Read Chapter 15

Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman

CITE AS: Domine, V. (2016). Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 197 - 207). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 15
Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman
There are many words circulating in the intellectual universe to describe Neil Postman. Among them are educator, social critic, media theorist, author, and distinguished professor. Some have even labeled him a neo-Luddite. Yet those who knew Postman personally understand the inadequacies of language to capture his essence. As one of his doctoral students, I engaged in many conversations with him about the possibilities and perils of technology. While he and I disagreed on a multitude of topics, I came to discover that underneath Postman’s sardonic social criticism was a cautious optimist who perceived his role as hoping for the best by pointing out the worst. While Postman is most known for his critique of popular media (particularly television), his work is foundational to the growth of digital and media literacy as both a field of study and a movement. An educator-turned-communication scholar, Neil underscored the grammatical side of media, and he magnified for English language-arts teachers everywhere Marshall McLuhan’s postulate that the form or language of media shapes message content, user experience, and societal systems. In this essay, I offer three key ideas that I fondly refer to as Neilogisms. They are (in no particular order): privileging humanism in a technologized world, valuing education more than schooling, and the importance of inquiry and discourse. These ideas have become foundational to my own work in educational technology, in which I consider digital and media literacy to be the keystone of teaching and learning (Domine 2011a).

Postman was born in 1931 in New York City and grew up during the Great Depression. He lived through numerous wars and other atrocities that plagued the twentieth century. Postman was a New York City English teacher in the 1950s and, later, a distinguished professor at New York University. He applied his linguistic wisdom and wit to critique the emergence of the electronic age and the proliferation of television. In the 1970s, Postman extended McLuhan’s theory that media and technology profoundly influence human society. Postman introduced the term media ecology as the study of media environments (1970, 161). Invoking a biological metaphor, he later explained, “A medium is a technology within which a culture grows; that is to say, it gives form to a culture’s politics, social organization, and habitual ways of thinking” (2000, 1). To say that Postman problematized technology is an understatement. He was deeply influenced by Harold Innis (among other harbingers, mostly male), who warned in The Bias of Communication (1951) that Western civilization faced a great crisis associated with mass communication, including an obsession with the present that disregarded the past and future. Among Postman’s many trademark questions were “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” “Whose problem is it actually?” “If there is a legitimate problem, then what other problems will be created as a result of using this technology?” “Am I using this technology? Or is this technology using me?” (1999, 42). For Postman, technology presented not only a social, economic, and political problem but a moral one as well. To know Postman was to verbally joust with him about these very issues.

On the spectrum of technological determinism and social determinism, Postman and I were polar opposites. I was born in 1969 in California and raised in Silicon Valley, the technological capital of the world. In the 1970s, my father worked for IBM as an electrophysicist and assisted in the development of the first VCRs and personal computers. I experienced firsthand the emergence of the information age. Among my favorite childhood memories of my father were the custom-built radios and other electronic devices that he would bequeath as birthday gifts. My family was one of the first in our sprawling suburban neighborhood to own a personal computer, and I distinctly remember the joy when we replaced our TRS-80 computer (that operated via cassette tapes) with a new Apple IIe computer. My childhood experiences with media and technology were seemingly utopian, as they coincided with growth and progress in my family. I grew up watching Sesame Street, yet I was also highly print literate and loved to read books. I watched MTV and played hours of Atari video games, yet I was highly social with many friends. I spent at least four hours a day, if not more, using television and computers, yet I also loved to learn in school and I earned good grades. But when my father died suddenly when I was just twelve years old, it emotionally and financially devastated my family. From that point forward, using media and technology became symbolic of many things for me. Not only did it eventually become a means of earning a living (survival), but it was also a symbolic way for me to honor my father.

It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate communications major in college and read Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) that I seriously reflected on my media-saturated childhood and its possible impact on my social, emotional, and intellectual development. Postman’s argument about the obsolescence of childhood through the introduction of broadcast media did not resonate with my lived experience. I did not readily perceive any disadvantages until I read the widely popular Amusing Ourselves to Death (1984) that essentially rebuked television entertainment for overextending into the realm of serious and sacred spaces in our personal lives. Postman drew on the work of Walter Ong (1958) who theorized the loss of reason and logic as a result of the transition away from orality and print into the visual culture characteristic of the modern electronic age. The dissonance between Postman’s ideas and the reality of my own childhood propelled me further into deeper (graduate-level) study of media, technology, and human communication. I encountered Herbert Blumer’s (1969) work on how humans navigate symbolic environments to shape the world. I decided to tap the creative possibilities of educational technology while conscientiously minimizing the perils and pitfalls to learning. This was a long shot, since the disparity between the rapid pace of technological innovation and the stagnancy of educational change during the early 1990s was both obvious and disturbing.

When it came time to conduct my master’s thesis research, I was less concerned with looking inward and more interested in looking outward at the influence of media on children and adolescents, particularly in the context of the school classroom. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman (1984) expresses skepticism of the uses of television in schools. He believed the way television was used in schools did not teach students to love learning but to love television viewing. Drawing on McLuhan and others, Postman argues that since the codes and conventions of television are highly emotive and demand the opposite of rational deliberation, its presence in schools promotes individualism, isolationism, and authoritarianism—values that contradict the community-centered, democratic ideal of schooling. For me, this was a powerful and important distinction between the possibility of education and the reality of schooling. These ideas also resonated powerfully during the mid-1990s, when broadcast media were still criticized for perpetuating a linear, one-way mode of communication in schools. In the process of reviewing the literature, I discovered a history of instructional technology littered with attempts to use television as a replacement for a teacher and rife with lost opportunities for conversation, dialogue, and debate (Greenwood 1994).

As a neophyte scholar of communication, I was mystified and intrigued by the relationship between education and schooling more than the study of technology itself. I was particularly interested in language or, more broadly, communication as the medium of education. Like Postman, I was deeply influenced by Jerome Bruner’s (1986) narrative construction of reality and the view that language is not just the vehicle for expression; it is also the driver. Postman felt strongly that language instruction should not be confined to an English or language-arts classroom. At the same time, it is not the words, symbols, or technologies themselves that are important per se; it is the process of using them to engage and inquire. Along this vein, I chose a critical-interpretive research framework to study the Channel One controversy that came to a head in one California school district in 1993. Through my research, I learned about the constructive power of language and that a community’s views of schooling are inextricably connected to their assumptions about media, technology, and learning. I posed the possibility of changing education by changing the ways in which we talk about media, technology, and schooling.

I did not realize how much Postman’s work would ultimately influence my intellectual development until I researched doctoral programs. Out of numerous communication programs across the country, I discovered the media ecologists at New York University to be asking the most interesting questions: What does human communication reveal about the purpose of technology? About the purposes of schools? About the nature of learning? About the role of the teacher? About knowledge and how curriculum is established? About the function of language and symbols in education? So in 1995, I moved across the country to a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village to study media ecology and linger with these questions. Many, including Postman himself, wondered why a Gen-Xer would leave sunny California to study in gritty New York City with an alleged neo-Luddite. The answer was simple: I realized that I was more interested in asking smart questions about education than finding the correct answers about media and technology. Media ecology allowed me to do both.

I learned that more than three decades earlier, Postman had already foreshadowed a pedagogical solution to the perils of instructional television in his first book, Television and the Teaching of English (1961). Postman wrote about the promising potential of using television to teach English language arts (and vice versa) and alluded to the need for inquiry-based media literacy education:

Facts will always be the raw material of education. But “fact-saturated” television channels may force schools to re-evaluate their traditional preoccupation with providing answers and undertake, as never before, the task of developing in students the capacity to make disciplined inquiries, sensible evaluations, and especially, to ask meaningful questions. The examination of the future may be one in which students will be asked to formulate questions rather than supply answers. (1961, 36)

In 1969, Postman and Charles Weingartner waved the progressive banner of schooling as a mechanism for social critique and change. Together they asserted that schools should be the institutional mechanism in providing young people with a critical perspective on society through, among other things, “crap detecting” and asking, “What’s worth knowing?” ( xv). Given that teachers have sustained access to children, it made sense that the classroom teacher should be the one for the job of media literacy education. Through Postman’s earlier writings, I became convinced of digital and media literacy as a primary responsibility of all schoolteachers, regardless of subject area. Postman’s liberal view of schooling and curriculum resonated loudly within the constraining bureaucracy of American education.

In the more liberal, social, and political climate of the 1970s and 1980s, however, Postman developed a much more critical and conservative approach to media, in which he reclaimed the traditional values of print-based literacy as opposed to the image-oriented culture that had emerged. In his solo counterpoint, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979), Postman promoted a more conservative role of education, arguing that the purpose of the school classroom was to counterbalance social disconnection and the morally bereft media messages promoted outside of schooling. I came to understand how Postman’s cautious, conservative, and even caustic approaches to technology earned him the title “neo-Luddite.” His conservative shift from progressive educator to conservative critic was magnified by his frequent admission that he intentionally avoided using a computer, voice mail, or a fax machine whenever possible. For Postman, these technologies constrained inquiry and human conversation and, therefore, served little, if any, purpose. Few communication technologies of the twentieth century (e.g., radio, TV, film, computers) facilitated the depth of communication and understanding that Postman perceived to be at the heart of academic inquiry and democracy (1999, 55). While I debated with Postman on multiple occasions the virtues of e-mail, I came to understand, empathize with, and ultimately respect his refusal to use it as a symbolic rejection of technological progress as synonymous with moral or social progress. He was rewriting the technocentric story of education in the 1980s and 1990s in a way that was highly critical yet deeply humanistic. Postman’s inclusive rejection of technology on moral ground paralleled my inclusive acceptance of technology in remembrance of my father. Neither of our approaches was logical, but together they generated lively conversation. And, for Postman, that was entirely the point.

I recall one particularly heated debate with Postman over the subject of using computers in the classroom. During my doctoral study, I worked as a media educator and technology consultant for Media Workshop New York, a nonprofit organization that employed me to work closely with teachers and principals in New York City schools throughout the five boroughs. While a surface glance of my work might suggest that I was simply herding teachers and principals toward the recent windfall of computers and the Internet in their schools, the work of curriculum development at the classroom level (when successful on occasion) was both creative and critical. Postman (1995b){AU: Correct source? (See changes in refs list.)} found my employment to be paradoxical and somewhat amusing as he publicly criticized the use of computers in school classrooms and the emphasis on individualized learning at the expense of group learning. He characterized students as desocialized and isolated information junkies sitting in front of screens. While I understood Postman to be the much-needed moral conscience during a time of blind acceptance of computers in schools, I witnessed collaboration, shared discovery, and transformative understanding when teachers conscientiously and systematically used computers to support student learning. To be fair, the teachers who lacked a solid understanding of their subject area or their students’ learning needs could not effectively integrate technology into their teaching. I also yielded to Postman that the few success stories were not nearly a high-enough return on the financial investment of equipping schools with computers and Internet access. Nevertheless, Postman’s skepticism became my moral compass for conscientiously exploring and experimenting with computers in schools rather than dismissing them entirely. I remembered from my master’s research that much can be learned about an educator’s worldview by listening carefully about how they talk about computers in schools. I realized by the end of my doctoral study that problematizing technology wasn’t necessarily the end (or purpose) of media literacy. Rather, the importance lies in the discursive means (or medium) for teaching critical thinking. Postman taught me that the communication biases of technology necessitate an intentionality and thoughtfulness about pedagogical choices. As a result, I learned to privilege the agency of the learner, not just that of the teacher. I can’t help but wonder what Postman would think about the current trend of “flipping” the classroom: asking students to access content (usually video-based) outside the classroom (as homework) for the purpose of using classroom time for focused inquiry, debate, and discussion. While I can’t image Postman entirely embracing video-based instruction, I am fairly certain that he would embrace the emphasis on communal discussion in the classroom, as I like to believe that he was far more pro-discourse than he was antitechnology.

One of my favorites books is Postman’s The End of Education (1995a), in which he argues that the purpose of schools should be to teach students how to think, not what to think. Too often, well-intentioned teachers will simply transmit the ideological message that they want their students to internalize, in a misguided attempt at cultivating critical thinking. Even media literacy educators, under the guise of “inquiry,” fall into the trap of teaching students what to think (“What ideology is presented here?”) rather than how to think (“How do you know what you know?”). I learned from my service on the board of directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) that building capacity for both the critical and creative uses of media and technology is much easier said than done in a climate of competing curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, and evaluation of teacher performance. Compounding the challenge are the diverse constituencies that compose the digital and media literacy movement (Domine 2011b). My brief tenure as coeditor of the Journal of Media Literacy Education also taught me that field-based research on the efficacy of digital and media literacy education in schools and communities is both crucial and in short supply. Such research is more likely to occur if individual states mandate digital and media literacy as part of the formal school curriculum—a call not too far removed from Postman’s own plug for television education more than fifty years ago.

Ultimately, Postman’s polemics propelled me to ask smarter questions about media, technology, and, most importantly, education. My greatest challenge thus far as a teacher educator is to elevate the conversation about technology as instructional technique to a place where digital and media literacy informs an essential pedagogical framework (Domine 2011a). Instead of merely critiquing media and technology, teacher education must require digital and media literacy across all subject areas in intentional and systematic ways that are grounded in questions of morality and ethics. This is crucial in a world where technological evolution and curriculum standards are highly politicized and continuously moving targets that detract from engaging in deep inquiry in the classroom. Yet I find myself continuously leaning on a foundational Neilogismthe importance of asking the right questions. Like Postman, I believe the primary purpose of schooling in a democracy should be to learn reason, logic, dissent, and deliberation. An authentic understanding of inquiry is essential to these democratic practices. The single most important lesson I hope to enact among my preservice teacher candidates is the ability to discern between what they observe in an urban school setting (data) and what they infer to be true (interpretation) (Domine and Bello 2010). The work of teacher educators should therefore be to leverage media and technology to help students ask incisive questions and, conversely, to ask incisive questions about media and technology. Such discernment requires instruction in both media literacy and technological proficiency (Domine 2011a).

It wasn’t until a decade after studying with Postman that I arrived at my own narrative for technology and learning. In 2009, I coined the neologism communification to denote the integration of communication, education, and technological processes and products to convene diverse groups of people who achieve interdependence through a shared vision and a common goal. Communification implies that technology (in all its forms) serves schooling in ways that are communicative, unifying, and communal. I am fairly certain that the ultimate value of technology in schools will be measured according to its capacity to satisfy human need to communicate, commune, and connect with others in order to (re)construct the world around us (Domine 2009). I only wish Postman were around to debate this theory with me.

More than three decades have passed since my father’s death, and it has been a little more than a decade since Neil’s passing. Neither of them witnessed the invention of the smartphone, iPad, Twitter, or Facebook. I long to share these technologies with them, each for entirely different reasons and effect. As much as I desire to see my father’s jubilation at experiencing an iPad, I equally desire to discuss with Postman his thoughts on the reduction of his legacy to a 2,500-word Wikipedia entry (excluding references and footnotes). I envision myself offering consolation in the form of “Neil, it’s not the word-count but the hyperlinks that matter.” In contrasting Postman’s twentieth-century view of critical restraint with my twenty-first-century pursuit of creative possibility, I arrive at the conclusion that both approaches are requisite to achieving the full potential of education and schooling in the United States. This critical yet creative approach is crucial for continual growth of digital and media literacy as both a field and a movement. I am proud to share my father’s biological DNA of technological adeptness combined with Postman’s intellectual DNA of cautious optimism. Because of them both, I can appreciate the tremendous educational opportunities afforded in the current networking age while simultaneously navigating the undercurrent of technological change.
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