Neil Postman

How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Part I

VTR Date: November 3, 1999

Guest: Postman, Neil


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Neil Postman
Title: Building A Bridge To The 18th Century
VTR: 11/3/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when the other day my wife looked in and asked me just why I was sitting in my study smiling so broadly, I pointed out that I was simply so engrossed in a thoroughly intriguing new book and that I always smiled delightedly whenever I read today’s guest’s latest work. Not just because he is such a magnificent stylist, and gracious wordsmith, but also because the ideas he sets before us are always so compellingly perceptive and so relevant to where we are as a people.

Building A Bridge To The 18th Century … that’s what New York University’s Neil Postman entitles his new Alfred A. Knopf book which I would say is hands-down his best. Though I think I’ve already said that in turn about each of his many others. Of course, here at the millennium, Professor Postman’s sub-title is particularly meaningful … “How The Past Can Improve Our Future”.

And so I must ask my guest who is so much a child of the enlightenment what in substance he believes distinguishes his bridge to the 18th century from Bill Clinton’s frequently touted “bridge to the 21st”. Fair? Unfair, Neil?

POSTMAN: Well, it’s fair to me. As a matter of fact, the title Building A Bridge To The 18th Century is in a way a play on Clinton’s “building a bridge to the 21st century”. And I asked myself , “well, if we do that, what will we take across the bridge”. Well, obviously we will take all of the new technologies that we developed, especially in the last part of the twentieth century. But then I thought, “well, we probably need to take some good ideas” along with us. Then I asked myself, “where can we get some very good ideas, that might help us in the 21st century?” And I thought naturally of the 18th century. Because this was the time when most of the good ideas that helped us to create the best of what we call “modernity” were developed. And so in reviewing the 18th century I did find the usable ideas for the future, and that’s what I wrote about.

HEFFNER: But I couldn’t help but think, Neil, about who’s going to be standing at that bridge, of the 21st century, saying “you can’t come in here with those ideas, they don’t relate … they don’t pertain to our lives today”.

POSTMAN: Well I do say early in the book that I don’t say we should become the 18th century, which of course we couldn’t, but that we should use it for what it’s worth and for all it’s worth. And I think a people confronting an uncertain future would always be wise to look back, to see if there’s something back there that is helpful to them in figuring out where they should go.

HEFFNER: I suppose an unfair question would be … and I try to think of unfair questions to throw at you, Neil, always, because you handle them so well. How relevant are these Postman-enlightenment ideas to the way we live today, before we’ve even crossed over that bridge?

POSTMAN: Well I think one of the ideas, for example, which I think is quite relevant is the idea of having an argument about the role of technology in human affairs. Now in the 18th century, our modern technology, or our idea about technology began to grow. It was … it was a time of great innovation and advance in technology. But just about the middle of that century … 1749, to be exact, Rousseau(???) wrote a famous essay in which he raised the question, “is a technological innovation the same thing as moral progress? Is it synonymous with progress?”. His answer was “no”. But that doesn’t have to be our answer. But he, he raised the question as to whether or not, science included in technology corrupt our morals or advanced our morals. And that was the beginning of a very weighty and sophisticated dialogue that 18th century philosophs has about the role of science and technology in our lives. And talk about relevance, if there’s one conversation, especially we Americans need to have, it is that conversation. I mean when you … Americans love their technology. They love advances in technology. But I think we have to begin to have a discussion as to how good it is for us do to all these things. I’m sure the answer to, to that question is complicated. Because technologies always give us something good. But they also take something from us …

HEFFNER: What is it, Neil, that you see at this crossroads, or at this bridge … never mind crossroads, is being taken from us with the advance of contemporary technology. You use technology and science interchangeably. And I’ll join you in that for the moment. I don’t think I ordinarily would. But what do you see? What’s the give? And what’s the take?

POSTMAN: Well, of course, the one obvious thing that’s happened is a tremendous emphasis on speed, so that we have come to believe that if you can do things faster, you necessarily are doing them better. But a more interesting idea that we have to talk about is whether or not increasing our access to information will always be a benefit. Now, in the early part of the 19th century there was this question that people began to ask … “how can we get more information to more people fast and in diverse forms?”. And beginning with the invention of telegraphy and photography in the late 1830s and early 1840s we began to answer that question, to give good answers to it. We’ve been answering that question for 150 years. Now the good news is … we’ve answered it. We now can get a Niagara of information to more people fast and in diverse forms. But in, in solving that problem we raised another one. That 18th century philosphs would truly have discussed and that is “what to do with all the information we now have?” Now this is problem … this is a real 21st century problem. Because this is something people have never had to face before. What do you do when information becomes a form of garbage. What do you do with it? How do you manage it? What part of it do you need? What part do you not need? Here is where we could really go back to Voltaire and Rousseau, Indetero and even Franklin and Jefferson, to get some help on that.

HEFFNER: And if we got help, what do you think we’d be doing?

POSTMAN: Well, I think one of things we would do is to alter the way we educate our young. At the moment, for example, school boards in America are preparing to spend … they’ve already spent some of it … billions of dollars on wiring classrooms, on the assumption that what our children most need is faster access to more information. Now there hasn’t been much of a conversation about this. It’s just been assumed …

HEFFNER: It is an American assumption.

POSTMAN: Yeah. That if we can do that our kids will be smarter or kinder or more humane or more interesting or whatever. Well, I think we need to have a discussion about this. It may be that this is not what we need to do in the education of our young. By the way, I should add that there is no compelling evidence as we speak that access to computer technology in schools will necessarily make children smarter or more humane or more interesting or anything.

HEFFNER: But, Neil, isn’t the major question or the major criterion that we raise is not whether they’ll be more humane or better citizens, but whether they’ll be better adapted to be successful materially in the world ahead. And wouldn’t you guess that the answer to that question …

POSTMAN: Is yes?

HEFFNER: … is a yes.

POSTMAN: Well, even there, Dick, I think we would have to ask some questions as … well, for openers about 45 million people, maybe even 50 by now have already figured out how to use computers without any help whatsoever from the schools.

HEFFNER: I’m not one of them.

POSTMAN: Okay. But you will be, in about 10 years. And everyone else will be. We’ll all know how to use computers in the way that everyone learned how to drive automobiles without much help from the schools. So the don’t do nothing … “don’t do nothing” ???????? …
HEFFNER: [Laughter]

POSTMAN: … don’t do anything … don’t do anything is the next, in the next ten years … everyone will know how to use computers. So then we do have to ask … first of all should we invest billions in bringing computer technology in the classroom, but then you ask another question … “are we sure that by making investment in wiring classrooms, we’ll make children more successful economically?” Now, I’m … we don’t have … the point is about this, Dick, is we don’t have a conversation about this in America. They’re just assumptions that people make in part because we do live in a technological society so that this is a commitment we’ve made. But this is not a mistake that the 18th century philosphs made. They understood that there are a series of very significant questions that one has to ask about science and technology. Now is the time, Dick, when you’re gonna pick me up on science and technology …

HEFFNER: … Look … you …

POSTMAN: … do I …

HEFFNER: … seem to put them together.

POSTMAN: … do I … I’ll have to read this book again. I thought that although there’s an obvious connection between them, I don’t think I would normally think of them as the same thing …

HEFFNER: No, I wouldn’t either … I was picking you up on what you had said. But when science, technology … slash, dash … whatever we have between them, when they go on and produce for us, presumably, so much information … I note that you say what is lacking and what we must take from the 18th century is a medium apparatus that is not also in the information business, but is in the wisdom business because the philosophs of the 18th century were in the wisdom business and all that we are taking with us, in all likelihood, over that bridge to the 21st century, is information, is knowledge presumably.

POSTMAN: Yeah. I write about this point within the context of newspapers …


POSTMAN: … and point out that newspapers even today think of themselves as being in the information business. It seems to me that that’s something of a mistake since we already know most people get most of their basic information … at least political and cultural information from other media … television in particular. So then I reflected on … well, what could newspapers do for us if they’re not in the information business? And then I discuss the differences among information, knowledge and wisdom and trying to work out a set of proposals where newspapers could go into the wisdom business as, by the way newspapers in the 18th century tended to be.

HEFFNER: Because they organized our thinking for us.

POSTMAN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: But you know, when I read this section of …

POSTMAN: Oh, just one thing, Dick …


POSTMAN: … and that’s because they organized because they were not overwhelmed by information. That is, there was … there was, of course, plenty of information but it was not in such abundance that our minds were confused by it, so that it was possible to organize information in a way that would produce both knowledge and hopefully wisdom.

HEFFNER: Given what we know, and we may believe different things about the organization of the press … print and electronic alike … aren’t you concerned about having knowledge organized by the press?

POSTMAN: No. Because it would not be the only medium available. I’ve written about this sort of thing before although I include it in this, in this book. When I’ve written, for example, about television, I’ve never seen, hypothetically, that television would be a large problem if it were one among many different media that were influencing the way we organized and the way we thought about the world. My argument against television has always been that it’s become the command center of the culture. It’s very different from movies and records and the theater. You know people go to the theater to see the play and then they go home. They go to the movies to see the movie and then they go home. Television is different in that we go to television for almost everything and therefore it … I mean news, our politics, increasingly religion, education, including entertainment and so on. The newspaper, and I write a little bit about that, it seems to me is a very strong ally for us in the 21st century. Because if it got over its idea that it needs to be in the information business, the very process of organizing information for us, so that we know why they are telling a story. I mean when you watch TV news now, there’s one story after another, and it is never clear why this story is there except that they’re good visuals …

HEFFNER: You know that’s number #1.

POSTMAN: Yeah. Yeah, if someone jumps out of a window and someone else has videotaped it … all the way down … I mean this is the number #1, the number #1 story. So television mainly because it’s such a visual medium, but also for other reasons, is not going to be much help in the future in organizing information for us. And I have some ideas about how the press … the print press might do that.

HEFFNER: What makes you think it will?


HEFFNER: You think it should.

POSTMAN: I think it should.

HEFFNER: But the question is: what makes you think it will?

POSTMAN: Well, it … for one thing, newspaper readership has declined. Newspaper publishers know this. The afternoon newspaper, for example, is, is gone. And when I have talked to newspaper publishers, they are interested in this sort of idea. In fact I once suggested at a conference of newspapers publishers that we invent a new way … it’s really not a new way … it be sort of an old way … of organizing the news instead of … instead of national news and regional news and local news and so on, we take the seven … what do they call the seven …

HEFFNER: Deadly.

POSTMAN: … deadly sins, you know. And, and we have and we just categorize the newspaper … the greed and gluttony and so on, of course, some people would say …

HEFFNER: That’s what it’s done already.

POSTMAN: [Laughter] But we probably do need a new way of organizing what we call news. We need a new conception of what is news. And I have no way of … I mean no great optimism … if that’s your question … about whether or not newspapers will go in this direction. But if there is … if the decline of newspaper readership continues into the next century, then it’s not beyond imagining that newspaper publishers will then ask the question, “well, what business are we in anyway? Are we still holding on to being in the information business, when other media have already taken those over, and if that’s the case, maybe we could go into another business?” And then they’ll ask themselves, “what business should we go into?”

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I couldn’t help but think, Neil, as I read this particular section of the book about Walter Lippmann. When you talk about organizing knowledge … and I think of his organizing intelligence, and I think of the trouble he got himself into, I mean in his own head … in his trying to write Public Opinion and bring it to an intelligent conclusion. Who does what to whom? Who organizes our knowledge? And looking at the 18th century and looking at the late 20th century, the beginning of the 20th, 21st … where do we find those people to whom you would entrust …

POSTMAN: Now this is a very good question, Dick, for this reason. People in the field of communication use the term “gatekeepers”. And, newspaper editors, for example, used to be among the gatekeepers. For some of us they still are. I mean if it were up to me, Dick, when I get the New York Times each morning, I’d … I’d look at the sports section, I’d look, do the cross word puzzle, probably see … look in the television page to see what’s on that night, and then throw the damn thing away.


POSTMAN: But I … well … because, you know … that’s in quotes now, “all I’m interested in”. My lesser self is just interested in that. But I don’t do that. I read the stories on the front page, and read the editorials and other things in the paper because the editors of the New York Times think that an informed, intelligent person living in a democracy should know about these things. So that’s the job of a gatekeeper. Now modern media have tended to undermine … especially the Internet, by the way, the role of gatekeepers. But in part that happens because gatekeepers themselves have lost confidence in their capacity to organize intelligence. But I, I … I don’t think a culture suffers from having gatekeepers. I mean you are a gatekeeper in a way … in a program like this. You’re saying “the people I have on my program are people I think you ought to listen to”.

HEFFNER: But the difference, Neil, is that we’re talking about a commercial society and a commercial culture, and you know perfectly well that I don’t fit into that. You’ve commented in other writings that this program and a couple of others really don’t fit the pattern because we’re not money-makers. Now …

POSTMAN: Yeah. You know what …

HEFFNER: … why?

POSTMAN: And remembering what I said about this program, Dick. It was more that … it’s true that you don’t fit the pattern, of course …

HEFFNER: Doesn’t belong on television.

POSTMAN: True. What we’re doing … two talking heads is not good … in quotes “good” television.

HEFFNER: Oh, that’s the McLuhan in you saying that.

POSTMAN: Yeah. And that’s probably why a program like this is outside the pattern. But if you mean to imply that as long as we have a commercial or economic basis to public communication, whatever medium it’s in, we will always … we will never have a … an adequate representation of what the world is like or an adequate organization of intelligence to …


POSTMAN: … but I’m not sure I believe that. I mean I know all the problems that a commercial communication system brings. But I don’t think that we couldn’t lick them … especially if, and this is really the heart of what I was … why I wrote the book, especially if Americans begin to have serious conversations about all these things. That maybe you think, not that I’m too optimistic a person generally, but that I have more faith than is warranted in the American people.

HEFFNER: That’s a wonderful place to end this program … and we’re getting the signal to because that’s precisely what I think [laughter].

POSTMAN: But I’ve no more faith in them than you do, Dick.

HEFFNER: We’ll talk about that in the next program, if you’ll stay and do another one.


HEFFNER: Thanks, Neil Postman, for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.