(Essay) On Education, Conversation, Values, and the Spirit of the Age

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If any prophecy will be true, it is that in the future people will read old books about how they could have avoided the catastrophes they face. Personally, one of the most tragic books I’ve read is Teaching as Subversive Act by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. It was published in the late sixties, long before Waiting for Superman or The Lottery. Had Postman not passed away in the late nineties, the trauma of No Child Left Behind may have done him in.

Neil Postman wrote numerous books on education, though he is most famous for his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. His thought was deeply shaped by Marshall McLuhan, the mind behind Understanding Media, but he was no McLuhan-parrot; in my opinion, the student rises above the teacher, even if though without the teacher, the student would have been lost. Postman applies McLuhan’s thinking to education, and consequently generates some of the most innovative and provocative thinking about education I have ever read. Unfortunately, failing to be boring in a world where boring can be taken as a sign of depth, Postman’s educational work has all but been forgotten.

Audio Summary

Postman applies McLuhan’s famous idea “the medium is the message” to education, and his results are revolutionary, and so naturally ignored. The famous McLuhan aphorism, in the context of education, 1 What this means is that the content of education is not nearly as important as the means and methods by which that content is taught. For example, if I teach students about the Second Amendment through having them memorize it for a test versus talk about what they think constitutes the meaning of the Second Amendment, I may indirectly teach the students that someone who understands the Second Amendment is someone who scores a high grade on a test about it, versus someone who can work through ambiguities of the language, historical context, and hermeneutical approaches: I imply these abstract disagreements are irrelevant when it comes to knowing the Constitution, even though it is exactly on these terms that the Amendment is today contested.

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For Postman, ‘.’2 3 Furthermore, .’4 For Postman, what students “do” in the classroom impacts them more than what they “learn,” for though we forget much of the content that we learn, we don’t forget the methods by which that content was taught to us, along with what those methods indirectly imply are values. For Postman, ‘’5 And what are some of the things that the structure of the classroom teaches children? Postman offers us a list:

1.

None of these principles are directly taught to students, but are communicated indirectly by the structure of education itself. If these lessons only impacted the classroom, it would be one thing, and if education only impacted what happened in classrooms, our failure to take Postman’s admonishments seriously would be but only so consequential. Unfortunately, education impacts life: what we learn in school is what we learn to do in the world; the values teachers impart on us are the lenses through which we value the world. They impact our behavior and shape our expectations of how we think we and others should act. Consequently, we exist in a “Trivia(l) Age.”

I

‘[W]hat ’7 Constantly, students are confronted with ‘ ‘,’ and 8 In other words, students are graded and christened “smart” or “stupid” based on their “trivia(l) skills.”

Postman notes that classrooms are designed not for students to think on their own, but to think like they have been told to think as if that does in fact constitute thinking for one’s self (which leads to horrible confusion). This is not to say there isn’t a place for learning facts or listening to experts: most certainly, students need to learn what others think in order to have something over which to think for themselves. A student who has thought about the Civil War but who has never read the work of McPherson is someone who’s “thinking for his or her self” will probably prove mistaken and wrong. That said, Postman’s point is that the structure of the classroom teaches students to behave a certain way in response to content: they are taught to treat the material as answers to trivia questions, versus the material they need in order to construct the cathedral of their own thoughts. They are taught content is to be recalled and regurgitated as it is presented, versus questioned, refined, inspected, deconstructed, reconstructed, .9 To use content not as trivia answers is to be “difficult,” “philosophical,” and even “unintelligent,” seeing as school has taught us that to be intelligent is to be good at trivia.

Students are taught to ask questions only insomuch as the questions contribute to the trivia game and keep the game going; questions that hinder the game are frowned upon, if not directly, as least indirectly by the structure of the classroom (which is codified virtually into law today thanks to No Child Left Behind). According to Postman, 10 , and in classrooms, this is precisely what isn’t taught (all while schools pride themselves on teaching students how to think for themselves).11 Since the school administrators themselves attended schools like the ones they manage, they too were taught that:

Thinking for Oneself = Being Good at Trivia = Intelligent

(Not Thinking for Oneself = Not Asking Trivia(l) Questions = Problem Child)

And the administrators genuinely believe it. Since questions that keep the trivia game going are encouraged, teachers and principals do in fact believe they are teaching students “how to ask questions,” and since they were taught that “thinking for oneself” is the ability to “come up with answers to random questions on one’s own,” they genuinely believe that the (trivia) nature of the classroom incubates critical thinking (). ‘’12

To quote Postman at length:

Postman’s words are sobering, especially when you realize the people running the schools, the public voting for the kinds of schools they want, and the politicians passing bills on education reform, have all been taught the same values: that to be good at trivia is to be an intelligent, critical thinker, and that school exists to teach citizens to be intelligent, critical thinkers. And so in our society, people who are “intelligent, critical thinkers” are probably exactly not that, but rather talented gameshow contestants. A sobering thought, indeed.

To close this section, I don’t doubt that there are high schools teachers and professors out there who do follow Postman’s advice, but I don’t believe these are the majority at all, as clear to me by the behaviors of the public. Lastly, I don’t mean to imply that someone who is good at trivia isn’t smart; rather, I mean to say that Einstein didn’t have to be good at trivia. Today, I fear our understanding of what constitutes “smart” is incredibly limited thanks to our schools that aim to make us all smarter, not because we have been taught the wrong content, but because “the medium is the message.” To quote Postman at length again:

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What school teaches us indirectly, Postman claims, ‘.’15 To quote Postman at length again (which one can never seem to do too often):

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Postman wrote his book in the late sixties, and since then, I am of the opinion that the situation has only worsened, even though today creativity and “free thinking” are emphasized.17 Has college at least escaped the influence of “trivia(l) education?” I don’t believe so, though college is more certain than public education that it teaches students how to think. Colleges today encourage specialization, and though it might seem that specialization is the opposite of the general knowledge behind trivia, the way the specialized knowledge is used and valued is still “triva(l)” in nature. An expert on Foucault is someone who can answer random and unrelated questions about Foucault: if the person is asked “Where was Foucault born?” and an answer is provided, the person’s genius is confirmed; if asked “What would Foucault think about modern prison?” and the person isn’t sure, we question if the person really is as smart as the person’s degree implies.

Predominately in our culture, to be a specialist about a topic is to be someone who can answer any “trivia(l)” question about his or her specialty any time (even though a person can recite something and have no idea what it means), versus someone who can use his or her specialty as a ladder for his or her own thinking. An “economist” is someone who can answer any random question about economics at the drop of a hat; an English major is someone who can tell you the author of a random book whenever you ask; a politics professor is someone who knows everything about politics, so if you ask him or her something about politics and no answer is given, the person must be a fake. Postman writes:

‘Watch a man — say, a politician — being interviewed on television, and you are observing a demonstration of what both he and his interrogators learned in school: all questions have answers, and it is a good thing to give an answer even if there is none to give, even if you don’t understand the question, even if the question contains erroneous assumptions, even if you are ignorant of the facts required to answer. Have you ever heard a man being interviewed say, ‘I don’t have the faintest idea,’ or ‘I don’t know enough even to guess,’ or ‘I have been asked that question before, but all my answers to it seem to be wrong?’ One does not ‘blame’ men, especially if they are politicians, for providing instant answers to all questions. The public requires that they do, since the public has learned that instant answer giving is the most important sign of an educated man.’18

We sit on the edge of our seats waiting for the politician we dislike to answer a question wrong; we listen closely for mispronunciations, read searching for misspellings, note how slowly someone who we are speaking to answers our questions, and so on. We have been well trained, as clear by how everyone checks their phones to look up the answer to a question they don’t know in the middle of a conversation, breaking the flow. We refer back to the book when we don’t know the answer; it’s unacceptable to not know something. Yes, it’s cheating on a test to refer to the textbook during the examination and cheating is frowned upon, but fortunately, in everyday life, it’s not the teachers testing us who hold the power of grading, but former students testing one another. We remember little of the content we were taught in school, but even the worst of students remembers how to be a Jeopardy contestant.

We exist under a “trivia(l) zeitgeist,” blessed upon us by school, and it impacts how we think we’re supposed to act, how others are supposed to act, and what constitutes “intelligent,” “stupid,” and other values. In our age, it seems intelligent people are those who carry around facts in a big sack and can be asked at any time for something out of their bag; to borrow an image from Schopenhauer:

Those who leave the rungs behind are those who will fail at trivia: they don’t carry around the answers to the “trivia(l) questions” they will inevitably face in our age. We hope our cellphones will carry the rungs we will fail to pack along ourselves, but if not, faced with a question, we return to the classroom in which we are humiliated in front of our peers for failing to know “the right answer.” To escape this anxiety, we assimilate our lives around the society’s “trivia(l) values,” and yet holding “trivia(l) values,” we “remain below forever,” thinking our minds grow.

III

“Trivia(l) values” have consequences. When it comes to a complex issue like saving the environment, treating the matter like a trivia question will leave us with the completely wrong mindset for engaging the problem. There is no “right answer”: we have to figure out what no one has yet figured out. Creative and abstract reasoning is needed, the willingness to throw out ideas even if they are wrong (unafraid of what peers think), the ability to discern a good idea from a better idea without outside help, the capacity to think through contingency planning versus “the plan,” and so on. As will be discussed in “The True isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose, if a government is faced with an “apocalyptic ideology,” for example, the fact that (possibly) “the map is indestructible” will make the challenge great enough, let alone if those facing the challenge can only think of it in terms of “trivia questions,” but that is another topic for another time.

Under a “trivia(l) zeitgeist,” a brilliant leader who can’t quickly answer random questions will be rejected; issues that aren’t “triva(l)” are issues the public will have little capacity to understand or value; creativity will be devalued even as people discuss its importance and those who want to be creative will do so through a(n) (uncreative) “trivia(l) mode” (); friends will view that engaging with one another “intelligently” requires them asking one another “trivia(l) questions” (“Where do you live?” or “What did you major in?” or “Who do you think should be President?”), versus thinking through issues; and so on.

Please don’t mistake me as saying that people should never ask one another questions or be critical of the answers they receive in response: my concern isn’t so much with questions themselves, but with our culture of “trivia(l)ness” and the “way of being” that comes with many questions today. What concerns me is how we ask questions, the judgements and values we associate with them, the kinds of questions we ask, the way we think answers to questions are supposed to be (“closed” versus “open”), our obsession with “a definite right answer” versus “a tentative right answer” (a “straight answer” versus a “philosophical and/or longwinded answer”), and so on. There cannot be advancement without questions, but neither can there be progress without the right questions.

In my opinion, there is no clearer sign of how education influences its people than by how the people talk to one another, and I am of the opinion that we live in an age of “trivia(l) conversation.” Many modern conversations are exchanges of trivia questions, and the smartest, most thoughtful, aware, etc. person in the room is the individual who answers the most questions right, whether they be about family, work, politics, or what have you. The person who proves worst at answering questions is the individual who is most “concerning.” Conversations today can be less about deepening the individual than they are about “saying the right answer,” for thanks to school, this is what we have been taught to value as an “intelligent exchange.”

Imagine: a family gathers for dinner. The son is asked about his day; he answers. The father is asked about his day; he answers. Someone asks what people think about the election; there are terse replies, and no questions about the meaning of the terms or presentations of entirely new possibilities for modern politics. Dinner ends. Is the issue the questions? No: the issue is that the questions and answers don’t build upon one another, that the conversation is fragmented. Questions are asked that are unrelated to the last ones, and answers are given without any thought about if the question is rightly understood: the family is simply acting out what they have been taught to do in school. Perhaps the conversation facilitates the relationship between those conversing, but the conversation doesn’t simultaneously construct (and those who attempt to keep a topic alive versus allow another “topic switch” are thought of as “long winded,” “hogging the conversation,” “abstract,” “being difficult,” etc.). Rather than build upon itself, the conversation rises and falls, rises and falls, always returning to where it started, un-advanced. And this in of itself isn’t always a problem, but when it is time for the family to problem solve — say when a son is involved with a bad group of friend — being unable to think through things completely or build ideas upon others, it is doubtful the problem will be solved without hurting feelings, intense drama, and the like.

Why is this a problem? In addition to Postman’s thought, to start, I would add that it reduces humans to “trivia(l) mouthpieces” and threatens “human dignity,” making us our cellphones on which we constantly look up facts more than at people. The reduction of thinking to simple fact recitation is tragically dehumanizing. Furthermore, it trains us to engage in “easy conversation,” versus view conversation as a means of drawing out of us what we didn’t believe could be found within. Facts are easier to deal with than the meaning of those facts. We don’t have to think so much when dealing with facts (simply remember and recite), but when dealing with their meaning, we have to think on the spot. We can’t study for what questions will be on the test when talking to a person: we have no idea what topic will come up. To speak well, we need to have trained ourselves to be ready for the unpredictable, not simply rely on our memory, and that is hard. We have to learn methods of thinking, logical fallacies, self-skepticism, being non-assumptive, emotional control, listening, empathy, and more. Yes, having a good memory is laudable, but to use memory for no other end than the reciting of facts and winning at trivia is like using a bar of gold as a paperweight: it is unfitting. And please don’t mistake me as saying that there are people who only use their memory and conversation for factual regurgitation: no one is entirely one way or the other. My point is that the zeitgeist of the age favors using memory for a simple, easy, and unfitting use; after all, that is what education has taught us is ironically fitting, valuable, and intelligent.

“Trivia(l) conversation” is easy and a threat to human dignity, in the sense that it can devolve us into lifeless reciters versus dynamic and organic beings, and those that stray from the age’s zeitgeist are often frowned upon, preserving via “out-casting” the modern way of “trivia(l) life.” All facts exist within networks of facts, and so all facts are situated within abstractions of facts (even though they feel like they “(concretely) stand alone”); ironically, it can be the person who wants to “stick to the facts” that ends up being more abstract than the person who doesn’t “stick to the facts.”20 Indeed, thinking is enhanced by facts, but thinking isn’t merely facts, and yet if we try to explain this, people may not listen, in concordance with the zeitgeist. Hence, the zeitgeist of the age is in many respects against critical thinking, even though this age stresses its importance arguably more than any other.

is an exploration of what exactly constitutes “critical thinking”; here, I only want to note that a “trivia(l) society” is one in which critical thinking will be threatened, for all society necessarily entails abstractions (such as the consideration of meaning, empathy, etc.). Today, we are likely to consider someone a “critical thinker” who is an incredible memorizer and reciter of facts, when this person is at best an “incredible thinker” versus an “incredible critical thinker” (“thinking” and “critical thinking” are different in kind, not simply degrees, as expounded upon elsewhere). This is especially problematic in a Pluralistic Age when we must learn to live with people unlike ourselves, and also in an age when we are dealing with incredibly complex problems like environmentalism, globalization, and the like. Having been trained by “trivia(l) education” though, it is unlikely we will even have the capacity to recognize that what we call “critical thinking” is merely “thinking”: the warning is in a language we’ve lost the capacity to teach and thus learn.

IV

Neil Postman later wrote a book called Teaching as a Conserving Act to balance out his earlier work: he never took what he thought for granted. One of his last books was The End of Education, and it would do us all much good to study these works closely. Regardless how his thinking evolved, the core idea behind Teaching as Subversive Act — applying “the medium is the message” to education — is invaluable, especially today, and it sheds light not only on why we fail to learn what we should, but also on why we fail to speak to one another as humans should speak to fellow human beings. We treat one another like contestants on a gameshow, threatening human dignity, because we have been taught to associate answering trivia questions with brilliance and have indirectly been led to believe that this is the intelligent way to communicate with other people.

Education is in need of reform, not simply in regard to its content, but in regard to its structure. We are shaped by mediums more than by messages, and today, tragically, if the content we discuss is about how “we are shaped by mediums more than by messages,” it will be within and understood in concordance with the medium the content is attempting to revolutionize, potentially silencing the admonishment. Conversation having become “trivia(l),” we can’t talk about it unless its “trivia(l),” feeding the problem. Is there any hope? Well, it depends on how you answer.

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Notes

1Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 19.

2Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 20.

3Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 19.

4Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 19.

5Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 20.

6This list can be found in Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 20–21.

7Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 20.

8Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 20.

9Duncker’s “candle problem” comes to mind, as discussed by .

10Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 23.

11Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 23.

12Allusion to the McLuhan-esq thought of John Culkin.

13Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 23–24.

14Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 22.

15Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 21.

16Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 21.

17Because of school, even our creativity is “trivia(l)” in nature, and only valued to the degree it can help us solve random and unrelated questions. Certainly, creativity should be used to answer questions, but creativity isn’t valued only if it does so: “being creative” is a mode of life that all citizens should engage in (the same can be said about “intellectualism”), as discussed throughout the works of O.G. Rose.

18Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969: 21–22.

19Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, Volume II. Translated by E. F. J. Payne. New York, NY. Dover Publicans, Inc., 1966: 80

20The one who examines “a fact unto itself” alone is more abstract than the person who examines “a fact unto its context” — the person who removes a fact from its context, examines it, then places it back in its “network of facts” and examines it again, never losing sight of the network. It should also be noted that it is only thanks to abstraction that a person can determine that fact x is more important and/or “more true” than fact y. Facts cannot beget meanings alone, without a conscious observer, and yet we experience them as if they do.

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Additions

1. Evidence that our age is indeed “trivia(l)” is suggested by how concerned we are about “saying the right things”: avoiding offending anyone, being “sensitive,” and so on. This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for “being considerate,” but the nature of “being considerate” today is more like trivia than it is about a(n) (imperfect) way of being.

2. The fact everything seems to be a joke these days is also a sign that we live in a “Trivia(l) Age.”

3. The actions of people cannot be organized around the unexpressed thoughts of an individual. An unexpressed thought is real relative to the thinker, but isn’t real to others. As a result, thoughts cannot be the standard against which what people do can be assessed, but rather it must be against what people say.

If I am thinking “Sam should ask me if I want something to eat” and Sam doesn’t so ask me, I shouldn’t judge Sam as rude. However, if I ask Sam “Would you make me something to eat?” and he intentionally ignores me, I am more justified to think of Sam as rude (though I should not jump to that conclusion). Simply put, exchanged words are a fairer standard by which to assess reality than thoughts.

If we do not decide our course of action by what people say versus by what we think people are thinking, our lives will devolve into chaos and “metamentality” (). Using words as the absolute standard of assessing situations, organizing activity, and discerning truth can save us from anxiety, but the “trivia(l) zeitgeist” I’m afraid may threaten the integrity of words to us, along with our capacity to take them seriously. If this occurs, anxiety may become increasingly unavoidable and common.

4. Un-advancing conversation may pass the time and feel sufficient enough in the moment, but ultimately it can lead to people feeling discontent. This is because everyone needs not just words but words for thought (not just regurgitate what life “is,” for life will throw curve balls). When a problem arises, the real shortcoming of “un-advancing conversation” can become apparent, and the fact we are so well trained in “trivia(l) conversation” may contribute to us having overconfidence in our problem solving capacities, worsening the difficulty we face.

5. We make our readings and then our readings make us; we decide what we say and then our words decide who we are. If we read like we’re merely minds on sticks, such is what we’ll become; if we talk like we’re merely collections of answers to trivia questions, we’ll live like gameshow contestants.

6. If everything is taught, then nothing stands out as worth teaching, and everything taught feels trivial.

7. A world of subjects versus arts is a world of obligations versus wonders.

8. As the Guttenberg press contributed to rebellious sentiments developing in the church, so the internet may contribute to rebellious sentiments developing in the school system. It is hard for people to gain access to alternatives without them feeling the oppressiveness and arbitrariness of the nonalternatives, especially when the nonalternatives feel ineffective and corrupt.

9. Where there is a road, when you say, “let’s take a walk,” everyone without coordination will likely begin walking down the road, when you could just as easily walk through the yard. Roads direct and control us unconsciously without directly controlling us: the lay of the land guides where we go without forcing us to go one way versus another.

Considering the work of I.A. Richards, words are like roads: the word “Capitalism,” for example, guides how conversations about the system go without forcing the conversation to go one way versus another. “Capitalism” implies that the system orbits around “capital,” and hence conversations about how to improve Capitalism are guided without direct force to focus on capital. And yet if is correct, it is creativity that drives and defines the system. Because of the word “Capitalism” though, it is less likely people will come upon the realization that creativity is the driving force of Capitalism over capital — the “road” of the word guides them elsewhere.

Words have consequences.

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11. In this life, if we discover truth, no words are written in the sky that read “well done”; when our intellectual work rewards us, we don’t know for sure we are rewarded: the confidence must come from within. In our judicial system, we don’t know if the police are right more often than they are wrong; in politics, we don’t know if more good laws are passed than bad (even if this is the case); in life, we don’t know if we make more good decisions than bad — whatever our life course, we can never know for sure if it is the best course or only a good one. To live this life is to live never completely knowing if we are right or wrong: we can reason and determine that we are “probably right,” but the leap between “probably” and “definitely” is as wide as the gap between “is” and “ought.” To live is to live with existential uncertainty.

Unfortunately, in school we are trained to think that whether we are right or wrong, we will soon find out either way: the teacher will tell us (and hence somebody knows). But in life, nobody knows if we are living our life “the best we can”, if the judicial department is “more right than wrong,” if a new innovation is “good for the country,” and so on. Nobody knows “the answer,” but school teaches us indirectly that someone knows “the answer” — the authority — and hence we go off into life without a sense of how much existential uncertainty we must learn to live with. And when the day comes when we must face this uncertainty, we have no tools to deal with it, though we ironically feel that we are equipped. We are back at our mental desks, waiting for words in the sky.

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For more, www.ogrose.com.

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