The End of Education – Redefining the value of school by Neil Postman
Review by Haroon Ibn Ebrahim Sidat
As parents consider how to go about schooling of their children, they are confronted with two problems. Firstly, we have the engineering problem that deals with the means by which the young will learn. Postman believes that the debate over the future of America’s schools (the same could be applied to schools here in the UK) focuses too much on engineering concerns — curricula, teaching methods, tests, the role of technology, etc. — while very little attention is paid to the second problem; the metaphysics of schooling. What is more important is that you become a different person because of what you have learnt; that your world is altered. For that to happen, you need a reason. Nietzsche’s aphorism helps us here: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Postman talks about having a god to serve; using the word as a synonym for a narrative. The point is “without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention” (pg. 7).
Using the theme of god, Postman describes new gods that have rushed in to replace the old, but most have had no staying power (such as the gods of communism, Nazism, and fascism). The same applies to modern education; our students are presently being asked to serve several gods. What keeps our schools from being effective, he says, is the lack of commonly accepted stories, or the inadequacy of those we have in giving meaning and direction to schooling. At the moment, education is geared towards economic utility, consumerism, technology, multiculturalism and other bogus objectives. These new gods are failing us and are incapable of providing a rich and sustaining rationale for public education.
So which gods may serve us? Postman offers an answer in the form of five narratives: “Spaceship Earth” (the notion of humans as stewards of the planet – an echo of ‘khalifa’ mentioned in the Qur’an?); “The Fallen Angel” (a view of history and the advancement of knowledge as a series of errors and corrections); “The American Experiment” (the story of America as a great experiment and as a centre of continuous argument); “The Laws of Diversity” (the view that difference contributes to increased vitality and excellence, and, ultimately, to a sense of unity); and “The Word Weavers/The World Makers” (the understanding that the world is created through language — through definitions, questions, and metaphors).
Postman also offers a number of admittedly radical innovations towards making schools more effective. He argues that textbooks should be altogether eliminated because they have a deadening effect on students and promotes a view of education as the acquisition of immutable facts. He proposes that teachers should offer incentives to students who find errors in their lessons. And he feels that the subjects of archeology, geology and astronomy be given the highest priority since they imbue students with a sense of awe and global interdependence.
These proposals notwithstanding, Postman stresses that his main purpose is to promote a serious conversation about the underlying reasons for education — not about policies, management, assessment, and other engineering matters. While these are important, he states, “They ought rightfully to be addressed after decisions are made about what schools are for.”
If a metaphor may be permitted, we can make the trains run on time, but if they do not go where we want them to go, why bother?