey's "synergy" Habit. Incidentally, Kaminer's book is out of print. I was able to locate a copy at Powells' Used Books, 3000 miles away, and have it shipped to me. For those of you keeping score, I believe that is one point for the Internet.

3. Think scientifically. Postman says that we should not want children to accept Darwinian or Copernican theory only because we drill it in to them on tests. Rather, they should develop the ability to evaluate these theories against their competitors. In our company, I chose the title "chief scientist" because I, too, prefer to evaluate Internet business hypotheses for myself rather than accept the opinion of experts.

4. Honor history. Postman says that there is value in understanding ideas in the historical context under which they were developed. My high school chemistry teacher, Frank Quiring, took exactly that approach. We followed the progression of the science of chemistry from the formulation of the gas laws through the development of the atomic theory to the discovery of neutrons, protons, and electrons, and on to quantum theory. We learned chemistry by putting ourselves in the position of scientists as they thought in their time. We saw how each new empirical discovery led to theoretical attempts to explain it. At the time, I took it for granted that this was how chemistry was taught. In retrospect, it must have taken tremendous effort by Mr. Quiring to structure the subject in this way. I despair of my daughters ever having such a course taught to them.

The fifth habit that Postman advocates is the teaching of comparative religion in school. As far as that suggestion is concerned, I am relatively agnostic.

With his keen intellect and originality, I wish that Postman had less disdain for the Internet. I feel that, just as Postman was left to speculate about what the great figures of the 18th century would say about modern media, I am left to speculate about what Postman would say if he were to give the Internet its due.

I outline many books, but so far none of them have been written. One recent outline was for a book called "The Internet and Society," with chapters on economic effects, censorship issues, culture and community, political effects, identity and privacy, and education. It is on the latter issue, the relationship of the Internet to education, that I feel we are in particular need of Postmanís insights.

I have heard pundits proclaim that the Internet will completely revolutionize education. However, these claims remind me of the hype that is given to software development tools and methodologies. As Frederick Brooks pointed out in "No Silver Bullet," such tools and methodologies at best can address only the incidental difficulties of software development. However, they do not help with the fundamental task of thinking and problem solving. By the same token, I would be eager to hear of an application of the Internet for education that addresses the fundamentals of the learning process.

For example, some Internet pundits are excited by the potential for "distance learning." I confess that I fail to grasp their vision. If viewing a lecture in my living room is a powerful learning experience, then why didnít the VCR produce a revolution in education? I would go further and argue that if the VCR had appeared prior to the development of print media, then the invention of the book would be considered a technological advance. Imagine, being able to stop and think without having to press "pause." Or being able to repeat a section without having to hold down "rewind."

Postman argues that the Enlightenment inaugurated the concept of childhood as a period of gradually learning how to function as an adult. He suggests that modern media are undermining this by presenting young people with so much information so early that they no longer enjoy the innocence of childhood. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that at the current juncture of history, children often know more than their elders about the Internet and its cultural effects.

The other night, I went to a meeting at our local high school. A teacher who is organizing a student workshop on ethics asked for parents to volunteer to participate by talking about ethical issues in their work. I offered to talk about ethical issues related to the Internet.

My plan is to let the students pick a topic to address. However, I hope that they want to discuss censorship. The issues of pornography and hate speech will serve to illustrate the differences in the generational knowledge bases.

Suppose that we discuss the challenges of regulating pornography. I imagine that, compared with the students, the teachers will be more familiar with the history of this issue. The teachers will know better than the students, and perhaps better than I, how factors such as the First Amendment and the challenge of defining pornography have affected the evolution of censorship.

On the other hand, I imagine that the students will understand, but the teachers may have trouble grasping, the ways in which Internet architecture affects the issue. The students will have a sense of the practical difficulties of regulating content that is transported across international boundaries as sequences of 0ís and 1ís. Also, the students will be able to appreciate that the difference between how consumers interact with the Net versus with television makes it easier for me to tolerate hard-core pornography on the former than puerile sexual innuendo on the latter. If only I could count on my daughters to react to an 8 PM sit-com, such as "Friends," by forwarding it to and hitting the delete key!

What the Internet has done to education is that it has taken away from teachers, and adults in general, the respect and authority that comes from superior knowledge. I believe that this has contributed to the crisis of trust that seems to exist in education. We are trying to operate a peculiar hierarchy in which standards are set for students by often less-knowledgeable teachers, whose standards in turn are set by politicians and parents with even fewer qualifications. The new constitution of checks and balances that is required in education today is one that needs to be worked out.