NEIL POSTMAN (1931-2003)
Neil Postman was an educator, media theorist, and social critic who made contributions to the discipline of media studies, the critical analysis of technology, and the philosophy of education. He is best known for his social critique of mass communication, especially television with respect to its effects on the developing minds of children.
Postman was born into a Yiddish-speaking family in New York City. He received a B.S. in 1953 from the State University of New York at Fredonia, and went on to earn an M.A. in 1955 and a Doctor of Education in 1958 from Teachers College, Columbia University. He accepted a teaching appointment in the English department at San Francisco State University in 1958, but the following year he was hired by the School of Education at New York University (NYU). Postman remained at NYU for the remainder of his career. He founded the university’s media ecology program in 1971. He also served as the Paulette Goddard Chair of the department of culture and communication.
Writing from a perspective heavily influenced by Canadian communications theorist and educator Marshall McLuhan and Canadian political economist Harold Innis, Postman examined how both patterns of thought and forms of social organization are shaped by communications media. His scholarship emphasized the nonneutrality of media—that is, that the form in which information is transmitted entails certain cognitive biases. (For example, since television plays to the eyes and ears, information presented through television produces sensory bias.) He also argued that social biases arise when watching a program with other people and that content biases emerge from the structure of the programs and advertisments shown. Postman also consistently stressed the ecological character of media change, which posited that the introduction of a significant new information medium into a given culture inevitably generates a new culture.
Postman articulated many of his basic views on media, along with his enduring concern with language, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), a lively critique of television that would become his most influential work. He argued that television, as a medium that must express ideas primarily through alluring visual imagery, reduces politics, news, history, and everything else to mere entertainment. In the United States, he maintained, that development led to the trivialization of public discourse.
In The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), Postman claimed that childhood is essentially a social artifact. Its origin was closely linked to the printing press and the growth of literacy, which made possible the segregation of groups into children and adults. Television, however, tends to eliminate the divide between childhood and adulthood, since its imagery offers a kind of undifferentiated access rather than using words to segregate audiences according to age or level of development.
Postman also produced acute critical analyses of technology. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), he drew attention to its often unperceived effects on thought and culture. He was particularly critical of what he termed technopoly, or the deification of technology, which results in social institutions and practices surrendering their sovereignty to technology.
Education was the central topic in a number of Postman’s books and a concern that appeared throughout his writings. In The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995), he rejected the growing emphasis on economic utility, training for consumership, and faith in technology that characterize modern education. He held that the purpose of education is to forge a coherent unified culture out of the diversity within American society. That was, he claimed, the aim that had inspired American education in the early 20th century, and it was also the goal that he proposed for education in the future.