Neil Postman, Defender of the Word

Article excerpt

NEIL POSTMAN(1931-2003) died on Sunday, October 5th, 2003, at the age of 72, after battling lung cancer for almost two years. His contributions, as a scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, enriched many different fields of study, including semantics, linguistics, communication, media studies, journalism, education, psychology, English, cultural studies, philosophy, history, sociology, political science, religious studies, technology studies, etc. Across these many contexts, and throughout his career, he promoted and advanced the discipline of general semantics. Some years ago, in the course of a conversation we shared on the writing styles that intellectuals and academics employ, he summed up his position on language with these words: "Clarity is courage." Postman wrote and spoke with a crystalline courage, and championed clarity in language, thought, and action.

Born into a Yiddish-speaking family in Brooklyn, New York, Neil Postman(1931) developed an awareness of the power of language at an early age. Public school education at that time placed a great deal of emphasis on proper grammar and diction, and the elimination of accents and dialects. Consequently he learned to speak in the educated New York manner and idiom made famous by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Neil Postman(1950s) established himself as a star athlete on the varsity basketball team at the State University of New York at Freedonia, played minor league baseball, served in the United States Army, and studied for his doctorate in education at Columbia University's Teachers College. His mentor, Louis Forsdale, introduced him to the formal study of linguistics, to the fields of education and communication, and to the study of media. Forsdale also introduced Postman to Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto English Professor who would become famous during the 1960s for his study of media.

Neil Postman(1958) joined the English faculty at San Francisco State College, where he shared an office with Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly, and worked under S.I. Hayakawa. Largely through Hayakawa, Postman learned about general semantics, and became associated with the International Society for General Semantics. As a doctoral student at Teachers College, Postman had studied linguistics, and New York University hired Neil Postman(1959) for its School of Education because of his expertise in that field. General semantics fit neatly within his linguistics orientation, and he inherited possibly the first college course in general semantics at New York University. In Postman's own words:

  I have been unable to verify the exact date but there is suggestive
  evidence that in the late 1940s, NYU's School of Continuing Education
  sponsored a seminar given by Korzybski himself. And in Stuart Chase's
  popular The Power of Words, Chase asserts that an NYU School of
  Education course called "Language and Behavior" was among the first
  general semantics courses ever given at a major university. That
  course survives to this day under the title "Language and Human
  Behavior." (Postman, 1988, p.145)

In teaching "Language and Human Behavior" over four decades, Postman made it into the oldest continuously taught course on general semantics in the history of the discipline.

Neil Postman(1960s) focused on English education, arguing that we could improve the English curriculum in elementary and secondary schools by incorporating linguistics and semantics, as well as the study of "the new languages," a phrase that McLuhan's colleague Edmund Carpenter (1960) introduced to refer to the media of communication. Thus, Postman's first book, Television and the Teaching of English, commissioned by the National Council of Teachers of English (through Forsdale), and published in 1961, clearly indicated the direction his career would take. He then went on to develop a textbook series called "The New English," used in grades 7 to 12. …