Friday 18 November 2016

Bridge Building

Neil Postman wrote a book called 'Teaching as a Subversive Activity' that was a significant influence on me when my children were home educated. I bought 'Building a Bridge to the 18th Century' several years ago and it has been waiting patiently on the list. The book is about the ideas of the 18th century and how they laid the foundation for the modern world and 20th century thinking, and what they still have to offer us in terms of the future: "I do not mean - mind you- technological ideas, like going to the moon, airplanes and antibiotics. We have no shortage of those ideas. I am referring to the ideas of which we can say they have advanced our understanding of ourselves, enlarged our definition of humanness." (p.13-14)

"The eighteenth century is the century of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Pestalozzi, and Adam Smith. It is the century of Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. In the eighteenth century we developed our ideas of inductive science, about religious and political freedom, about popular education, about rational commerce, and about the nation-state. In the eighteenth century, we also invented the idea of progress, and, you may be surprised to know, our modern idea of happiness. It was in the eighteenth century that reason began to triumph over superstition. And, inspired by Newton, who was elected president of the Royal Society at the beginning of the century, writers, musicians, and artists conceived of the universe as orderly, rational, and comprehensible." (p.17-18)

I read it over several months so have not ended up with a coherent picture of his message, so am going to give you a selection of quotes that I noted as I read. He examines ideas surrounding progress, the use of language to understand ideas:

"We struggle as best we can to connect our words with the world of non-words. Or, at least, to use words that will resonate with the experiences of those whom we address. But one worries, nonetheless, that a generation of young people may become entangled in an academic fashion that will increase their difficulties in solving real problems - indeed, in facing them. Which is why, rather than reading Derrida, they ought to read Diderot, or Voltaire, Rousseau, Swift, Madison, Condorcet, or many of the writers of the Enlightenment period who believed that, for all of the difficulties in mastering language, it is possible to say what you mean, to mean what you say, and to be silent when you have nothing to say. They believed that it is possible to use language to say things about the world that are true - true, meaning they are testable and verifiable, that there is evidence for believing. Their belief in truth included statements about history and about social life, although they knew that such statements were less authoritative than those of a scientific nature. They believed in the capacity of lucid language to help them know when they had spoken truly or falsely. Above all, they believed that the purpose of language is to communicate ideas to oneself and to others. Why, at this point in history, so many Western philosophers are teaching that language is nothing but a snare and a delusion, that it serves only to falsify and obscure, is mysterious to me." (p.80-81)

the place of information and narrative within our culture:

"The problem addressed in the nineteenth century was how to get more information to more people, faster, and in more diverse forms. For 150 years, humanity has worked with stunning ingenuity to solve this problem. The good news is we have. The bad news is that, in solving it, we have created another problem, never before experienced: information glut, information as garbage, information divorced from purpose and even meaning. As a consequence, there prevails amongst us what Langdon Winner calls 'mythinformation' - no lisp intended. It is an almost religious conviction that at the roots of our difficulties - social, political, ecological, psychological - is the fact that we do not have enough information." (p.89)

"Those who speak enthusiastically about the great volume of statements about the world available on the Internet do not usually address how we may distinguish the true from the false. By it's nature, the Internet can have no interest in such a distinction. It is not a 'truth' medium; it is an information medium." (p.92)

"I define knowledge as organised information - information that is embedded in some context; information that has a purpose, that leads one to seek further information in order to understand something about the world. Without organised information, we may know something of the world, but very little about it. When one has knowledge, one knows how to make sense of information, know how to relate information to one's life, and, especially, knows when information is irrelevant.
It is fairly obvious that some newspaper editors are aware of the distinction between information and knowledge, but not nearly enough of them. There are newspapers whose editors do not yet grasp that in a technological world, information is a problems, not a solution. They will tell us things we already know about and will give little or no space to providing a sense of context or coherence." (p.93)

and the role of education and childhood:

"In the Protestant view, the child is an unformed person who, through literacy, education, reason, self-control and shame, may be made into a civilised adult. In the Romantic view, it is not the unformed child but the deformed adult who is the problem. The child possesses as his or her birthright capacities for candour, understanding, curiosity, and spontaneity that are deadened by literacy, education, reason, self-control, and shame." (p.121)

"The whole idea of schooling, now, is to prepare the young for competent entry into the economic life of the community so that they well continue to be devoted consumers." (p.126)

Including an interesting suggestion for the improvement of scientific education:

"The story told by creationists is also a theory. That a theory has its origins in a religious metaphor or belief is irrelevant. Not only was Newton a religious mystic but his conception of the universe as a kind of mechanical clock constructed and set in motion by God us about as religious an idea as you can find. What is relevant is the question, To what extent does a theory meet scientific criteria of validity? The dispute between evolutionists and creation scientists offers textbook writers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to provide students with insights into the philosophy and methods of science. After all, what students really need to know is not whether this or that theory is to be believed, but how scientists judge the merit of a theory. Suppose students were taught the criteria of scientific theory evaluation and then were asked to apply these criteria to the two theories in question. Wouldn't such a task qualify as authentic science education?" (p.168)

It is a hard book to pin down because he covers so many ideas, and often assumes rather a lot of knowledge on the part of his readers, though the book is all the better for that, there is nothing worse than academics dumbing down their thinking. I think it lacked some kind of conclusion, just ending with several appendices of quotations from a wide variety of writers from Lord Byron to George Orwell, and an essay on why television is ruining childhood. This book, reflecting on the impact the current technological revolution is having on our society, was published in 1999 and was Postman's final book, and I can't help but wonder what he might have made of where we are now.

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