Redefining the Value of School

by Neil Postman,
Knopf, New York, 1996

Imagine a new type of school. A school with a different purpose and content. In this school, five narratives provide a purpose to schooling and, as such, offer moral guidance, a sense of continuity and understanding of the past, present and future. These narratives and the new purpose to schooling which they provide are Neil Postman's prescription for educational reform. What are schools for? This is the question Postman seeks to answer in The End of Education. His answer? School's role is to pass on the five narratives and thus provide the young with "reasons to continue educating themselves". Postman refers to his narratives as "gods" in the sense that they tell of origins and futures, give meaning to the world and provide a sense of "community", "personal identity" "continuity" and "purpose".

In the past, there were the old gods that served schools well giving them guidance, inspiration and purpose while instilling the values of "family honor, restraint, social responsibility, humilty and empathy for the outcast". They included the multiple narratives of democracy, of Jesus, "the great melting-pot-story" and "the Protestant-ethic-story". Those were the gods of the past-at least up until the last century. The twentieth century, Postman laments, "has not been a good century for gods". Likewise, lack of gods has not been good for education. "Engineering of learning" or an emphasis on developing better teaching methods has diverted attention away from the metaphysical issues with which Postman feels educators should be more concerned.

Economic utility, Consumership, Technology and Multiculturalism are the terms coined by Postman to describe the new gods, the "gods that fail". Economic utility tells children "If you will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done". (p.27) The god of Consumership tells them: "whoever finishes with the most toys wins".(p.33) The false god of Technology "tricks" people into believing that all children will have equal access to information and that technology will equalize learning opportunities for the rich and the poor. Finally, there is the god of Multiculturalism, otherwise known as the god of Tribalism or Separatism. Postman cautions us not to confuse the notion of cultural pluralism with that of multiculturalism. The former "celebrates the struggles and achievements of nonwhite people as part of the story of humankind". (p.53) The narrative of Multiculturalism, on the other hand, tells the story of how "goodness inheres in nonwhites, especially those who have been victims of 'white hegemony'".(p.52)

As an alternative to these "gods that fail us", Postman proposes five new gods or narratives.The first narrative, one which Postman believes has the potential to promote global consciousness, interdependence and cooperation is that of human beings as stewards or caretakers of the Spaceship Earth. This narrative focuses on "inventing ways to engage students in the care of their own schools, neighborhoods and towns".(p.100) Incorporated into the theme of the Spaceship Earth would be the teaching of archeology, anthropology and astronomy. Archeology would instill in students "an awareness of the preciousness of the earth" as well as "some sense of the continuity of humanity's sojourn on earth". The teaching of anthropology would give students "an awe-inspiring sense of humanity's range of difference, as well as a sense of our common points."(p.110) The teaching of astronomy would be useful because it raises "fundamental questions about ourselves and our mission" and cultivates a "sense of awe, interdependence, and global responsibility".

Unlike the theme of the Spaceship Earth, the narrative of the Fallen Angel focuses more on method than on content. Postman argues that we can improve teaching by getting rid of all textbooks which are, in his opinion, "the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning". (p.116) Teaching would also significantly improve, he affirms, "if math teachers were assigned to teach art, art teachers science, science teachers English".(p.114) Furthermore, students must be taught to be "error detectors" and teachers must help them discover "inconvertible truths and enduring ideas". In general, the Fallen Angel is meant to cure us of the "itch for absolute knowledge" and encourages an acceptance of our imperfect knowledge.

Through the narrative of the American Experiment, students learn about the successes and failures of America and are exposed to "the study of arguments about freedom of expression, about a melting-pot culture, about the meaning of education for an entire population and about the effects of technology(...)". (p.142) This narrative is meant to illustrate "that experimenting and arguing is what Americans do". The fourth great narrative, the Law of Diversity, tells "how our interactions with many kinds of people make us into what we are"(p.144) Students' understanding of diversity would, Postman explains, be developed through a study of the diversity of language including that of English and foreign languages, of comparative religions, of national and ethnic customs, and finally through the study of creative arts and museums. The fifth and final narrative tells the story of "the relationship between language and reality" and explains how people can both transform and be transformed by language. Through the study of the elements of metaphor, definitions and questions, students can learn how "language constructs a worldview". This fifth narrative of the Word Weavers/the World Makers is the final purpose to schooling as presented in The End of Education.

Postman has provided a prescription for an ailing education system. If educators have faith in his diagnosis and follow his plan then, education could be healed, fully resuscitated, revitalized and cured forever of the woes that assail it. Perhaps this description draws too heavily on the medical metaphor. Perhaps it exaggerates the author's intentions. Nonetheless, the term 'prescription' describes succinctly and clearly Postman's agenda.

Few would disagree with Postman that education is in need of reform. Few would disagree that learning should be driven by goals and purposes. Stating what these goals or purposes 'ought' to be and, furthermore, specifying who decides on them, is where the debate is likely to ensue. A glance at the aims of education of various schools, school boards or countries will illustrate in detail the diversity of visions that people hold for education. Often, the more prescriptive the aims, the more we are likely to have people who disagree with them because so little room is left for individual interpretation.

This tendancy to prescribe is particular to the instructional design process characteristic of many education systems . Like Postman, instructional designers determine in advance the goals to be achieved as well as the knowledge and experiences to be internalized by the learners. Instructional design considers the aim or purpose (let us call it point Z) for learners who come to school at point A and prescribes a plan or course of study that will bring students from point A to Z. Whatever the aim of schooling, be it to instill Christian values, pass on narratives, create a unified culture or to form workers for the economy, the A-Z process is designed to achieve the purpose.

We are so accustomed to this prescriptive style of education whereby the aims, purposes and goals are preestablished for the learners that we seldom question it. Nor do we question the assumptions that underly, or the alternatives to, such practices. Adherents of a constructivist philosophy of learning would argue, amongst other issues, that learning is a far more individualized process. Many constructivists believe that learning is most effective when learners, through interaction with their world, appropriate and reconstruct knowledge and experiences that are meaningful to their own interpretations. According to this perspective, the goals, objectives, content and even the aims of learning are thus highly personalized and are largely determined by the learners themselves. Depending on the brand of constructivism, there may be some prescription. Nonetheless, learning is considerably more open and personal than what would be possible with Postman's vision for education.

This essay began by asking the reader to imagine a school based on Postman's five narratives. Such a school may be possible but not for all learners. The End of Education presents an alternative vision for education -one which may be suitable for Postman and for many others. Yet we must realize that Postman's vision is only one of many possible ways of conceptualizing the role of schools and learning. The challenge for educational reform may not be prescribing 'a' purpose to education rather it may involve making allowance for multiple visions and purposes. A less prescriptive approach to education would have the potential to accommodate many different visions of schooling, many different narratives, many different gods. "What are schools for?" Postman asks. The answer to this question may depend largely on to whom the question has been addressed.


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This page was produced by Elizabeth Murphy , Fall, 1996.