Education and Democracy

By David Banerjee | July 22, 2004

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School Neil Postman, 1995, Vintage Books, New York, 197 pp, paperback

If people were to read the mission statement of the Toronto District School Board, they might get a surprise. It states, in big bold letters, that the primary purpose of education is to prepare students for citizenship in a democratic society. It is not simply about making children smarter, or better critical thinkers, or more socially adjusted, although these are treated as components of competent democratic citizenship. The citizens of Toronto (at least those that aren’t Catholic), through their elected school trustees, have decided that public education is about democracy. It is therefore not about learning to become better workers and managers, it is not about getting ready for a knowledge economy. It is primarily about democratic competence. As a teacher within the TDSB, I strongly support this vision, although the polling data, meagre as it is, indicates that only a quarter of Canadians agree with it, and that a third see education’s primary roll as preparing students for employment. In this context, coupled with the recent economic undermining of Ontario’s public schools, it is hard to dismiss the late Neil Postman’s The End of Education.

Postman begins his book with a clever double entendre that suggests that unless the "end" (i.e. purpose) of education becomes clear to us, we’re going to see the "end" (i.e. termination) of school. Postman examines the fundamental question "Why does society bother educating youth the way we do?" A Cultural Studies Professor at New York University, Postman writing from several perspectives: as a cultural theorist, a former schoolteacher, a former student, but primarily as a concerned citizen. With prose that is informal, clear, and often funny, as well as filled with many of his own grade school anecdotes, Postman jettisons the more technophobic viewpoints of some of his previous work to give expression to ideas that most ‘liberal’ Americans would easily identify with. Postman’s book is a review of current narratives for education, examining some of the negative purposes for education and then building a case for the five ends that he sees as the cornerstones for a liberal, democratic society.

Postman asserts that society has lost its ‘gods’—the narratives or myths that provide meaning and values. The book gives a very brief history of the fall of the various gods of the modern era, and sketches a society trying to fill its need for meaning. The assertion that follows indicates that he believes schools have followed society in losing its raison d’être: "Without narrative,” he writes, “life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without purpose, schools become houses of detention, not attention."

Educators, he argues, may continue to grapple with ‘engineering’ questions of funding, computers, testing, and class size, but answers to these questions will not revitalize public education if it does not have a valid purpose. Beyond engineering questions, Postman calls for a return to humanist principles in society at large and in education in particular: "What makes public schools public is not so much that the schools have common goals but that students have common gods. The reason for this is that public education does not serve a public. It creates a public… But what kind of public does it create? The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling."

Into this void, he argues, have crept three related ‘false’ gods: economic utility, consumerism, and technology. As many economics-focused historians will point out, the project of public education after the industrial revolution was to train people to produce and consume. In order to meet the needs of production, they will argue, schools were used for indoctrination (e.g. bells were used in school to get the young ready to the regimentation of factory work). Nowadays, the argument runs, it should take the form of giving students skills to be part of the ‘knowledge economy’.

Postman illustrates how this idea has made its way into style in many circles, but calls it into question by citing the data that shows no perceptible link between production and education. Why then would we rob children of their opportunities for creative and critical learning while supplanting it instead with banal skills training? Why would we make such a costly investment if much of the public does not need more than a basic or narrow education to produce and consume? Perhaps this view is partially responsible for the new Ontario Curriculum, or for the drift away from a liberal arts education towards ‘applied’ programs in universities. In 2000, one Canadian CEO actually said "It is time that we stop educating all of our children."3 Postman joins others, such as John Ralston Saul, in stating the obvious: productive people who can contribute to both a society and economy are usually those who are educated to think critically and creatively, not those who have been trained to perform specific industrial tasks. Educating children for jobs reinforces the idea that you are only what you produce, and there are few children who would be inspired to learn with this vision of education.

Tied to the narrative of economic utility is consumerism, and more specifically the idea of schools as training facilities for future buyers. For economic utilitarians, not only are you what you produce, you are what you own. Given that today’s children watch roughly 1500 hours of commercial-filled television annually, and spend only 900 hours in school, it is as logical for children to adopt the identity of consumer as it is for them to bring this idea to school. Even school administrators have become amenable to the idea, as evidenced by the Channel One initiative to bring television commercials to classrooms in exchange for the equipment. According to Elliot Ettenberg of Prism Communications "They’re not so much children as what I like to call ‘evolving consumers’.

In No Logo, author/activist Naomi Klein analyzes several clever ways that advertisers are turning schools from centres of pedagogy to centres of marketing opportunity, citing exclusive soft drink contracts, commercial curriculum packages (e.g. working Disney’s Anastasia into lessons), "cool" hunting, peer brand promotion, and direct advertising in schools.

Postman is in very familiar territory as he casts doubt on the efficacy of modern technology – especially the Internet – as a learning tool, and he lavishes special attention on the Utopian, if not wildly outlandish, visions of education-technology synergy found in educational theorists like Lewis Perelman and Diane Ravitch. While they see insomniac ten year olds using computers to discuss math problems with university professors, Postman sees computers in schools being limited to a narrow range of information gathering, a negative step in a society that is already drowning in information. While he admits that there is space for new technology in the classroom, he is concerned with the effects of an uncritical embrace of the technologies. Furthermore, there is the genuine concern that computers, which are generally used by one child at a time, undermine social play and social growth. As a kindergarten teacher whose primary concern is the social development of my students, I can appreciate these concerns and as such try to add a social element to computer play. I also limit my students’ use of the computers.

Postman’s narratives of education, gods that he feels may work, consume the majority of the book. Postman draws his narratives and gods of education from society itself; he refutes the suggestion that public schools are the creators of our myths, as the centres of indoctrination that those seeking to privatize them would claim they are. Postman follows in Dewey’s tradition by believing that, instead of accepting the world as it is, a child should construct his or her world by building meaning and using critical thinking to change what needs to be changed. This is an extremely important step, as there are many educators who would stop short of his ‘reconstrutivist’ philosophy, and instead adopt a ‘progressivist’ attitude. While both believe in child-centred learning, social learning, critical thinking, and ‘constructivism’ (i.e. creating meaning as opposed to receiving meaning), the major difference is that the purpose of reconstructivism is to deal with problems affecting communities (such as governance), while the purpose of progressivism is limited to learning in and of itself.

Dewey himself was a devoted reconstructivist, firmly believing that public schools should, above all, teach children to reinvent democracy every generation. Similar views, although sometimes less developed, were shared by educators like Paolo Freire, Horace Mann, Thomas Jefferson, and – in Canada – Egerton Ryerson. Postman carries on the tradition by rejecting progressivism’s god of education in and of itself (as Bertrand Russell might have seen it), and instead looks to society’s wider aspirations for narratives of education.

Postman describes five different narratives that he hopes will answer the question of why we educate our children, narratives that "offer moral guidance, a sense of continuity, explanations of the past, clarity to the present, and hope for the future." They are:

1. Spaceship Earth: Starting with a fable in which a city prevents chaos and strife by having its students solve problems and in doing so come to a better understanding of the world, Postman firmly embraces reconstructivism and giving students an active role to play in society. Along with this, Postman preaches a curriculum that contains significant amounts of archaeology to teach historical continuity, anthropology to teach cultural commonality, and astronomy in order to give children a sense of wonder and history.

2. Fallen Angel:If children believe that their teachers are fallible people who make mistakes and hold biases, would they not pay more attention to pointing these out to their instructors? If students came to school expecting to create meaning rather than receive it, they would try, fail, and then learn from their errors. Postman is here following a trend that is expounded by numerous educators such as Dewey and Freire, by supporting education through active problem solving, and not by passive textbooks and teacher lectures. Most importantly, students will learn the value of productive scepticism.

3. America the Good: Postman is acutely aware of the difference between patriotism of the flag-waving, drum-beating variety and the idea of a nation as a progressive project. Can love of country, specifically the U.S., be a bad thing is it is aligned with the nation’s history of virtue and liberality? Far from indoctrination, students would be asked to reflect and criticize four major themes of American history: freedom, multiculturalism, public education, and the impact of technology upon society. While Postman is cautious of naked patriotism, he does not give "the uglier bits" of American history sufficient consideration to build his case.

4. The Law of Diversity: Postman delivers a warm-hearted approach to teaching unity through ethnic and religious diversity. But while his notions of seeing commonality in studying a diversity of languages, religions, customs, and art are positive, he ties his ideas of unity into the idea of America the Good, an America that is both white and Protestant at its core (which is ironic in light of Postman’s proudly Jewish heritage). In representing diversity, Postman opts for the melting pot instead of the mosaic. Similarly, his somewhat alarmist analysis of aggressive equity and ethnic promotion fails to recognize privilege (something many if not most white people don’t acknowledge anyway), and uses extreme examples of Black Nationalism to build a case for a ‘heroes and holidays’ approach to diversity. That said, common sense suggests that the American schools that Postman writes about have more serious issues of racism than those in Ontario, and thus, his recommendations are at least step in the right direction.

5. Word Weavers/World Creators: Postman saves his most interesting ‘god’ for last, and centres this one around the relationship of language to power as explored by Alfred Korzybski. If language creates reality and expresses narrative, do we educate our children about the power of language to make us smart, tolerant, and moral individuals? Do we teach our children how we have lost control of language in the past? Do children understand the ideas of ‘definition’, ‘question’, and ‘metaphor’, and how those things affect our language and, consequently, our world? And finally, in typical Postman style, how does technology impact our ability to use language to create our worlds?

As Postman correctly notes, there are those that protest the idea of public education because the narratives Postman describes do not represent their values. In order to be comfortable with the notion that there are universal values that should be transmitted to our students through public schools means that we have to have some faith in the state to choose those values that represent our common interest. This is one of the challenges that come with living in a democracy, and public education must equip children with the understanding and skills to negotiate this challenges. Ideally, these values reflect the society and are implemented democratically through the Board of Trustees. Yet in the era of market dominance, when politics has relinquished control to economics, there may be no consensus on what these values should be. From one point of view this is a healthy state of affairs, insofar as institutionalizing the values of the state can be dangerous in a politically disengaged society such as our own. What bothers me is that despite the lack of consensus there is little spirited debate on the subject. This lack of debate isn’t entirely accidental. Even in a knowledge-driven society, business lobbying has moved us toward a skills driven curriculum. Teaching skills means less teaching of values, which may be a good thing if the dominant value set is counter-democratic, but it also means less emphasis on teaching students to be engaged citizens, which is bad. Less political engagement in education policy leaves less resistance for public education to transmit society’s values and more room for a narrower, more skills-oriented curriculum.

The void left by not transmitting values itself transmits a very dangerous value: that values aren’t especially important. If values are not important, some of Postman’s false gods will establish themselves as narratives. Not transmitting values breeds cynicism, opportunism and a lack of any sense of civic duty, which in turn lead to the attitudes of economic utility and consumerism which are commonplace today. Education without values is described at its worst by Dr. Haim G. Ginott:

“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by Learned Engineers,
Children poisoned by Education Physicians,
Infants killed by Trained Nurses,
Women and babies shot and burned by High School and College Graduates,
So I am suspicious of Education,
My request is: Help your students to become human.
Your efforts should never produce Learned Monsters, Skilled Psychopaths and Educated Eichmanns.
Reading, Writing and Arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.”

Yet there remains much that is good, positive, and socially constructive about public schooling in Canada. It is typical that public schools will get blamed for society’s ills, but rarely is it recognized for the critical role it plays in making our nation the prosperous and peaceful place that, by and large, it is. As opposed to treating students the same way, teachers are taught to make accommodations toward giving all students what they need to learn and feel positive about learning. Social skills programs, such as Second Step and Tribes, are used to promote empathy and community among students, and to help transform schools into cooperative environments. New educational methods are constantly being explored to help children learn. The value of equity and diversity are being actively transmitted in Toronto, where students are taught to respect everyone regardless of race, gender, class, or religion. This is vital to a city that, according to writer Douglas Ord, is a “multicultural experiment”. And while there are still many hurdles to be overcome, especially due the recent funding trauma experienced in Ontario’s school system, there is no other institution that can help us construct a functioning society.

Neil Postman’s book is not a fountain of new information. It contains almost no real research, at least in part because the author is acutely aware of the degree to which we are deluged with facts and data. This is a book meant to provoke its readers – most of whom are probably involved in education in some capacity – into questioning the purpose of education, and in doing so build some narratives that will allow public education to survive—in order to create a public. Postman offers his suggestions for narratives as just that: suggestions.

The American Library Association did not make a mistake in choosing this as one of the best books of the year. There are certainly other books on education with more data, more affluent authors, and more realistic recommendations. As Postman correctly points out, however, almost all of the educational discussion going on today focuses on matters of engineering. In the rush to "raise the bar and close the gap", "increase accountability", "prepare for a knowledge economy", properly assess, and generally manage the school system, many seem to have forgotten that at the aim of this institution is the creation of a society. Our lack of memory, as John Ralston Saul might point out, is a natural product of a managerial society, where method and information take precedence over value and wisdom.

Postman, who has inherited the tradition of John Dewey and Horace Mann, has re-established that meeting the needs of a humane and democratic society – not mere learning – is the purpose of public education. Our ability to redefine the value of school, to control technology so that we are not controlled by it, and to help students become engaged citizens who live meaningful lives are the challenges that Professor Postman has left us to meet. That’s just one more reason why The End of Education is worth reading.

It is worth noting that Neil Postman died on October 5, 2003. I’ll miss him. While he never took himself seriously enough that he lost his sense of humour, he did, over the books he wrote, provide some of the most original, accessible, and interesting social commentary of our era.

2962 w. July 22, 2004


  • David Banerjee

    David Banerjee is a guy that lives in Toronto, and writes in his apartment. He teaches creative writing courses, but mostly to four year olds who would rather be playing with blocks.

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