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Amusing Ourselves Into Oblivion

On my short list of Books All Educators Should Read is a slim volume by Neil Postman called "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." Published in 1985, the book begins by noting that 1984 has come and gone, and American democracy is still in place—but perhaps what we should have been fearing is not Big Brother-type oppression, but a society that willingly abandons critical thought.

In Postman's words:  People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.

I wish I had a dollar for every person who's exclaimed, in the past couple of months, "I cannot WAIT until this election is over." I may have said it a time or two myself. But in the past few days, the realization has set in that this election is the official kickoff, and not the end, of an entirely new American mindset, driven by our passionate love affair with technologies of amusement.

In the book, Postman shared his misgivings about Ronald Reagan, a man who could act so presidential that he fooled a majority of gullible, TV-addled voters in the nation into believing he had the intellect, political skills and depth of experience to lead the nation. Today, Reagan is still revered by the moderate right—and chosen as a role model by many politicians, three decades later, as "the great communicator." And of course, he looks downright statesmanlike when compared to the bizarre, manufactured-for-TV political personas that have emerged in the new millennium.

I thought of Neil Postman during the debates when questions of "looking presidential" and "stamina" and "temperament" were raised. Postman was certainly prescient, but he seriously underestimated the power of media yet to be developed in 1985, to influence thinking and steer our national political ship, using out-of-context video clips, hashtags and blatant falsehoods.

One example: the entire concept of political debate—as exchange of substantiated, contrasting views about current issues and policies—has been eradicated. A debate, these days, is all about the knockout—who got in the best pre-rehearsed digs, who talked over their opponent with the loudest voice. Whose "personality" dominated? Substance and knowledge aren't very entertaining. In fact, substance and knowledge remind us of the least entertaining setting in most citizens' lives: school.

Postman's early books were mostly about education; he was critical of the shallow and unchanging nature of public education, back then. He went on to write a handful of other books and articles after "Amusing," a series of warnings on how technology was steamrolling concepts we once revered as pillars of democracy: Critical thought. Civil discourse. Public institutions. Democratic equality in education. Thoughtful, incremental change. Respect for history.

Postman died in 2003, just as NCLB and the technocratic accountability movement were rolling across the country, denigrating teachers' hard-won judgment and experience in favor of standardized data.

Consider:

  • The de-evolution of Social Studies—the once well-rounded package of history, sociology, humanities, government and economics—into the least valued, least taught (by policy) of the Big Four traditional curricular basics. In fact, Social Studies courses in underperforming schools have been re-construed as platforms for practicing close reading, encountering original documents, and using the science of economics to achieve personal capital, not preparation for becoming an informed citizen in a representative democracy.  We can't even talk about representative democracy in the classroom.
  • The fact that, three decades after the internet made its way into school districts, our students have still not been taught to identify reliable sources of information. In school, which for many of the students would be the only place they might come into contact with genuine media literacy, we're still all about tools, apps, typing, and keeping kids away from stuff that shocks us (as if we could stop that runaway train).
  • Our most difficult and intractable, century-old social problems—poverty, racism, discrimination, lack of opportunity, public safety—have not been solved, but we're still expecting teachers, with increasingly meager resources and tape over their mouths, to build future citizens whose smarts and creativity will lead us, on the road ahead.

When the election is over, schools will still be expected to exemplify neutral public spaces, accepting all students and honoring all family beliefs. Media and money, helped by attractive electronic technologies, have reshaped our values, and we will not be able to acknowledge that, as public institutions. 

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