Neil Postman: Critical thinking in education

“Let us suppose,” wrote Neil Postman in his final (1999) book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, “as Jefferson did, and much later John Dewey, … that the best way for citizens to protect their liberty is for them to be encouraged to be skeptical.”

How would such critical thinking be taught? Postman described five suggestions (which I’ve compressed, without ellipses):

Teach children something about the art and science of asking questions.
Question-asking is the most significant intellectual tool human beings have. What will happen if a student, studying history, asks, ‘Whose history is this?’ What will happen if a student, being given a set of facts, asks, ‘What is a fact? How is it different from an opinion? And who is the judge?’

What happens, of course, is that students not only learn ‘history’ and ‘facts’ but also learn where these things come from and why. Such learning is at the heart of reasoning and its product, skepticism.

Give logic and rhetoric a prominent place in the curriculum.
These subjects sometimes go by different names today — among them, practical reasoning, semantics, and general semantics. They are about the relationship between language and reality; they are about the differences between kinds of statements, about the nature of propaganda, about the ways in which we search for truths, and just about everything else one needs to know in order to use language in a disciplined way and to know when others aren’t.

Teach a scientific outlook.
The science curriculum is usually focused on communicating the known facts of each discipline without serious attention to the history of the discipline, the mistakes scientists have made, the methods they use and have used, or the ways in which scientific facts are either refuted or confirmed.

Teach ‘technology education.’
Forty-five million Americans have already figured out how to use computers without any help whatsoever from the schools. If the schools do nothing about this in the next ten years, everyone will know how to use computers. But what they will not know, as none of us did from everything from automobiles to movies to television, is what are the psychological, social, and political effects of new technologies.

Provide our young with opportunities to study comparative religion.
Such studies would promote no particular religion but would aim at illuminating the metaphors, literature, art, and expression of religious expression itself.

I suspect readers have noticed that my five suggestions do not include history as a subject to be studied. In fact, I regard history as the single most important idea for our youth to take with them into the future. I call it an idea rather than a subject because every subject has a history, and its history is an integral part of the subject. History — we might say — is a meta-subject.

  • Ted Wolf 2 Apr 2013, 6:56 pm

    Glad to see Neil Postman making a cameo appearance here on Solving for Pattern. One of my favorite writers and observers of culture, more trenchant than most. Principles from systems thinking deeply influenced the “thermostatic” view of education he offered in Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979) — the idea that schools should offer a corrective critique of the unexamined biases of popular culture. Another favorite Postman-ism: “technopoly.”

  • Alex Kuskis 4 Apr 2013, 7:14 am

    Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) is the best book on education since John Dewey still & has been my bible in my teaching career. Ten years later in Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979) he entirely reversed himself and adopted a conservative rearview mirror approach to education. That later book has not been influential. You can download a pdf of the former here

    • Howard Silverman 4 Apr 2013, 8:00 am

      Thanks, Alex!

    • Peter K Fallon 4 Apr 2013, 8:29 am

      I can’t dispute Alex’s contention (Hi, Alex) that Teaching as a Conserving Activity was never as “influential” a book as Teaching as a Subversive Activity. But I would disagree with a couple of other things. It is possible to look at Conserving Activity as an “entire reversal” of Subversive Activity. But I don’t think it is necessary and I don’t think it is correct. As Howard suggests above it is useful to read the two books together as they complement each other (it is quite honest to say that they contradict each other in some ways). This is part and parcel of the thermostatic view and not inconsistent with the theme of Subversive Activity. At certain moments in the political, social, economic, and technological life of a society, it is necessary to roil the waters of education, to knock things over, to make a mess and to challenge widespread cultural assumptions; at other times, it is appropriate to attend to certain “truths” which have the power of bonding us together as a community, all according to the cultural climate of the moment. Balance is the thing. That’s why Conserving Activity stands as a useful complement to Subversive Activity.

      Finally, acknowledging the fact that this book has not been as “influential” as its thematic predecessor, I wonder if that says more about the book, or about us?

  • Ted Wolf 4 Apr 2013, 11:08 am

    The relationship between those two books is testament to the openness of Postman’s view. A few lines from the prologue of Teaching as a Conserving Activity, addressing Postman’s collaboration with Charlie Weingartner, made a deep impression on me:

    “Our awareness of our own deficiencies, as well as the elusiveness of our subjects, shielded us from falling in love with what we had written. In fact, as we were building our arguments, we were at times accompanied by the claims of legitimate counterarguments. For every idea we expressed as “true,” we could easily think of its opposite, or at least of some alternative, as also true. It was as if we and our shadow were looking at the matter from opposite poles . . . We understood which way we were facing but it was not hard for us to imagine others, or even ourselves, facing in another direction. As a consequence of this double vision, Charlie suggested early in our collaboration that the last sentence of each of our books should be ‘Or vice versa.'”

    The rarity of this expansive self-awareness in public rhetoric, like Peter’s comment about “influential” above, says something about Postman’s book(s) and something about us.

    By the way, the last line of Teaching as a Conserving Activity reads: “But at the moment, I shall stand with this.”

  • Alex Kuskis 8 Apr 2013, 8:09 am

    Peter & Ted, as an intellectual artifact I find Teaching a Conserving Activity to be thought-provoking and useful and it certainly does complement the earlier “subversive” book. I enjoy reading everything Postman wrote, even when I disagree with it, as I often do, especially he gets polemical about technology. But I agree with the comment cited in Postman’s NY Times Obituary by one critic who wrote, “Mr. Postman’s ideas about education are not the world’s most practicable” ( ).

    Having just returned from a media literacy conference at York University where K-12 teachers were grappling with the need to engage digital-minded kids with pedagogies that convey the 21st century skills they need, I cannot imagine any practical application of Postman’s thermostatic theory in today’s schools. It would drive the dropout rate, already a serious problem, like never before.

    Teaching as a Subversive Activity was a product of the revolutionary climate of schools in the ’60s when writers on education were clamoring for change (Kozol, Holt, Goodman, Freire, Illich, and yes, McLuhan, Postman & Weingartner). By the end of the ’70s that revolutionary activity had exhausted itself & the educational system was retrenching. I see Teaching as a Conserving Activity as part of that retrenchment. Margaret Cassidy in her media history of American public education writes about the pendulum swings between an evolving mainstream dedicated to teaching the basics & progressive attempts to reform the prevailing system (Book Ends, 2004). We see that pendulum swing in Postman himself. We are once again in a time of profound educational ferment & calls for change. Teaching as a Subversive Activity is once again relevant, though its relevance never died entirely. I understand that Michael Wesch of “A vision of students today” YouTube fame is writing an update of it.

  • Howard Silverman 9 Apr 2013, 7:26 pm

    Alex, with such an extensive blogroll on your McLuhan Galaxy site, i’m reluctant to try pointing you to stuff — and yet it seems like a link to this 1999 CBC video, “Out of Orbit: The Life and Times of Marshall McLuhan,” might be an addition:

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