Neil Postman quotes

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Neil Postman

Birthdate: 8. March 1931
Date of death: 5. October 2003

Neil Postman was an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known for his seventeen books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death , Conscientious Objections , Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology , The Disappearance of Childhood and The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School .

For more than forty years, he was associated with New York University. Postman was a humanist, who believed that "new technology can never substitute for human values". He died in 2003 of lung cancer.

Works

Quotes Neil Postman

„In order to understand what kind of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: In order to understand what kind of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in a classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details. (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called "convergent questions," but what might more simply be called "Guess what I am thinking " questions.

„It is precisely through one's learning about the total context in which the language of a subject is expressed that personality may be altered.“

—  Neil Postman

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)
Context: It is precisely through one's learning about the total context in which the language of a subject is expressed that personality may be altered. If one learns how to speak history or mathematics or literary criticism, one becomes, by definition, a different person. The point to be stressed is that a subject is a situation in which and through which people conduct themselves, largely in language. You cannot learn a new form of conduct without changing yourself.

„There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.“

—  Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985)
Context: Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." …Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." …Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." …the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you... what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us... There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.

„In the development of intelligence nothing can be more "basic" than learning how to ask productive questions.“

—  Neil Postman

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)
Context: In the development of intelligence nothing can be more "basic" than learning how to ask productive questions. Many years ago, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Charles Weingartner and I expressed our astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward this language art.... The "back to the basics" philosophers rarely mention it, and practicing teachers usually do not find room for it in their curriculums. …all our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question-asking is our most important intellectual tool… There are at present no reading tests anywhere that measure the ability of students to address probing questions to the particular texts they are reading... What students need to know are the rules of discourse which comprise the subject, and among the most central of such rules are those which govern what is and what is not a legitimate question.

„In schools, adminstrators commonly become myopic as a result of confronting all of the problems the "requirements" generate. Thus they cannot see (or hear) the constituents the system ostensibly exists to serve — the students.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: Adminstrators are another curious consequence of a bureaucracy which has forgotten its reason for being. In schools, adminstrators commonly become myopic as a result of confronting all of the problems the "requirements" generate. Thus they cannot see (or hear) the constituents the system ostensibly exists to serve — the students. The idea that the school should consist of procedures specifically intended to help learners learn strikes many administrators as absurd — and "impractical." …Eichmann, after all, was "just an adminstrator." He was merely "enforcing requirements." The idea of "full time administrators" is palpably a bad one — especially in schools — and we say to hell with it. Most of the "administration" of the school should be a student responsibility. If schools functioned according to the democratic ideals they pay verbal allegience to, the students would long since have played a major role in developing policies and procedures guiding its operation. One of the insidious facts about totalitarianism is its seeming "efficiency." …Democracy — with all of its inefficiency — is still the best system we have so far for enhancing the prospects of our mutual survival. The schools should begin to act as if this were so.

„All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the quest-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called "learning how to learn."“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: The new education has as its purpose the development of a new kind of person, one who — as a result of internalizing a different series of concepts — is an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant, liberal personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival. The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we all must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the quest-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called "learning how to learn."

„The meaning I have given here to "language education" represents it as a form of metaeducation. That is, one learns a subject and, at the same time, learns what the subject is made of.“

—  Neil Postman

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)
Context: The meaning I have given here to "language education" represents it as a form of metaeducation. That is, one learns a subject and, at the same time, learns what the subject is made of.... If it be said that such learning will prevent students from assimilating the facts of a subject, my reply is that this is the only way by which the facts can truly be assimilated. For it is not education to teach students to repeat sentences they do not understand so that they may pass examinations. That is the way of the computer. I prefer the student to be a programmer.

„The word "educate" is closely related to the word "educe." In the oldest pedagogic sense of the term, this meant a drawing out of a person something potential or latent.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: We have framed... some questions which in our judgement, are responsive to the actual and immediate as against the fancied and future needs of learners in the world as it is (not as it was). … There seemed to be little doubt that, from the point of view of the students, these questions made much more sense than the ones they usually have to memorize the right answers to in school. Contrary to conventional school practice, what that means is that we want to elicit from the students the meanings that they have already stored up so that they may subject these meanings to a testing and verifying, reordering and reclassifying, modifying and extending process. In this process the student is not a passive "recipient"; he becomes an active producer of knowledge. The word "educate" is closely related to the word "educe." In the oldest pedagogic sense of the term, this meant a drawing out of a person something potential or latent. We can after all, learn only in relation to what we already know. Again, contrary to common misconceptions, this means that, if we don't know very much, our capability for learning is not very great. This idea — virtually by itself — requires a major revision in most of the metaphors that shape school policies and procedures.

„The "requirements," indeed, force the teacher — and administrator — into the role of an authoritarian functionary whose primary task becomes that of enforcing the requirements rather than helping the learner to learn.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: Conventional "requirements" …are systems of prescriptions and proscriptions intended solely to limit the physical and intellectual movements of students — to "keep them in line, in sequence, in order," etc. They shift focus of attention from the learner (check [Goodwin] Watson again) to the "course." In the process, "requirements" violate virtually everything we know about learning because they comprise the matrix of an elaborate system of punishment, that in turn, comprise a threatening atmosphere in which positive learning cannot occur. The "requirements," indeed, force the teacher — and administrator — into the role of an authoritarian functionary whose primary task becomes that of enforcing the requirements rather than helping the learner to learn. The whole authority of the system is contingent upon the "requirements."

„We have framed… some questions which in our judgement, are responsive to the actual and immediate as against the fancied and future needs of learners in the world as it is (not as it was).“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: We have framed... some questions which in our judgement, are responsive to the actual and immediate as against the fancied and future needs of learners in the world as it is (not as it was). … There seemed to be little doubt that, from the point of view of the students, these questions made much more sense than the ones they usually have to memorize the right answers to in school. Contrary to conventional school practice, what that means is that we want to elicit from the students the meanings that they have already stored up so that they may subject these meanings to a testing and verifying, reordering and reclassifying, modifying and extending process. In this process the student is not a passive "recipient"; he becomes an active producer of knowledge. The word "educate" is closely related to the word "educe." In the oldest pedagogic sense of the term, this meant a drawing out of a person something potential or latent. We can after all, learn only in relation to what we already know. Again, contrary to common misconceptions, this means that, if we don't know very much, our capability for learning is not very great. This idea — virtually by itself — requires a major revision in most of the metaphors that shape school policies and procedures.

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„Out of the maelstrom of happenings we abstract certain bits to attend to. We snapshot these bits by naming them. Then we begin responding to the names as if they are the bits that we have named, thus obscuring the effects of change.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: A fifth kind of semantic awareness has to do with what might be called the "photographic" effects of language. We live in a universe of constant process. Everything is changing in the physical world around us. We ourselves, physically at least, are always changing. Out of the maelstrom of happenings we abstract certain bits to attend to. We snapshot these bits by naming them. Then we begin responding to the names as if they are the bits that we have named, thus obscuring the effects of change. The names we use tend to "fix" that which is named, particularly if the names also carry emotional connotations... There are some semanticists who have suggested that such phrases as "national defense" and "national sovereignty" have been... maintained beyond the date for which they were prescribed. What might have been politically therapeutic at one time may prove politically fatal at another.

„All the while, let's not forget, very little, if any, substantive intellectual activity is going on.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: The elimination of conventional tests... is necessary because, as soon as they are used as judgement-making instruments, the whole process of schooling shifts from education to training intended to produce passing grades on tests. … "Courses" turn out to be contingent upon testing. A "course" generally consists of a series of briefings for the great Trivia contest. It's a kind of rigid quiz show. And it seems to work only if the contestants value the "prize." The prize, of course, is a "grade." An appropriate grade entitles the participant to continue playing the Trivia game. All the while, let's not forget, very little, if any, substantive intellectual activity is going on.

„Someone needs to mention what may be lost.“

—  Neil Postman

"Neil Postman Ponders High Tech" at Online Newshour : Online Forum (17 January 1996)
Context: Someone needs to mention what may be lost. Of course, one of the problems is that what I would judge to be a negative consequence, someone else might see as a positive consequence. For example, telephones in automobiles seem to me a very bad idea. So does spending a lot of hours "communicating" on the Internet when one could use that time reading Cervantes' Don Quixote.

„Definitions, like questions and metaphors, are instruments for thinking. Their authority rests entirely on their usefulness, not their correctness. We use definitions in order to delineate problems we wish to investigate, or to further interests we wish to promote. In other words, we invent definitions and discard them as suits our purposes.“

—  Neil Postman

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)
Context: Definitions, like questions and metaphors, are instruments for thinking. Their authority rests entirely on their usefulness, not their correctness. We use definitions in order to delineate problems we wish to investigate, or to further interests we wish to promote. In other words, we invent definitions and discard them as suits our purposes. And yet, one gets the impression that... God has provided us with definitions from which we depart at the risk of losing our immortal souls. This is the belief that I have elsewhere called "definition tyranny," which may be defined... as the process of accepting without criticism someone else's definition of a word or a problem or a situation. I can think of no better method of freeing students from this obstruction of the mind than to provide them with alternative definitions of every concept and term with which they must deal in a subject. Whether it be "molecule," "fact," "law," "art," "wealth," "gene," or whatever, it is essential that students understand that definitions are hypotheses, and that embedded in them is a particular philosophical, sociological, or epistemological point of view.

„You cannot learn a new form of conduct without changing yourself.“

—  Neil Postman

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)
Context: It is precisely through one's learning about the total context in which the language of a subject is expressed that personality may be altered. If one learns how to speak history or mathematics or literary criticism, one becomes, by definition, a different person. The point to be stressed is that a subject is a situation in which and through which people conduct themselves, largely in language. You cannot learn a new form of conduct without changing yourself.

„Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television.“

—  Neil Postman

Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)
Context: In the United States, we can see such collisions everywhere... but... most clearly in the schools, where two great technologies confront each other in uncompromising aspect for the control of students' minds. On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response. Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television.... children who cannot organize their thought into logical structure even in a simple paragraph, children who cannot attend to lectures or oral explanations for more than a few minutes at a time... They are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side — at least for the moment.

„Very often children make declarative statements about things when they really mean only to elicit an informative response. In some cases, they do this because they have learned from adults that it is "better" to pretend that you know than to admit that you don't.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: We can justify the list we will submit on several grounds. First, many of these questions have literally been asked by children and adolescents when they are permitted to respond freely to the challenge of "What's Worth Knowing?" Second, some of these questions are based on careful listening to students, even though they were not at the time asking questions. Very often children make declarative statements about things when they really mean only to elicit an informative response. In some cases, they do this because they have learned from adults that it is "better" to pretend that you know than to admit that you don't. (An old aphorism describing this process goes: Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.) In other cases they do this because they do not know how to ask certain kinds of questions. In any event, a simple translation of their declarative utterances will sometimes produce a great variety of deeply felt questions.

„One of the most common manifestations of the lack of this kind of semantic awareness can be found in what is called "prejudice": a response to an individual is predetermined because the name of the class in which the person is included is prejudiced negatively.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: A variation of the "photographic" effect of language consists of how blurred the photograph is. "Blurring" occurs as a result of general class names, rendering distinctions among members of the class less visible. One of the most common manifestations of the lack of this kind of semantic awareness can be found in what is called "prejudice": a response to an individual is predetermined because the name of the class in which the person is included is prejudiced negatively. The most obvious and ordinary remark made in cases of this kind, "They are all alike," makes the point clear.

„They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true.“

—  Neil Postman

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
Context: In order to understand what kind of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in a classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details. (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called "convergent questions," but what might more simply be called "Guess what I am thinking " questions.

„As one learns the language of a subject, one is also learning what the subject is.“

—  Neil Postman

Language Education in a Knowledge Context (1980)
Context: As one learns the language of a subject, one is also learning what the subject is.... what we call a subject consists mostly, if not entirely, of its language. If you eliminate all the words of a subject, you have eliminated the subject.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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