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.


Detecting Fake News

Man I love the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On the amazing radio program As it Happens, I heard an interview with programmer Daniel Sieradski. I know the content is not available worldwide, so I’ll copy part of the interview transcript for all readers. (CBC if this is a problem, just let me know, and I’ll delete.)

Collage of Daniel Sieradski and Mark Zuckerberg

There’s a lot of fake news out there. And now there’s a new way to detect it.

Many people believe made-up stories masquerading as news influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. But, so far, Facebook has done little to stop such pages from appearing on their site.

“It doesn’t prevent you from viewing fake news. It just gives you information to warn you that you shouldn’t take everything you read on the Internet seriously.”
– Daniel Sieradski, creator of BS Detector

So one tech designer took things into his own hands. Daniel Sieradski is the creator of a plug-in called BS Detector. Here is an edited version of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins.

Dave Seglins: Mr. Sieradski, what was your inspiration for creating this fake news detector?

Daniel Sieradski: It was in response to Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook couldn’t really handle the problem of fake news without a massive effort requiring the development of an algorithm and all these other things. I was able to work out a solution in just about an hour that showed that that was nonsense and that this issue could be easily addressed, if they really wanted to invest their energy in it.

Seglins: Well, how does this BS Detector work?

Sieradski: Basically, it scans a given web page for the presence of links and then checks the links against a database that has been compiled of fake news sites, satire sites, conspiracy theory sites and so on and then it inserts a warning label adjacent to the link letting the user know that it is not exactly a reliable source of information.

Seglins: But how do you decide which of these sites and links to flag as not reliable? Can you give us some examples?

Sieradski: Well, it seems pretty clear that a site that claims, for example, that the Illuminati murdered Prince, as claims, isn’t a reliable news source … When it comes to other sources that may be more newsy, there are a few different criteria that we look at, such as whether the site engages in presenting information that is unsourced as though it is factual, whether they are completely distorting a story by leaving out appropriate context.

Seglins: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said, “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.” Do you feel any discomfort at all being what he calls “an arbiter of truth”?

Sieradski: Well, Zuckerberg is in a position where, if he claims responsibility for the contents on his website, he’s going to make himself open to some kinds of lawsuits that I’m not going to be subject to … This plug-in doesn’t censor any content. It doesn’t prevent you from viewing fake news. It doesn’t stop you from visiting those web sites. It just gives you information to warn you that you shouldn’t take everything you read on the Internet seriously.

Seglins: But, ideally, shouldn’t people themselves be their own BS detectors?

Sieradski: Absolutely, but, unfortunately, media literacy isn’t something that’s gotten a lot of support in the realm of education in the United States in the last 20 years, as we can plainly see … so there has to be some kind of line drawn where we say, “Listen, there is a way that we can approach this that is reasonable and not censorious and not authoritarian, but at the same time promoting media literacy and critical thinking.”

Seglins: Now, I understand that today Facebook moved to actually block this as a plug-in. What did you think when you saw that?

Sieradski: Well, to clarify, they are blocking links to the home page for the plug-in … However, it does seem that I’ve caused them a bit of embarrassment by making this plug-in and calling them out on their statements, so maybe they are punishing me for it.

Seglins: What’s your hope for BS Detector? Are you hoping to profit from this?

Sieradski: No, it’s a free and open-source project … I’m not trying to get anything out of this other than to stop my parents from sending me nonsense articles claiming that they’re true.

The full interview is on the As It Happens site.

Get your own copy of BS Detector.