Neil Postman

How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Part II

VTR Date: November 3, 1999

Guest: Postman, Neil


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with New York University’s distinguished communications scholar, Neil Postman, whose perfectly splendid Alfred A. Knopf book Building A Bridge To The 18th Century focuses, as he puts it, on “how the past can improve our future”.

Now let’s pick up where we left off last time. Neil, you said you wanted to talk about language as part of this question of what you’re going to bring over from our 18th century friends to the 21st century. What do you mean?

POSTMAN: Well, in the18th century the great philosophers knew what the pitfalls of language were. I mean they were not naive, and they did not easily accept the idea that language can represent reality just as reality is. They didn’t really believe this. But they did believe that the judicious and precise and careful use of language could map reality with enough verisimilitude, enough accuracy so that we can work intelligently. Now in our own time language has come under deep suspicion, especially from some of the French philosophers who are associated with the idea of post modernism, or post-structuralism.

HEFFNER: Don’t forget our own group.

POSTMAN: Yes, and of course, the American cultural studies people have picked up on this idea and like to talk about “the social construction of reality”. I like to talk about that, too, because I’m perfectly well aware, as most of the 18th century philosophers were that we can, through language, make a reality. But they never thought for a moment that language was not our greatest tool to help us negotiate with whatever is out there. And it worries me sometimes that especially in our universities and with our graduate students, who are being trained in universities, that there is such a deep suspicion about language that didn’t exist in the 18th century. And I’d like us all to re-visit this question of language. And I, and I hope we can come to our senses about it that a strong argument in the book …

HEFFNER: But you know, Neil, you say … “deep suspiciousness” about language. As we cross that bridge, isn’t there now a deep suspiciousness about just about everything in our society? Isn’t there a suspiciousness that works to prevent us from taking over very positive ideas? For instance, you … you say that we must have a narrative …


HEFFNER: … that there was a fairly consistent narrative, picture of the nature of human nature that characterized the 18th century. You say exactly, “how can their narrative help us manage things in the century ahead? There are several ways I would like to suggest. The first and more obvious is to re-affirm the necessity of a transcendent narrative. For without one we can have no sense of purpose”. And then … if I may [laughter] and remember once before in one of our programs I gave you the book and said, “read these two paragraphs …”

POSTMAN: Oh, no, you’re doing great …

HEFFNER: But this is a short paragraph and you say if you had to give expression to the narrative that you would take over the bridge it would be a reflection of theirs that the universe was created by a benign and singular God who gave to human being the intellect and inspiration to understand his creation, within limits, and the right to be free to question human authority, and to govern themselves within the framework established by God and nature. Humanity’s purpose is to respect God’s creation, to be humble in its awesome presence and with honesty toward and compassion for others to seek ways to find happiness and peace?” And I mark next to this in Building A Bridge To The 18th Century: “This is Neil Postman”. And it is. Do you think we have very much of a chance of taking this into the 21st century?

POSTMAN: Well, I think, I think we, we better. I might add I’m very flattered that you say that “this is my narrative”. I meant it … I meant to say there that … I mean this was Jefferson’s narrative …

HEFFNER: Isn’t it Postman’s?

POSTMAN: [Laughter] … this was Tom Paine’s … a lot of people think that Tom Paine was not a religious man because in, in the age of reason of he, he attacked the Bible. But I quote him as saying that he believed in one God and that there … he believed in an afterlife. This was Jefferson. This was Ben Franklin. This was Madison. Now, as to whether it’s me or not. I’m not sure. But I, I …

HEFFNER: What do you mean, you’re not sure?

POSTMAN: Well, I must say this … that I think it was Nitchze who said, “without God anything is permissible.” We do need some transcendent story about why we’re here and what responsibilities we have. And even some sort of story about what happens to us when it’s over. We need a story like that. And I, I do like that story.

HEFFNER: Why are you so hesitant about?

POSTMAN: Well, because don’t want to say that this transcendent narrative necessarily includes a concept of God as some old man with a white beard to whom you can or from whom you can expect help when you’re on the foul line in a basketball game.

HEFFNER: No such old man in paragraph.

POSTMAN: Yes. Yes, right. And I think in a way Einstein and I quote him later on, had a similar narrative. J. B. S. Haldane said … I’m not skipping your question, evading it …

HEFFNER: Don’t worry, I’m going to bring you back.

POSTMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. See I quote him as saying that, “not only is the universe stranger than we think, but it’s stranger than we can think.” And that is a very sobering thought. That somehow it is possible even for a humble person, such as myself, to imagine some transcendent story about why we are here. Which implies a reason, a purpose. Now I know that in our own century that idea has been badly battered. And if your … it’s claimed that if you’re a scientific person, a very intelligent person, then you have to live without that idea. Freud thought we must learn to live without that idea. That was the, the grand illusion and we have to give it up. But I don’t think we can. I think that human beings need a story that gives meaning to their existence. In the 18th century they were rebels, they fought against tyranny, they fought against despots. They exploited to the fullest the idea of reason. But almost everyone of them, even Voltaire, had a narrative something like that … that there was a purpose to our being here.

HEFFNER: Now I would ask you the same question again … what chance is there that we can make it over the bridge?

POSTMAN: Well, you know …

HEFFNER: With this.

POSTMAN: We ought to … I don’t know, but I mean we ought to take some encouragement, and I know that you would have some viewers who might think I’m on the wrong track here. Take some encouragement from a kind, a sort of fundamentalist revival … people sort of going back to very earlier 19th century ideas about God and their relationship to God. I think it is a signal to our post-modern sensibilities that people cannot live without a transcendent story.

HEFFNER: But the story, the narrative that you describe as being the 18th century’s is far cry from that of the …

POSTMAN: Yes, it is.

HEFFNER: … fundamentalists …

POSTMAN: Yes, it is. And I agree with that and it’s important that you say that, because I would want to say that now, too. But, I think we should say, well why are the, why is this becoming more and more important to a lot of people? And I think we have to … part of the answer is that the 20th century in many ways has been a moral catastrophe. And it has driven people to a kind of moral despair. I mean, if God is dead then anything is permissible. And if one is to say “No, everything is not permissible” then one says, “Well, where is the story that gives me guidance as to what is the difference between right and wrong?” I do want to say here that to people listening to our conversation now that I don’t put myself forward as a theologian. I want that clear. But what is clear to me, theologian, or not is that in order for us to have an agreeable encounter, and a humane encounter with the 21st century, we do have to find some sort of story that provides us not only with a sense of continuity, but with a sense of meaning, which is another way of saying a sense of purpose. If we can’t find such a story, woe unto us.

HEFFNER: Neil, do you feel that at this particular point, as we identify that bridge, that others in other cultures, in other society’s can do it more easily? Can take that intellectual baggage … I don’t mean it as a negative thing … can take that intellectual construct of the men of the enlightenment with them more easily than we can. We Americans can today.

POSTMAN: Maybe so, Dick, because America has made a kind of … a kind of commitment to the idea that the best way to earn God’s favor is first of all to buy things, and second of all to build bigger and better technological toys. I don’t … now the people in other cultures I don’t think are as committed to that idea as we are in America, so maybe they would have a better chance to find some sort of other purpose in life than buying things and building machines. But I’m a little optimistic because there are myth-makers among us … Steven Spielberg, for one, and others, of course, who are trying in their way, through their movies and their novels, and so on, to fashion for us a new story. Now E.T. for example … the idea that we are … we’re not alone in the universe, we are only crew members on one spaceship in the universe and we therefore have a role as stewards, not only of our own planet, but also as creatures in the universe. It’s a very religious idea …


POSTMAN: It doesn’t invoke God in the more the traditional way of doing it. But it’s a story to which many Americans, as well as people in other lands responded with great power. So … I don’t know where we will get our new stories. But it is … one that will stick, one that will make a difference to people, would have to include, I think some sense of transcendence. It, it can’t be a story, I don’t think, that says, “we’re just here for a minute and then we’re gone, and it has no meaning and everything we have created will disappear and that’s it. We were just a speck in the universe for a second, and that’s it”. I don’t think …

HEFFNER: Of course, there will be those who say “in the 20th century we had great narratives. We had Hitler. We had Mussolini. We had Stalin. We had Freud, perhaps. We had great conceptualizers who gave us a world picture.

POSTMAN: Well, this fact that you just mentioned I think is the most serious assault we can charge, we can make against the 20th century. Who would have thought in the year 1900 that the three great narratives that would affect people and motivate people throughout the century would be Fascism, Nazism and Communism. But it is encouraging … let’s take Nazism. Hitler thought the Third Reich would last for a thousand years, it lasted 12. And there are those maybe in the audience who thought Communism would last forever. And it lasted, what … 70 years. So it is encouraging that narratives that are essentially inhumane, or give a false purpose and a false sense of meaning, although they were characteristic of this century did not last. And then people go back, say, “well, we’re going to have to do this again. It didn’t work in the 20th century. What can we find in the 21st?”. And I must hasten to say “this is dangerous stuff”. This is dangerous stuff because when people are looking for some sort of story …


POSTMAN: … that will give them a meaning. A reason for living. They can find the most god-awful stories.

HEFFNER: Is that why you display a little uneasiness about being identified with a narrative.

POSTMAN: Maybe. But also because I’m not creative enough to think of a narrative, even that one that you read, that would be entirely satisfactory to me. Of course, you know, you might say since you once introduced me as an heir of the enlightenment, there were problems with investing too much faith in reason. I think it was William James who said “reason is a very thin reed around which to build your life”. And I think it is. And we need something, we need something else.

HEFFNER: But that’s why you write about a narrative that goes beyond great …

POSTMAN: That’s right. And you’re sort of accusing me of being too timid about saying that I identify myself with this.

HEFFNER: Well, we have a long history, Neil.


HEFFNER: Of … toward the end of the program …

POSTMAN: Of my timidity.

HEFFNER: Well, toward the end of the program, my saying to you: “well, you say that you’re an optimist, and yet everything that you have written and spoken about before sounds so pessimistic” and then you say, “Well on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I’m an optimist”.


HEFFNER: “And Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a pessimist”. You said that many years ago at this table and I wonder whether you’ve, you’ve fixed upon a posture in your own thinking about the nature of human nature?

POSTMAN: I, I have. In that I think the … Victor Frankel’s famous book, The Search, I think it’s called Man’s Search For Meaning. I think this is the fun … this is what human beings are about.

HEFFNER: The search.

POSTMAN: A search for meaning … meaning.

HEFFNER: For narrative.

POSTMAN: Yes, that this is what … this is our business. This is what we must do. And this is why sometimes we find narratives that make everyone crazy, including ourselves. We make mistakes. I think there is embedded in the idea of democracy, a great narrative. And if I were to characterize you … I, I would say this is your great narrative. This is your great story. Am I permitted to do this to you?

HEFFNER: You’re permitted. You’re permitted.

POSTMAN: That everything I know about your work … I mean your books and you … is this sort of face in democracy and it’s partly irrational, you know, Dick.

HEFFNER: Well, you talked about faith …


HEFFNER: … and faith is partly irrational.

POSTMAN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: I, I … Carl Becker and the heavenly city of the 18th century philosophers … why doesn’t he play a role here?


HEFFNER: … is it the “heavenly city” that …

POSTMAN: Yeah, well … I, I should have … I should have said something about that because there was this notion invented really in the 18th century of progress. Progress not in the sense that some things will get better, or some times they get better, or some times maybe they get worse. People have always known that. But the idea that we … very Marxist, by the way … that we were … that we’re moving inexorably towards something better. Toward a heavenly city. And this is an idea that we have maintained in the 20th century, especially the last part of the 20th century. But in, I think, a truncated, almost a distorted form. That we’ve said “Yes”. Progress is inevitable if we keep building … if we get digital television.

HEFFNER: Well, we talking about technology again.


HEFFNER: More and more …


HEFFNER: … and more.

POSTMAN: And this is why I think I said in a previous talk about this that we, especially in America need to have a very serious conversation about this. How far will that lead us to the heavenly city?

HEFFNER: Conversation, so important. Neil, perhaps just one last question … elaborate upon it if you will. How well recognized are the characters of the 18th century? How familiar are we with the philosphs

POSTMAN: Well, I …

HEFFNER: … along with the others.

POSTMAN: I do say somewhere in, in the book, Dick, that our academics now are asking their students to read the wrong Frenchmen … Bodreard(sp) an Focou???


POSTMAN: And Detrega(sp) … that they should have them read Dieterrow(sp) and Voltaire and Rousseau, and so on. I don’t … now the American philosophs … I mean Franklin and Madison and Jefferson, perhaps are familiar at least to American readers. I’m not quite sure …


POSTMAN: They’re not?


POSTMAN: No? Well, then they need to read this book.

HEFFNER: Oh, I hope everyone will read this book.

POSTMAN: I don’t know. I know that young people are not. Now you’re a teacher, as I am, and I can tell you that even Seniors in very good colleges are not familiar with the ideas of these people. And, perhaps you’ve found the same thing …

HEFFNER: Oh, absolutely. That’s why I … I’m not as optimistic as you are [laughter]. I despair when I read this wonderful, wonderful book and realize that the very names, let alone the ideas … to begin with the names, would not be familiar and the ideas would certainly not be familiar to most fairly well educated young Americans. And that is all the more reason …

POSTMAN: I don’t like you to say these things. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I know you don’t. You never want to face up to …

POSTMAN: Right. Yes. I don’t want to face … well, maybe books like this will help us help the young people know that these people … dead white males though almost all of them are … have something very important to tell them about how they’re going to manage the 21st century.

HEFFNER: Neil, we have about a minute and a half left. Do you think those who would lead us over the bridge are capable of parsing this book, of taking with them these ideas?

POSTMAN: Do you mean those … our political leaders?


POSTMAN: Well, I mean I don’t know. I know that there are some who have read a few things that I have written before. And have said there’s something worthwhile there. Whether or not the likes of George W. Bush and, and others … I don’t mean to be partisan here … would find this book challenging some of their assumptions … not in an aggressive or an angry way, but just enough to make them examine their assumptions, it’s hard to say. But there must be some …

HEFFNER: There’s your optimism …


HEFFNER: Neil Postman, thank you so much for joining me again. Building A Bridge To The 18th Century: How The Past Can Improve Our Future is a stunningly beautiful book. I hope everybody reads it.

POSTMAN: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: Thank you for coming. And thanks to, 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.