Book Cover

This is a funny book by the late, great Postman.  Read the first few chapters, and you might find it hard to believe that an ardent proponent of 21st century education like myself would find any points of contact with the cantankerous Postman.  But read on, don’t let his diatribes against the internet and email fool you.   In the chapter on education, there are some very significant points of value for those of us trying to shape a new, contemporary education for our students.

First though I want to draw in a short quote from a chapter on information; in it Postman offers very helpful distinctions between information, knowledge, and wisdom, and I think they really speak to those of us trying to move the learning experience away from an accumulation of facts (information) to a greater sophistication of thinking and a deeper understanding of concepts.   What is great is that he also links his ideas about wisdom to one of this blogger’s central points: at the center of 21st century learning is problem solving:

Knowledge is only organized information.  It is self-contained, confined to a single system of information about the world. One can have a great deal of knowledge about the world but entirely lack wisdom…. I mean by wisdom the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems. [italics added]

This sentence could almost be a coda for my blog and vision of 21st century education: we need to teach not information, and not ultimately for knowledge, but for wisdom, the capacity of our students to have the tools and the capacity and the inclination to solve the problems that are significant to them.

In the education chapter which concludes the book, and which is its summa, Postman explains how 18th century Enlightenment thinking– the brilliant skepticism of the Age of Reason, can inform our contemporary efforts to teach critical thinking– a second great cause of this blog thinking.

Now, Postman is certainly aware that there is a degree of recalitrance in the move toward cultivating critically thinking: do schools, do parent, does our country REALLY seek to train a generation of critics and skeptics?  To do so might be to “disturb the smooth functioning of our institutions.”

But let’s press on, seeking to do so anyway, and for the cause, here are Postman’s 5 suggestions:

1. Teach children the art and science of asking questions.  Yes!  A huge emphasis in another favorite work, Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap, quality questioning is of huge importance.  Postman: “The most significant intellectual skill available to human beings is not taught in school… When educators talk about developing critical thinking, they almost never include question asking.

2  Postman calls for the teaching of “semantics,” but what we call more often information literacy, and critical thinking as applied to media and propaganda.  Yes, and so important.

3. Not just science must be taught, but the “scientific outlook.”  Postman is worried we teach students to learn a body of scientific facts, but not to think critically as scientists.   We worry about which science they should learn, so they get the right body of science, rather than presenting the issues to them: teach, he says, natural selection and creation science, and teach kids to think as scientists, and let them determine what is the scientifically more valid explanation.   We accept Copernicus over Ptolemy solely on the basis of received wisdom, which should not be the legacy of Copernicus!   “Real science education would ask students to consider with an open mind the Ptolemaic and Copernican world-views, array the arguments for and against each, and then explain why one is to be preferred over the other.”

4. “If we are going to make technology education part of the curriculum, its goal must be to teach students to use technology rather than to be used by it.”

5. ” We provide our young with opportunities to study comparative religion.  Such studies would promote no particular religion, but would aim at illuminating the metaphors, literature, art, and ritual of religious expression itself.”

Good stuff– I am seeking vigorously myself to reinvent myself as a more contemporary, forward looking, and innovative educator than how I have seen myself in the past, but I am still, like many of my readers I know, a lover of history and tradition and philosophy.    I think there is still a great deal to learn from the Ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment philosophes, among many others, and Postman is a wonderful guide for doing so.