Neil Postman’s Conscientious Objections
VTR Date: January 14, 1989
Guest: Postman, Neil
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Neil Postman
Title: “Neil Postman’s Conscientious Objections”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
The last time today’s guest was here I rather shocked my audience – and him, too, I know – by asking him to read a page from his then newest book, “Amusing Ourselves To Death”. Presumably one doesn’t do that on television. But we did…and it worked, because my guest’s writing and his reading were so great.
Now Neil Postman, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University, has a still newer book. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, its wonderful title is “Conscientious Objections…Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education”. But there are literally too many eminently quotable pages in it to ask Professor Postman to do our dog and pony act all over again today.
So, no reading, no performances. But let me just say again how much I would love to take a page – as the expression goes – from him and even try to address life in America as he has in so many extraordinary books with just a touch of my guest’s learning and skill and insight. All of which, of course, is a mouthful, and a standard to which the good professor must now repair, as I begin our program by asking Neil Postman just where, though not necessarily in the order of his new book’s chapters, but where, given his mood and his feelings and his experiences, this very day, he would begin his conscientious objections to what his book’s jacket blurb characterizes as “the institutionalized mistakes, or commonplace stupidities in life in near turn-of-the-next-century America. Neil?
Postman: What’s the first question, Dick? (Laughter)
Heffner: The first question is, where do you begin in terms of the way you feel because I remember the last time we met you said “Hey, that’s the way I feel on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays…”
Heffner: “…but on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays…”. Where today, what bugs you the most about these?
Postman: I’m not sure it’s what bugs me the most, but I think the problem that requires the most attention is the role of new technology in changing our culture. I think most people are tremendously impressed with the awesome technologies that Americans have welcomed so eagerly. Everyone concentrates on what the new technologies can do. But almost no one asks what the new technologies will undo, and so I think if I were to make an agenda of what we should start objecting about, or at least attending to, that would be the first thing, for us to monitor what’s happening to our cultural and political and social and even psychic lives as a result of the intrusion of awesome new technologies into our culture.
Heffner: Was it in Sweden, was it the chapter that came from a speech you gave in Sweden, where you said your reputation was that of a negative person, of a person who always saw that the glass was half empty rather than half full?
Postman: Yes, on that particular occasion the Swedes specifically prohibited me from being negative, and…
Heffner: And you got along.
Postman: Yes, I did. (Laughter) I did fine, and it wasn’t, wasn’t easy because the topic they wanted me to address was the possibilities of using television to create a literature or theater for the masses. I pointed out to them on that occasion that we had actually done this in America. People don’t remember it, but roughly from 1948 to about 1953, there were something like fifteen hundred original dramas written for television. Most of them were sixty-minute hours as they were called, well, more precisely fifty-two minute hours because you had to have time out for commercials and promos for next week’s show, but I’m talking about “Playhouse 90”, and, what was it…
Heffner: “Philco Playhouse”.
Postman: “Philco”, “Goodyear Playhouse” and so on, so these were programs, plays written by young American dramatists, who for the most part were not experienced writers for the theater, not even for radio, but were people who wrote drama specifically for television, and some of our best literature in that period came from television. So I suggested to a Swedish audience that it might be possible for them to duplicate, in their own culture, some of the conditions which produced that kind of theater for us here.
Heffner: But you know, Neil, this is the chapter “Remembering the Golden Age” and I didn’t know what the chapter was about when I approached it. There have been so many people in our own times, recently, who have said, “Look, the Golden Age, it’s a nice phrase, not that it didn’t really exist, but it wasn’t really that golden”. Are you suggesting to me that you really think that which is past, in those days in television, really was golden?
Postman: It was golden, I would say, if we direct our attention to the literature that was produced in that period. That is to say, for the most part, people like Paddy Chayevsky and Reginald Rose and Robert Allen Arthur and Gore Vidal and so on were not doing adaptations of the great literary canon, Shakespeare and Moliere and so on, and they were writing specifically from their own experience about the world that most of the audience knew about. It’s true they had to do it in fifty-two minutes, and it’s true that they knew these plays would be interrupted three times for commercials. I mean we know about all the restrictions that they worked under. But I think they produced a substantial and extremely significant literature which began to dissipate, I’d say, by the mid-50’s. Many of them, Chayevsky for example, left television to write for the movies because it was more financially rewarding. Others did not like some of the restrictions that television placed on them, for example, concerning what themes they could address. But I think if one goes back to that period and looks again at the plays there were written, we would have to say that was, in quotes, a “golden” period for television literature.
Heffner: Because this stems from my question as to what’s on your mind mostly these days, which objection can you most conscientiously make? And you talk about technology, you’re talking here about the technology that is television. I guess the question that I have to ask you is, am I dealing here with an outright one hundred percent Luddite?
Heffner: Is it a matter of just “no damn good to be found in technology”?
Postman: No, no, I try to make that point somewhere in the book, that I’m , it’s pointless to be against technology.
Heffner: You’re not terribly persuasive…
Heffner: …when you write that, Neil.
Postman: Well, but you see in America everyone is so much in love with technology, with…it’s not just television, but word processors and computers and electric toothbrushes and SSTs and the whole ensemble of electronics, that you need some people to say, even if in a footnote, “I’m not a Luddite, but now let me direct your attention to some of the negative consequences of all of this”. Let me just give you one small example. Lately having written a number of books about television, I’ve decided to turn my attention to some other technologies. At the University where I teach, there was a time, before it was computerized, that the University required about seventeen pieces of information about each employee: name, address, Social Security number and so on. About ten years ago, the University started to be computerized, and the number of facts about each person rapidly increased. I‘m told now, that our University requires something like twelve hundred pieces of information about each employee. Now if you ask an administrator, as I did, why do you now require twelve hundred pieces of information? The answer is “because the computer can handle it”. What is the sense of having an awesome technology that can handle billions of bits of information, if you’re only going to ask seventeen questions about each employee? Well, this is a good example of how the tail wags the dog in terms of technology. That is the technology begins to change people’s perceptions of what the institution they’re working within is all about. You have another example now with micro-computers being bought by the zillions into education, with very few people asking, first of all “how much good will that do?”, and secondly, even if it does do some good, will there be any negative consequences to that?
Heffner: Well, but, Neil, that, that second part, is, I think, enormously important. One can report, one could report, at any time the kind of quixotic response to “why do we do this now?”, and you and I will get a laugh at it. So will the audience out of it, so will the audience. Isn’t the more important question whether some good, some substantial good may not come for us in some way, in some manner, in some form by having this information? Something relating to our health patterns, something relating perhaps even to our education patterns.
Postman: I agree. I mean I try to make the point, and I hope not vaguely in these essays, that every technology, every technology will bring some good, and will bring some bad, and in the past, let’s say with the printing press, I mean we could…it would be pretty easy for us to document the things, at least, that you and I would think were good about the printing press. But now we know, looking back on it, that it did change, for the worse, a number of things about culture. Now this is true of every technology. What I’m trying to do in this book is simply call peoples’ attention to this Faustian bargain, that nothing comes free. Not television, not the computer, not the jet aircraft. That there’s something that is to be lost. Now, once people have that sort of perspective that technology will, in fact, be beneficial, but will al so bring deficits to the culture, then I think we can be, so to say, on top of the situation. We then can ask questions, like this: “How can we maximize what is best about this technology, but keep under control or minimize, what is worst about it?”.
Heffner: Yes, but when I read your introduction to the Swedish speech, I couldn’t help but think that you were saying “sometimes my value is not underscored, but diminished by my reputation as a nay-sayer”. And the question you raise is a very legitimate one, but you raise it again and again and again, and I have to ask the question whether I now don’t have to identify my friend, Neil Postman, as the conscientious objector.
Postman: Objector. (Laughter) Well, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be too insulted if you did that, but I take your point, as the British say. You’re wondering if by being, taking the same position, negative, toward the encroachments of technology on our culture, after a while I simply become boring, people will say “Well, there’s no point…”
Heffner: Oh, you could never be boring. I mean…
Postman: “…no point in reading this guy because we know he’s against it”.
Heffner: Let me tell you there’s nothing boring, and I’ll testify to that to Conscientious Objections, which, of course, leads me to the most…maybe others would not consider it the most, one could take one’s pick on…about the news, about our remembering the Golden Age, but I picked one of the themes that has surfaced, of course, in your other books, the educationalist as painkiller, and I wonder how you came to that formulation. Was it the medical model that really started you off?
Postman: Well, I should say for people who wouldn’t know what’s in this piece, that it began with my wondering why educators have tended to be so ineffective in achieving their goals. And then it did occur to me that doctors and lawyers are usually…well, let’s say, more effective than educators in achieving their goals. And I began to wonder why, and it further occurred to me that the…it seems that one of the reasons is that both doctors and lawyers always emphasize the negative. Now there we go on that one again. But I mean doctors are not really concerned with health, their business is sickness. And lawyers are not generally concerned with justice, they’re concerned with injustice. And because doctors, just to stay with them for a moment, are concerned with sickness and in fact, their definition of health, for the most part, is the absence of sickness, they have a focus to their observations and to their therapies, and I wondered if this wouldn’t be useful for educators. Educators are constantly trying to make kids smarter and more intelligent, and it occurred to me that this is almost impossible to do because no one really knows what being smart means, or what being intelligent means. I mean there are so many varieties of smartness and intelligence. I wondered what would happen if the teachers took a page from the doctors’ books and started to concentrate on stupidity. Now once you think about it that way, Dick, what you realize is that stupidity has, is curable. I mean, and it’s identifiable. Most people can recognize when someone is making a mistake, when an error has been made, or when someone is thinking badly. It’s much more difficult to know if someone is speaking the truth, or if they’re speaking wisely. But if they’re speaking badly, I don’t mean in a grammatical sense, but I mean if their sentences are not being effective, are not producing what they want to produce, we can see that, and we could identify in many cases, why this is so. So I recognize…so I titled that piece “The Educationalist As Painkiller” because I thought what would happen if teachers thought of themselves as people to whom others come to for a remedy, the way they come to a doctor, but the remedy that the teachers would offer is how not to be stupid.
Heffner: The only trouble, of course, and you know that many have observed this, is that so many of us were brought up to believe that the one disease for which there is no cure is stupidity.
Postman: I think they’re wrong. As a matter of fact, as I mention in that piece, there is an honorable literature on the subject of stupidity (laughter) that goes back to Socrates and before, although it’s not…it’s been difficult, it’s difficult to systematize it, and get it organized. But there are some principles that we can follow, which I try to mention in this book, I mean just to take something simple. That we know that many people run into trouble through either/or thinking, something either is this way, or it’s that way. Now once, when that becomes habitual, with the youngsters who then become adults, and it becomes a solidified way of thinking, I think it often will give them a very distorted perception of what’s going on. So that I think if we…it’s curable, and you can bring this to someone’s attention. There are exercises and lessons that can be employed that would help someone to avoid that way of talking, because I do point out, I should add, that most stupidity happens with the larynx and the tongue and the teeth and the mouth, that is to say, it is a form of talking, and so I suggest in this piece, that teachers should become experts in stupid talking. (Laughter) Of course, many of your audience would say that most teachers are already experts in stupid talking, but I mean experts in identifying why people fail to accomplish their purposes when they open their mouths to start to speak. And I have, myself, using, I should add, Neil Postman as a chief example, been able to identify a couple of dozen ways of stupid talking, and trying to work hard for my own ends to reduce the level.
Heffner: I’m waiting to find the school of education that gives a course in foot-in-mouth disease.
Postman: Well, I propose that…wouldn’t it be interesting if there were…we could see in a college catalog, say “Elementary Stupidity” and then, “Advanced Stupidity”, and the description being that in that course what we would try to do is identify the varieties of mistakes people make when they try to think,. I think it would be worth trying, and I think, would make it possible for us to be somewhat less vague in our goals as educators.
Heffner: Lest there be long, long lines down at NYU…
Heffner: …the next registration period…I assume you’re not offering the course, as yet.
Postman: No, no we’re not.
Heffner: Okay, I just wanted to get that straight. Neil, we don’t have that much time left, but when we leave “The Educationalist As Painkiller”, go back to a theme that you have developed over the years, and I think a most important one, the disappearance of childhood. I just wondered in the years since you first began to speak and to write about the disappearance of childhood, have we steamrollered, barreled forward, or that may not be the right word, forward…have we made any inroads upon what you have seen as the disappearance of childhood?
Postman: No, I’m sorry to say that what I thought I observed in the disappearance of childhood, i.e., the erosion of the distinction between adulthood and childhood being brought about by television and other electronic media, seems to have been accentuated since then, and what I wrote about in Amusing Ourselves to Death, I think was, has also been accentuated. As a matter of fact, the recent Presidential election was almost an exemplification of what happens, what I said happens to politics in a television age. I mean it was a question of the sound bytes and who could control television better and President Bush was able to do that. So, I’m a little depressed about that, I might say, that I don’t see any curtailment of this headlong. I know you didn’t mean “approach”, headlong movement away from the distinction that we had for about a hundred years or more, between adulthood and childhood.
Heffner: Which leads me to ask whether you are today a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday child, or a Monday, Wednesday, Friday because I had a wonderful student at Rutgers who wrote a very fine critique of Amusing Ourselves To Death. In the process she found so much hope in what you had written at the end because at the end, Neil, you know, you were saying “if we understand what we have done, we can do something about it”.
Postman: Well, I’m glad she saw that in that book, and I hope people will see it in this book, that there’s a difference between a social critic, and a wimp. And one of the differences is that a good social critic, which I aspire to be, identifies himself with some humane tradition, and wishes the best for his own culture and nation, and what a social critic is all about is wishing for the best, or hoping for the best, by pointing out the worst. And so, while you are criticizing and nay-saying and conscientiously objecting, there always lurks, if you’re serious about what you’re doing, the idea that things could be better and that’s why you’re speaking in the first place.
Heffner: Of course, when I read her paper and wrote my comments on it, I wrote that I hoped that this is the part that Neil Postman believes in least, because if he believes in it most, mustn’t it prevent us from taking corrective actions? So I’m not so sure about the value of that optimism at the end.
Postman: Well, you…I wish…if she’s still in your class, Dick, ask her to read Russell Baker, ask her to read Mencken, ask her to read Orwell, not that I want to put myself in their class, but I wonder if she will see, and if you will see when you read their social criticism, that there is always lurking, very closely beneath their critiques a desperate kind of optimism that as long as we are able to criticize there is the hope that we can do better. Whether it’s in education or television or any other place.
Heffner: You use the word “desperate”. Desperation isn’t the best guide to finding the right answers to the questions that we have before us. Wouldn’t you agree?
Postman: Yes, I would. I can’t think of…while you were asking that question I was trying to think of a better word than “desperate”.
Heffner: You know what the better word is?
Heffner: I just got the signal that we have to cut, we’ve…
Heffner: …reached the end of our time. Thank you so much for joining me again, neil Postman. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s themes, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
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