Books -- the End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman

Article excerpt

Neil Postman. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Neil Postman has been an elementary and secondary school teacher, a college teacher, and an editor of ETC. He has written twenty books on education and cultural criticism. In his preface to The End of Education he notes, "by giving the book its ambiguous title I mean to suggest without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish." The rest of the book expands on the need for and the ways to provide such a purpose. For Postman, schooling is about how to make a life as opposed to how to make a living.

The book is organized into two parts. In the first part the author presents a case for schools to revive what he calls "narratives" or guiding principles such as family honor, restraint, social responsibility, humility, empathy, and social equality to produce an informed and educated citizenry. In part two he offers specific ways to accomplish this objective. Here, Postman presents several narratives to help schools recover a sense of purpose, tolerance, and respect for learning. These narratives include the Spaceship Earth (human beings as stewards of the earth), the Fallen Angel (learning driven not by absolute answers but by an understanding that our knowledge is imperfect), the American Experiment (emphasizing the success and failures of our evolving nation), the Law of Diversity (exposure to all cultures in their strengths and their weaknesses), and Word Weavers (the fundamental importance of language in forging our common humanity). This last narrative contains a five-page exposition on general semantics as a method to teach children to use language in a scientific sense in order to avoid misunderstanding, superstition, prejudice, and plain nonsense. It also includes a discussion of the work of I.A. Richards on how definitions and metaphors influence our views of the world.

Some of the ground Postman covers in developing his arguments he has visited before in earlier books. The anticomputer, anti-technology bias that caused him to write Technology is also evident here. Those familiar with Teaching as a Conserving Activity will recognize his position that schools should offer a countervailing force to the societal Zeitgeist, and that they should be primarily concerned with promoting humane values. However, as my mother, who is a professor emerita used to say, "repetition is reinforcement." Happily Postman reinforces in a humorous and mostly jargon-free style spiced with lots of new information.

As usual, Postman extols the importance of using the Socratic method in the educational process, and the importance of questioning those in positions of authority. …