Postman: “Teaching as an Amusing Activity”

As I noted previously, Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business seems oddly appropriate in the connected world of the early 21st century.
Chapter 10 of this book, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity” looks at the role of television in shaping 1980s educational thinking and practice. My goal today is to briefly review what Postman had to say, and think about today’s connected classrooms in light of this.
As I wrote in my previous discussion of Postman, TV and prose have very different structures, giving them very different relationships to knowledge. (Postman says that different media have different epistemologies; this, I think, goes too far.) Postman begins with a discussion of “Sesame Street”, then reflects back to the classroom.

As for educators, they generally approved of “Sesame Street,” too. Contrary to common opinion, they are apt to find new methods congenial, especially if they are told that education can be accomplished more efficiently by means of the new techniques. (That is why such ideas as “teacher-proof” textbooks, standardized tests, and, now, micro-computers have been welcomed into the classroom.) “Sesame Street” appeared to be an imaginative aid in solving the growing problem of teaching Americans how to read, while, at the same time, encouraging children to love school.
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set [is not.] (p. 143)

There are two big ideas here. First, we have the displacement of responsibility from human teachers to an entertainment medium. Second, we have the displacement of a social setting—the classroom—to a private setting—in front of a screen. 30+ years later, the issues have not changed.
After some reflection, Postman continues:

This does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational. It is, in fact, nothing but educational—in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book—any kind of book —promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same. “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show” are as effective as “Sesame Street” in promoting what might be called the television style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning or its handmaiden, school-learning. (p. 144)

Now we’re getting to the main issue: by changing the media of education, we change not only the content of education; we also change our notions of what is educationally valuable. Whatever it is that students get out of television learning, we have to be prepared to understand that it is different from what they get out of reading, writing and socially interacting. Watching the movie is not the same as reading the book. Not only do we need to understand it, we need to be prepared to challenge our values. What is important in education?
In the connected world, we often hear bland generalizations about the modern “knowledge economy” and “21st century skills” and “21st century literacies” and so on. But are we really aware of the price we are paying? Postman lays it out with what he calls the three commandments of television-based education.

Thou shalt have no prerequisites
Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
Thou shalt induce no perplexity
In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt
Of all the enemies of television-teaching, including continuity and perplexity, none is more formidable than exposition. Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television-teaching always takes the form of story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music. This is as characteristic of “Star Trek” as it is of “Cosmos,” of “Diff’rent Strokes” as of “Sesame Street,” of commercials as of “Nova.” Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.

Whew! This is strong stuff. I can’t help but agree. And, again, the issues have not changed. Indeed, many educators have taken these three commandments to heart, merely by being part of the 21st century.

I hope to return to this later.


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