How Neil Postman Changed My Life

By Ripmaster, Terence M. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

How Neil Postman Changed My Life


Ripmaster, Terence M., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


MANY OF US have that one person in our lives who changed everything. For me it was Neil Postman, a professor and author who died in October, 2003. Here's how it happened for me with Neil. I was about three years into my college teaching career and working on my Ph.D. at Columbia University. The college demanded we hold a doctorate if we expected to be retained. There really was no need for this advanced degree, but I wanted to be tenured; I was married, with two children and a mortgage.

I had completed all of my courses at Columbia and was doing research for my thesis in 1968. That was the year Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam was a disaster, anti-war protests expanded, and Richard Nixon was elected president. I was distracted by those events and becoming more radical by the day. In 1969, I read Neil's book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner). The book's manifesto, just what I was looking for, insisted we teachers stop the rigid lecturing and textbook pedagogy, venture away from the standard old and worn-out grading system, and engage ourselves and students in alternative ways of thinking and learning.

I ventured to New York University to meet Neil. His office, if you could call it that, was in a large messy room, his desk piled high with books and papers, and there he was smoking a cigarette. He was 34 and I was 32, so we were in the same age bracket. He signed the book and I quickly explained my problems. I needed a doctorate in order to be tenured, and my thesis professor at Columbia had left for another university.

While a member of the academic profession, or, better yet, because he was knowledgeable about all the quirks, he quickly understood the problem. Sensing that I was a rebel, as he was, he invited me to transfer my Columbia credits to NYU and become a student in his newly devised Media Ecology department. My background was in European history, and I wasn't sure that a degree in Media Ecology would satisfy my department and college. "What the hell is media ecology?" I asked him.

Neil shuffled through a stack of books and handed me Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, asking if I had read it, which I had not. Originally written in 1934, it is a brilliant study of the impact of technology throughout history. A mix of history, political theories, economics, and psychology, Mumford's book fascinated me. The thesis I was working on at Columbia was an exploration of what is called psycho-history. After a few more chats with Neil, and meeting his staff, I took the plunge and enrolled in the Media Ecology department. After completing the required seminars, and revising my thesis to fit Media Ecology paradigms, I passed the orals and was tenured at my college.

Neil conducted most of the seminars where we students were allowed to roam over the connections between history, philosophy, culture, linguistics, technologies, the arts, and pedagogy. Another of Neil's mentors was Marshall McLuhan. …

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