The End of Education

My final read on education from Neil Postman was his 1996 book, The End of Education. This was my third book on this topic written by him, following Teaching as a Subversive Activity (published in 1969) and The Disappearance of Childhood (published in 1985).

Unfortunately, I don't have much to say about The End of Education, other than "it's more of the same". In some sense, this book is the most disappointing of all three, since there simply isn't even much to either agree or disagree with. Other than meandering endlessly on various tangents, the book just doesn't say much.

Here's a summary of the first 100 pages: schools fail because kids are not motivated to learn. Kids are not motivated to learn because America is missing a great narrative about our purpose in the universe. Essentially "our schools are lost because our nation is lost".

The second and final 100 pages then discuss five possible narratives that would allegedly somehow fix our schools, which Postman titles The Spaceship Earth, The Fallen Angel, The American Experiment, The Law of Diversity, and The World Weavers/The World Makers.

Unfortunately, while some of these titles sound somewhat promising, the detailed discussion doesn't quite convince that any one of these great overarching narratives would make a tangible difference to the behavior of a Grade 5 teacher, or the experience of a student sitting in their classroom.

To his credit, Postman does acknowledge that he's more sure of his diagnosis of the problem that his prescription for possible solutions. However, I'm not sure even the diagnosis is that convincing - yes, perhaps in the early two centuries of the republic, we had a society that was hungrier to improve itself and its life, more unified by a narrower set of cultures and religions etc, but I'm still not quite sure that such differences made our schools worked better (or indeed, whether our schools worked better in the first place).

And so sadly, Postman's writing on education ended up being a disappointment. However, I generally agree with the alleged quip by Lord Acton that we should judge character at its worst but talent at its best. And so it is Postman's most piercing and enduring work, Amusing Ourselves To Death, that will for me always define his intellectual legacy.