Neil Postman's Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life

Article excerpt

GOOD EVENING, ladies and gentlemen. When I first met Neil Postman in 1988, we both realized almost immediately that we shared a profound interest in the study of language. Before meeting Postman, during my graduate training in linguistics, I had learned about scholars who emphasized the important role language plays in shaping human affairs, scholars such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. But I have Postman to thank for introducing me to the work of great scholars such as Alfred Korzybski, Wendell Johnson, and S.I. Hayakawa, in short, for introducing me to general semantics. So I am particularly pleased to address a gathering sponsored by the New York Society for General Semantics, and I would like to express my appreciation to Allen Flagg and his colleagues for inviting me to speak here tonight.

To address a gathering like this would be an honor for me on any occasion, but tonight I consider myself especially privileged because, as you know, I will share with you Neil Postman's advice on how to live the rest of your life. Although Postman's advice does not refer directly to general semantics, my presentation tonight does illustrate one of the fundamental notions of general semantics, a notion referred to as time-binding. Time-binding involves the capability humans have to build on the knowledge of prior generations, and we do this by means of language. Language is what binds us to those no longer with us, and to those who will follow, as well as to those around us in the present. This spirit of time-binding infuses my efforts tonight, as I propose to act as a conduit for bringing Postman's words to you.

A prolific writer, Postman authored numerous books, essays, articles, and speeches. Yet he never formalized in writing certain material that he presented in classes he taught at New York University in the Media Ecology Program. Almost every year, Postman ritually delivered several lectures, among them an enduring favorite which became known as his lecture on "How to Live the Rest of Your Life." In his own personal notes, Postman titled this material simply his "Final Lecture," describing it as "a lecture based on the supposition that American culture is in the process of decomposition. Technology has attacked all social institutions and although we may yet revive the culture, the problem to be solved is, how to survive until that happens."

You may wonder, perhaps, what authority I have to present Postman's advice on such an important topic as how to live the rest of your life. For one thing, as some of you know, I was lucky to earn my doctorate under Postman's guidance at NYU, and I was also lucky to teach and work with him there for over a decade. But in addition, from 1990 to 1993, I served as Postman's personal assistant, and in this capacity, became the first, I believe, to systematically use a word-processing computer on his behalf. You might say that I was Postman's first electronic scribe, an opportunity that gave me the incomparable privilege of typing literally dozens of Postman's speeches, and two of his books. So I'm no stranger to writing down what Postman had to say.

An additional source of authority for my undertaking comes from the notes I took as a student, hearing Postman deliver the "How to Live the Rest of Your Life" lecture on several occasions. And last but not least, I have a copy of Postman's own personal notes for this lecture, rather sketchy and a bit messy, originally from May 1989, with several revisions marked when he delivered the lecture again in April 1993. Those who have ever seen Postman's handwriting will appreciate the fact that these lecture notes of his were produced with the writing tools that he loved best: a felt-tipped pen on sheets of paper from a yellow legal pad. What I have done, then, is to compare these sets of notes in order to compile Postman's wisdom on this subject.

Postman's lecture about how to survive in a culture that is disintegrating, his collection of ideas about what to do until things improve, included 22 rules, laws, maxims, and sayings plus an additional five pearls of wisdom. …

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