NEIL POSTMAN, 1/93
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
What is the role of media and technology in our society? How do they shape our consciousness and our worldview?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Neil Postman. He's chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, most recently author of Technopoly and numerous other distinguished works. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Postman. I read recently of an eleven-year-old who was tried as an adult. Why is that happening?
NEIL POSTMAN: The distinction in law between children and adults began to be manifested in America in about the 1890s. What we're seeing now, state by state really, is the elimination of laws that distinguish between children's crimes and adult's crimes, and I think the most obvious reason for it, if I can quote the title of a book I once wrote about it, is the disappearance of childhood. I mean the disappearance of the idea of childhood. And that comes about because we now live in a media world where it's quite impossible to conceal from the young the secrets of adult life. After all, the traditional socialization of the young amounted to our keeping certain secrets from them, and revealing these secrets in psychologically assimilatable ways. Then when the young knew all the secrets, they were adults. Now, that procedure is untenable. The five and six-year-olds have available, especially through television, but also to some extent film, the total content of the adult world. They get it simultaneously with the adults. So that secrets about sex and about illness and about politics are revealed to the young and they become adults, so to say, earlier than at any other time except maybe the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, there were two stages of life, infancy and adulthood. And infancy ended roughly at about age seven, which is why the Catholic Church even to this day, by the way, designates age seven as the age at which someone can tell the difference between right and wrong. In the medieval period, at the age of eight or nine or ten, one was considered an adult. Except perhaps for making love and making war, there were no significant differences between the lives of a nine-year-old and a nineteen or twenty-nine or forty-nine year old. I think we're moving back toward that sort of social organization, where the bridge between infancy and adulthood that we have come to call childhood is being dismantled and I think that would explain why this eleven-year-old who committed a crime which was treated the same way we might have treated a crime by a thirty-year-old.
MP: You've suggested that childhood was created for a specific purpose in our society.
NEIL POSTMAN: Childhood was, the idea of childhood was created about the late sixteenth and mostly seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries, and it came about, I have theorized, because of the invention of the printing press. You see, everyone is biologically programmed to learn how to speak. And so, by age seven, for the most part, a human being has more or less mastered speech, and therefore could enter fully into the life of the community. There was therefore no need to make any further distinction between an adult and any other age group. With the invention of the printing press, in the middle of the fifteenth century, in order to become an adult, that is, participate fully in the community, one had to know how to read. And of course we are not biologically programmed to learn how, to know how to read. So, we had to invent an institution specifically designed to teach people how to read, that is, how to become an adult. And that's what we call the modern school. In the fifteenth century, there were no more than thirty-four schools in all of England, and they were not recognizable as elementary school, what we would call elementary schools. By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were over four-hundred schools in England, one school for every twelve miles, and most of them were what we would recognize today as primary or elementary schools. Their job was to teach the young how to read. Now, here's how childhood then got created. For the first time, we had to separate the young from the rest of the community, to teach them specifically how to master this form of communication. So we put them in these special places called schools, and of course once we segregated them, we began to notice differences between them and older people. And that's where we get the beginnings of what we might call child psychology. The whole idea then that there was still another age group, besides infancy and adulthood, emerged and by the eighteenth century the idea of children as a special time in life became fully accepted. And I think for the past two hundred and fifty or three hundred years we have been nurturing children, we have been socializing them, we've been educating them, in ways different from what we would do with adults. In other words, we thought of the young, not at little adults, as they did in the Middle Ages, but as people who were being formed to be adults. And then, as I said, what I think is happening now in our own times is a sort of reversion to the idea that there are just infants and then there are adults. And the evidence for this, Michael, is I think pretty convincing. I mean, what used to be, as you brought up, thought of as adult crimes are now more and more committed by the very young. What used to be thought of as adult afflictions and diseases, alcoholism, for instance, are now common among the young. The sexual behavior of the young looks more and more like the sexual behavior of adults. The taste in food seems to be more and more the same. And, by the way, you find it the other way. You find that the adults more and more are wearing things that we used to associate just with children. Sneakers, for instance, which is very interesting to me because when I grew up, sneakers were a mark of the fact that you were still a child. You wore sneakers, not only when you were playing ball, but everywhere if you could. Adults of course never dreamed of doing that. Now it's quite common. So, there's a kind of a blending now between what we used to call childhood and what we call adulthood. And I think in the long run we can make no clear demarcation any more between what is a child and what is an adult.
MP: Just in case the listeners didn't hear you emphasize enough that this is a byproduct of the introduction of television, is there something about the medium as well?
NEIL POSTMAN: If you look at television, the content of television programs, you find there's this hypothetical audience who is about, oh, maybe twenty-three years old, and is never going to get any older [chuckling a little]. It amuses me that networks try to differentiate themselves, or at least certain programs, by saying, Well, we're after a younger audience, or This program is after an older audience. In spite of the fact that when you look at Nielsen ratings, it seems that there isn't very much difference in preference for programs between let's say eight year olds and fifty-eight year olds. And so I think the way that television writers and producers have responded to this is to try to create their programs for someone who is just in maybe the twenties and, as I said, is gonna remain forever at that age.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Neil Postman. He's chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, most recently author of Technopoly, and we've looked at the interaction of children, childhood, and television, this mid-twentieth-century technology, and its most dominant characteristic is its technological component.
This book Technopoly has as its subtitle The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I am not a Luddite in that I'm not in favor of, nor do I expect that, we're going to bust up our technological ensemble, here. The computers are not gonna be shut down and the television sets are not gonna be turned off. What my book is about is the extent to which a kind of technological thought world has invaded our consciousness here in America. The fact I could almost say it this way, we have replaced traditional motivations and traditional mythologies with the idea that through technological innovation we can achieve paradise, that this is really our destiny and this is our goal in life. And I think this is a false hope and I think it accounts for the fact that people are so dissatisfied and depressed in many ways, and that they don't have a better story, a better narrative, than the narrative that through technology they will find peace and equanimity and even ecstasy. So the book is a kind of warning that you cannot ignore the negative consequences of technology. In fact, I begin the book by saying that all technological development is a Faustian bargain, it giveth and it taketh away. Americans have been obsessed with what new technology can do. We pay very little attention to what it will undo. And what technologies undo can be terribly important to people. For instance, there's no doubt that medical technology represents in many ways a great advance, of the human condition. But it's negative consequences have been very severe. I mean just to take a couple of examples, most doctors have lost their diagnostic skills, because they rely so much on machinery to do diagnosis, so that they're not good question askers, they're not very good at understanding the history of their patients, they don't spend that much time with their patients because doctors, as you know, these days are paid by what they do, not by how much time they spend with patients. And this leads to terrific problems in the practice of medicine. Here's another example. One out of every four babies born in America is born through caesarean section. Now, caesarean section is a wonderful procedure, it saves lives, babies and mothers who are at risk, but one out of every four are not at risk. So then we say, well, how come we've got this situation? Well, it's a case of some doctors find it convenient to do this. But this is a mistake! because a caesarean section's a pretty serious operation, in fact, it's about three times more dangerous to a mother, and the baby, than a normal delivery. So, I just offer this as an example of how an obsession with the wonders of technology can lead us into quite destructive patterns of behavior.
MP: I know of course you give many, many powerful arguments, and show that the tradeoff has pervasive effects on the society. Your earlier work, for which you have created an independent reputation, was in education. How is it possible for an ordinary person to think? What kind of education will allow someone to think.
NEIL POSTMAN: Well, I mean, I can't pretend to know the answer to that question, but I will tell you that it's a question I've spent a lot of time thinking about myself. One problem that we have, which is related to what I call a technopoly, which is what I call American culture right now, is the situation we're in with information. Most people still think of information as a good thing. And especially those who are interested in computers will always talk about how computers increase access to information. How wonderful computers are in storing information, and in retrieving it, and doing all of this very rapidly. Most people are not accustomed to thinking of information as a problem. But I think they need to because we're now, we're no longer in a situation, we haven't actually been since the eighteenth century, of information scarcity. It was the printing press that started the information explosion, as people say. We're now in a situation of information glut. Information has become a form of garbage now. It comes in great profusion from dozens and dozens of sources, relentlessly, not directed at anyone in particular. Most of us don't know what to do with it all. It's a problem in helping us think. We, now, education is going to have to respond in some way to this situation. It's got to, I think our schools simply have a need to stop thinking of themselves as sources of information. There's just enough information available, outside the schoolroom walls, so that the school has more important things to do, and I think it has to do with, the school has to help the young, first of all, know the difference between relevant and irrelevant information, information that you do not need to have, that you do not need to have access to. Maybe one way to think about it is to say, if there were a nuclear holocaust, would it happen because people didn't have enough information? If there are children starving, if crime is terrorizing cities, and people are mistreating their children, does any of that happen because of a lack of information? I don't think so. It's a lack of something else. Maybe we're talking about heart, or soul, or whatever. But it's not more and more information that addresses these problems. So I think our schools now have to get away from the idea that their job is to get to the young information in efficient ways. So, number one is that I think that the schools have to address the problem of information glut. I'm just beginning to think, Michael, these days on how we might do this. Years ago, as you implied, I wrote some books about education, one of which I wrote with my friend Charles Weingartner called Teaching As a Subversive Activity, and that was pretty popular in its time. Later on, about thirteen years later, I wrote one myself called Teaching As a Conserving Activity, which may be more on the mark in our present problem. Because what Teaching As a Conserving Activity tried to say was that schools need to be able to have a story to tell the young, a narrative. If one has a story about one's life or one's culture, that in itself helps you organize information. Now, Americans used to have some wonderful stories. One of them was that the revolution that took place in the late eighteenth century was not just an experiment in governance, but was part of God's own plan, which gave to Americans a kind of moral authority to be a light unto the world. Of course, another story, a wonderful story, was that America was a great melting pot, that would, a place where the teeming, wretched masses could come and find great opportunities, and be respected for whatever religion or race or ethnic traditions they had. Well, there were some other stories Americans had, including the great Protestant ethic story, which is that what God wanted most from us aside from obedience was that we work hard, that labor somehow will get us into Heaven. Well, Americans had these stories, and they gave a structure to our lives and gave us motivation and purpose. Most of those stories now are in disrepute or at least thought to be problematic. I don't think most Americans believe them. By the way, just a quick footnote. I think the Russians had an interesting story, which they've lost. Now, their story was that their great revolution was not part of God's plan, but part of history's plan, and that what they were doing was consonant with the whole historical movement. Well, they don't seem to believe in that story [chuckling a little] any more than most Americans believe in our story. So there's a kind of crisis in narrative. This is what Vaclav Havel has been talking about. Maybe many of your listeners are familiar with his books, but he keeps saying that it's not information that we need, it's not that type of knowledge, what we need are narratives that we can believe in and that would give us a sense of meaning. Now, our political parties used to have some stories, and our religious systems had some stories, our families used to have some stories, tribal though they may have been. But now those social institutions have weakened. People don't go to their political parties to get any story of their lives and of their culture. The family is weakened. Even religious belief has weakened. So, we're left with our schools. Our schools have to try to find, or resurrect, retrieve, maybe invent anew if we can think of a way to do that, some kind of narrative that will give to the children a sense of the meaning of education. At the moment, what we tell them is that you should stay in school because you can get a better job if you do. Now that treats American culture as if it's not a culture at all, but an economy. Well, is America just an economy or is it a culture? If it's a culture, Michael, then it's got to have a story. At the moment we have what Havel keeps calling a crisis in narrative. And we're going to have to find some new ones. Sometimes I think that the ecology movement may be an important source of a new narrative. The story that we are stewards of the Earth, that, you know the Earth is, what did Buckminster Fuller call it? Spaceship. And we all have this special responsibility to keep the spaceship going and not to pollute it and corrupt it, and to learn how to be economical with our resources, because the spaceship is not infinite in its resources. And I think that movies like ET, for instance, always heighten people's sense of respect for themselves. The idea of aliens coming and either teaching us something, as in ET, or sometimes being our enemies, so that we have to work together. That, there's something in that, that animates people and gives them a sense of worth at being a human being. But, I'm going back to education, Michael. I wrote, earlier in my career, a number of books about education, then turned to language, I wrote some books about that, and then finally, I hope not finally, but then to media. And now I begin to think that there ought to be something we're doing with children in schools that will help them manage their media environment and therefore their lives, much better than we have even thought about, up to now. Because, see, for the most part, our schools still are nineteenth-century institutions. They're organized in that way. That's all right, I mean, I'm not against certain social institutions being conservative. But you reach a sort of critical mass, if I can use that term, where conservatism in an institution is lethal. It may go from being a survival strategy to actually being lethal. And it may be that we're approaching that point with the schools. But I don't like the direction in which most educators are moving, which is why I think I have to get back and, ya know, get my two cents in, once again. Because they're still, they think because the computer is sort of a twenty-first-century technology, by putting that into the classroom so that the children will have greater access to information, they are being modern and progressive. Actually, I think they're being regressive. In a sense, what I'm saying is, this is not the Age of Information. The computer, if anything, brings an end to the Age of Information. And now we're, we should be entering I suppose what you might call the Age of Narrative, and, if we use, if we characterize an age by what the people most need, I think we would call it the Age of Narrative.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Postman. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, most recently author of Technopoly from Knopf in 1992. He also mentioned Vaclav Havel, whose recent book was Letters to Olga.