Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1996 Issue »

    The End of Education

    Redefining the Value of School

    By Neil Postman
    New York: Knopf, 1995. 219 pp. $22.00.

    Neil Postman would have winced at the National Public Radio newscast aired in April 1996. A feature story covered the meeting of a national teachers' association at which the keynote speaker, the president of IBM, exhorted his audience to train students for global competitiveness and economic productivity. Echoing what has now become a familiar refrain, the chief executive sounded the alarm about the nation "falling behind" in basic academic skills. The rationale for improving schooling was phrased in economic and technical, not moral or political, terms.

    In these times of perceived school crisis, it would seem, businessmen have once again become our stand-in educational gurus. Yet Postman argues in his latest book, The End of Education, that the "technical" problem of building academic skills barely scratches the surface of our present educational crisis. According to Postman, in fact, the focus on method and technique may be part of the problem. Presently, he claims, students are asked to serve several "false gods," including the gods of economic utility, consumerism, and technology. The public school system motivates students by holding out the promise of secure employment, abundant consumer goods, and access to the latest scientific technology. Yet "motivation," Postman says, is different from having a "reason" for being in school. To have a reason is to have a "god" to serve. Postman employs the term "god" metaphorically, indicating a powerful narrative that "tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose" (pp. 5–6). Narratives provide a "reason" for educating, and this is how Postman explains the double meaning of his book's title: if we do not soon infuse schools with a transcendent reason, a clear "end" to the educational process, we may indeed be witnessing the "end" of our educational system.

    A student of the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Postman has been writing trenchant critiques of American culture for nearly twenty years. Most recently, in books like Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Technopoly (1991), he follows the tradition of social critics like Wendell Berry and Ivan Illich in questioning our fascination with the new media technologies. According to Postman, we have allowed ourselves to get carried away by the blinding mystique of innovation. We have put our faith in the progress of technology, and we have lost our way amidst the machines. Once a schoolteacher himself, Postman now turns his critical gaze toward the modern school. He doesn't like what he finds. Schools, he contends, have become mere training grounds for the twin imperatives of production and consumption. They churn out technicians — and bad ones at that — instead of reflective beings. They fail to engage persons in a common endeavor, to find value and meaning in a critical process of inquiry.

    The first half of Postman's latest book is dedicated to documenting the human penchant for guiding our collective lives through powerful narratives, those "gods" with a small "g". It also exposes the inadequacy of our present narratives, which include economic growth, technology, and "multiculturalism."

    The god of "Economic Utility," says Postman, is "cold and severe" (p. 27). Much of present educational discourse and practice attempts to dismiss as merely "ornamental" those school activities not concerned with preparing students for economic life. Yet education cannot be premised on job skills alone. Not only is there little evidence that economic productivity correlates positively to quality of schooling (p. 28), but young people are also unlikely to be inspired by "an idea that reduces them to a single dimension" (p. 30). Similarly, the newer god of technology, embodied most quintessentially in the personal computer, elevates individual access to information to a prime educational principle. The narrative of technology fails to provide a coherent purpose for the use of all this information. Moreover, says Postman, the extreme individualization of computer learning vitiates a key goal of democratic schooling, the attempt to "connect the individual with others" and "demonstrate the value and necessity of group cohesion" (p. 45). Finally, Postman worries that the narrative of multiculturalism "makes cultural diversity an exclusive preoccupation" (p. 51), and thereby renders a narrative of unified national purpose nearly impossible to achieve.

    In the second half of the book, Postman has his own narratives to propose. In powerful and clever prose, he advances five narratives that he feels could and should organize the pedagogical practices of schooling. First, Postman would have students learn to appreciate their planet as the "spaceship earth," a fragile system comprised of biological and cultural diversity. Through subjects such as ecology, anthropology, and astronomy, students could develop an ethic of care and a proper perspective on their place in the order of things. Moreover, Postman encourages an action orientation to learning. By getting involved in the community, students might come to have a proprietary interest in maintaining its beauty and health:

    The strict application of nurturing and protective attitudes toward children has created a paradoxical situation in which protection has come to mean excluding the young from meaningful involvement in their own communities. It is hardly utopian to invent forms of youthful participation in social reconstruction as an alternative or supplement to the schooling process. (p. 102)

    Second, and in my opinion perhaps most important, Postman believes schools should envisage the story of humanity as the "fallen angel," the perpetually struggling animal of inquiry. In this narrative, knowledge accumulates through the honest encounter between reality and the imperfect human mind. "That we may be mistaken, and probably are, is the meaning of the `fall' in the fallen angel. The meaning of `angel' is that we are capable of correcting our mistakes, provided we proceed without hubris, pride, or dogmatism; provided that we accept our cosmic status as the error-prone species" (p. 67). Accordingly, Postman says we ought to let our students peek more often behind the facade of textbook truths to the process of argument, reflection, and doubt. If we can educate the educator to admit imperfection, then we can challenge the students to become collaborators in the "Great Conversation" — the struggle to find the truth, with all the risks and excitement this struggle entails.

    Third, we need to reinvigorate the school as a place to perform, question, and honor the "American experiment." Postman suggests here that we all need a healthier dose of civics and patriotism in order to make an ongoing contribution to the narrative of democracy. Yet civics ought to be taught through inquiry, not celebration. "The American Constitution," for example, "is not a catechism, but a hypothesis" (p. 71). Students can examine the Constitution by discussing how well it defines notions of governance and "the people," and how well its propositions have served. More broadly, by discussing the core ideas of the American experiment — according to Postman, freedom of expression, melting-pot culture, mass education, the effects of technology — students can identify those trends that might either threaten or fortify the democratic process. And they can participate in this discussion by drawing on examples that are near to their experience.

    Fourth, Postman thinks schools should teach "the law of diversity." By this he means that students should explore the inherently multicultural nature of modern beliefs and practices. If we look closely, Postman says, we find that language, religion, art, and custom travel well across cultural borders; historically they are the product of much borrowing and intermingling. Moreover, though cultural forms may vary across time and space, they speak to the same human passions and foibles. When we encourage students to investigate the connections across cultures, we overcome ethnocentrism, promote tolerance, and make all students feel a part of a more "inclusive narrative." Ultimately, for Postman, "the purpose of public education is to help the young transcend individual identity by finding inspiration in a story of humanity" (p. 171).

    Finally, Postman urges a more reflexive approach to the use of language. Stressing our species' unique legacy, he suggests that as "word weavers" we are also "world makers." Accordingly, students should not stumble through their educations without a sense of the power of definition. By naming the world, we create and define it. Yet students seldom appreciate this quality of language. Most knowledge is presented to them pre-packaged. Disciplinary terms and concepts are not questioned, and their origins are left obscure. Postman urges us to "free our minds from the tyranny of definitions" (p. 183). Students must penetrate the root metaphors and definitions that provide frameworks for inquiry across the human arts and sciences.

    What are we to make of Postman's proposals? The first two, and the last, are virtually unassailable. After all, ecological principles have come to form an essential part of most any scientific curriculum, and the stewardship implied in the phrase "spaceship earth," while still privileging our own species, does challenge our entrenched ethos of domination. The critical, experiential education envisioned in this section of the book, difficult as it may be to implement in practical terms, has been a highlight of American educational philosophy since at least the progressive era of John Dewey. At times, Postman's ideas seem a heady mix of liberal democratic and critical theory. Broadly speaking, his critique of U.S. education, with its technological fixes and economic spreadsheets, shares many elements with the Weberian and neo-Marxist critique of instrumental reason. His program to stimulate inquiry and action by emphasizing humanity as the "fallen angel" and "word weaver" converges significantly with recent work in critical pedagogy and counter-hegemonic discourse. Postman's gift is his gab; he draws the reader in with accessible examples and imaginative scenarios, with pithy questions and rejoinders. However eloquently argued, though, the book breaks little new ground.

    The third and fourth proposals, teaching democracy and diversity, are more problematic, and here Postman overlooks many of the contradictions in his argument. While laudable as abstract educational goals, messages of democracy and diversity are susceptible to manifold manipulation. Postman claims that schools too rarely teach a love of country. Students should learn to appreciate the "American experiment" through a dialogue about the foundational "arguments" of national culture, among which we find the ideas of freedom of expression and melting-pot assimilation. While Postman is careful to caution against a healthy patriotism turning into xenophobia, he does not specify how this might be done. His rendition of U.S. history veers uncomfortably close to a myth of exceptionalism that could always be used, as in the past, to justify political and military intervention — an active form of ethnocentrism, to say the least. To pose just one contradiction: How, indeed, can our schools encourage a collaborative model of "spaceship earth" while still touting the United States as its most worthy captain? There is a tension here between universalism and parochialism, between ecumenism and dogmatism, and while this tension might be creatively addressed in practice, Postman provides little insight into formulating such practice.

    To make matters worse, Postman could be accused of fanning the flames of the culture wars: for all his promotion of diversity, he manages to demonize the proponents of "multiculturalism." As I have already noted, according to Postman, "multiculturalism" constructs a "narrative that makes cultural diversity an exclusive preoccupation" (p. 51). This narrative would portray all White Europeans as necessarily evil and ugly while glorifying the virtues of non-White humanity (pp. 50–54). The result of such a narrative, Postman believes, can only be divisiveness, alienation, and a "reversion to undiluted tribalism" (p. 51). One cannot help but think that Postman has unfairly stacked the deck here. His reading of the multicultural literature is highly selective, and he highlights those few authors, like the Afrocentrist Leonard Jeffries, whose rhetoric lends itself to his charges. Taking the baton from cultural conservatives like Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Postman sees in the multiculturalists an attempt to commandeer the schools for teaching a divisive "ethnic pride."

    Ethnic pride, says Postman, should be promoted in the family and the community, but not in the schools. As guarantors of the common culture, schools must preach the values of "cultural pluralism," the blending of many cultural narratives into the "American story." If, according to Postman's "law of diversity," schools teach the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, it should not be to instill pride or "self-esteem," or to gain insight about being female or African American. It should be to teach good poetry as a common value of a common heritage. Postman would call this cultural pluralism. The intellectual historian David Hollinger (1995), on the other hand, would locate the impulse toward ethnic pride as part of the ethos of "cultural pluralism" first articulated in the writings of sociologist Horace Kallen (1924) and later taken up by today's "pluralist" multiculturalists. What Postman calls "cultural pluralism" ought to be situated in a strain of thought Hollinger identifies as "cosmopolitanism," which takes an American national culture seriously as a creative blending of cultures that allows for both voluntary and descent-based affiliations. Yet Postman's account, ever wary of celebrating any ethnic contribution to the culture as such, still sounds the note of a rather more conformist melting-pot assimilation. I would argue that a kind of critical multiculturalism, perhaps akin to Hollinger's "postethnic perspective," can be even more inclusive, embracing the ethos of both cosmopolitan blending and "ethnic pride." For if Black students are learning pride through Langston Hughes, aren't non-Blacks learning to "transcend their individual identity" in the African American experience?

    For all of Postman's proposals, he ultimately falls into the trap of mistaking power for grace. What Postman advances is a moral philosophy of education; what we need more of perhaps is a grounded sociology. Postman's updated melting pot vision fails because it suggests that all Americans are immigrants, with similar identities to give and to lose. Immigrants we are, yes, but some of us are freer and less "different" than others. If women and African Americans have demanded a curriculum of pride, it is because they have been consistently marginalized and stigmatized in the culture. Here the work of Nigerian-born educational anthropologist John Ogbu (1991) has been invaluable for highlighting the differences between "voluntary" immigrants (Europeans, second wave) and "involuntary" (African American, Chicano, Native American) minorities. So too has the work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1986) shown us how a politics of "racial formation" in the United States allows previously discriminated "minorities" to assimilate themselves into the "White" majority. The vast body of feminist work demonstrating the contradictions in women's education also serves us here. We cannot compare or equate — as Postman implicitly does — the experience of, say, a Jewish American man with an "involuntary" immigrant, such as an African American woman. The latter will have felt the sting of power, will have typically encountered threats to her personal integrity and community viability, in much greater measure than the former. If dominant institutions, such as schools, have historically excluded or silenced such groups, then we must do more than "include" them in the common narrative. We must overcome several centuries' worth of indignities. That will take a lot more than Postman's bland formula for "cultural pluralism." It will take an appreciation and vindication of those cultures of resistance spawned by the treacherous underside of the "American experiment."

    It is unfortunate that Postman directs his most combative and strident rhetoric at the straw figure of multiculturalism, for it mars an otherwise bold and brave book. Postman provides some important signposts for our journey out of the present educational crisis. Emphasizing the moral and transcendent nature of education, he engages us in many of the great educational questions of the day, and forcefully articulates a vision for change. For the most part, he is right on. Even if he doesn't answer all the questions to our satisfaction, his manner of posing them is good to "think with." For that alone, the book deserves a wide readership.

    Indiana Univesity


    Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death. New York: Penguin.

    Postman, N. (1991). Technopoly. New York: Knopf.

    Ogbu, J. (1991). Immigrant and involuntary minorities in comparative perspective. In M. A. Gibson & J. Ogbu (Eds.), Minority status and schooling (pp. 3–33). New York: Garland.

    Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1986). Racial formation in the United States. New York: Routledge.

    Hollinger, D. A. (1995). Postethnic America: Beyond multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books.

    Kallen, H. (1924). Culture and democracy in the United States. New York: Boni and Liveright.
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    Winter 1996 Issue


    The Colonizer/Colonized Chicana Ethnographer
    Identity, Marginalization, and Co-optation in the Field
    By Sofia Villenas
    "To Take Them at Their Word"
    Language Data in the Study of Teachers' Knowledge
    By Donald Freeman
    Inclusion, School Restructuring, and the Remaking of American Society
    By Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky and Alan Gartner
    Sustained Inquiry in Education
    Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size
    By Frederick Mosteller, Richard J. Light and Jason A. Sachs

    Book Notes

    Saving Our Sons
    By Marita Golden

    This Is How We Live and Tapori

    Wasting America's Future: The Children's Defense Fund Report on the Cost of Child Poverty
    By Arloc Sherman; Introduction by Marian Wright Edelman; Foreword by Robert M. Solow

    Blacked Out
    By Signithia Fordham

    Works about John Dewey 1886–1995
    Edited by Barbara Levine

    By Matthew Lipman

    Diversity in Higher Education
    By Caryn McTighe Musil, with Mildred Garcia, Yolanda Moses, and Daryl G. Smith

    Handbook of Qualitative Research
    Edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln.

    Commissions, Reports, Reforms, and Educational Policy
    Edited by Rick Ginsberg and David N. Plank.

    The Multilevel Design
    By Harry J. M. Huttner and Pieter van den Eeden.

    Search and Seizure in the Public Schools (Second Edition)
    By Lawrence F. Rossow and Jacqueline A. Stefkovich

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.