May 26, 2013
Winter 1992 Vol. 1 No. 4
and Spring 2001 Vol. 10 No. 1
By Neil Postman
Once upon a time, in a land far away, disorder and fear plagued the people. Guns and cannons were everywhere, warring parties slaughtered each other by the thousands, and no soldier would venture into battle unless equipped with the most modern firearms. The gun makers of the land were powerful, skillful, and prosperous, for they not only made guns for their own people but sold them to foreigners as well. You could hardly travel anywhere in the cities or country without seeing a gun or hearing one, which is why the children slept fitfully, with fear in their hearts.
For almost one hundred years, this was the situation in that forlorn land. Then, gradually, the people began to wonder if they would not be better off without their guns. It is hard to know why this thought arose. But they were an intelligent people with strong and ancient traditions and a well-developed sense of civilized behavior. Perhaps that is why the soldiers announced that they did not really like guns, for there was little skill and no honor in killing a man with a gun. The politicians were forced to admit that guns were not necessary to protect the land from foreign invasion since their armies were large and loyal and had never forgotten how to use swords. Besides, no one had seriously tried to invade their land for as far back as anyone could remember. Then, too, everyone agreed that guns were ugly, hardly comparable to the elegant beauty of a well-made sword. And because the sword was so beautiful, it had a value far beyond its use as a weapon. It was a symbol of honor, piety, and courage. And everyone knew that there once was a time when swords were given as gifts to men of great character.
And so the politicians, the soldiers, the businessmen, and the plain folk decided it was best to give up their guns. This did not happen all at once, for people never agree to a thing one hundred percent. Some gun makers, for example, were not pleased until they realized that it was more fun and almost as profitable to return to making swords. And, of course, there were some soldiers who had never learned the art of swordsmanship and who worried about their future. But, eventually, people began to throw away their guns or sell them to the government, which was happy to destroy them. The government even paid the gun makers not to make guns, the way Americans pay their farmers not to grow food. In a short time, all the guns were gone. There were still wars, of course, for even in a fable the demons that make men war on each other cannot be wished away. But for two hundred years, the sweet song of the nightingale was never drowned by the retort of the rifle or the roar of the cannon. And the children slept peacefully, as they had done many years before.
I begin with a fable because it is the language traditionally used to imagine something that everyone knows cannot happen. But this fable has an ironic twist to it, since what it describes actually did happen. The faraway land is Japan, which in the sixteenth century was a world leader in the manufacture of matchlock guns and cannon, having been introduced to these technologies by European traders. Toward the end of that century, for reasons mentioned in the fable, the Japanese gave up their firearms and reverted to their traditional weapons. There were no guns in Japan until the mid-nineteenth century. All of this is meticulously documented in Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, by Noel Perrin (Boston: David R. Godine, 1979), who wrote the book for the best of reasons. He wanted to show that two of the fundamental beliefs of those who live in advanced technological cultures are at least slightly questionable. The first belief is that there are no circumstances in which the technological clock can be turned back. The second is that technology is autonomous and is therefore beyond the control of those who make machines or use them.
One must admit, of course, that there are not too many examples that refute either of these propositions. The case of the Japanese and their guns is one. The most well-known instance in the Western world occurred in England between 1811 and 1816, curiously, not far from the time when the Japanese resumed their use of guns. I refer to the much-maligned Luddite movement, the revolt of workers against the intrusion of machinery in the garment and fabric industry. The origin of the term Luddite is obscure, some believing that it refers to the actions of a youth named Ludlum who, being told by his father to fix a weaving machine, proceeded instead to destroy it. Perhaps. But it is certain that workers bitterly resented the fact that machinery had led to wage cuts, child labor, and the elimination of laws and customs that had protected skilled workers. Their discontent was expressed through the destruction of machines, and since then the term Luddite has come to mean an almost childish and naive opposition to technology. Of course, the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naive. Like the sixteenth-century Japanese, they were people trying desperately to preserve a world view that had given them a sense of worth and justice in an earlier time.
I bring all of this up because I believe there is something to be learned from these examples and these people. No, I do not expect all nuclear weapons to be dismantled or television to be blacked out or computers to be unplugged. There is a more realistic point to be madean idea that was on the minds of the sixteenth-century Japanese and the nineteenth-century English workmen, and one hopes it will occur to twenty-first-century Americans. The idea goes by different names. Critic Paul Goodman called it technological modesty. He meant that we must cultivate a sense of the whole and not cede to our technologies more dominion than their particular functions warrant. This is what mathematician Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics, meant when he used the phrase, the human use of human beings. My own term for this idea is technological atheism, by which I mean that we must disbelieve in the divinity of technology. For if we define god, as did the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, as that which is our ultimate concern, then technology clearly qualifies as America's deity.
By technology, I do not mean merely machinery but the system of beliefs that comprise a technological thought world. These include the beliefs that the primary goal of human thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment, that what cannot be measured does not exist, and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by technical experts. Just as a theocratic culture such as Iran organizes itself to accommodate the requirements of Allah, America does exactly the same in relation to technology. There are few social institutions that have not been willing to modify themselveseven in some cases, eliminate themselvesto accommodate such a system of thought. Our politics, education, family life, judiciary, and even churches have been adjusted, redesigned, and redirected to fit the needs of this new religion. The prevailing theology requires that we focus all of our intelligence on the question of what technology can do, almost none on what it may undo.
Why is this so? In a traditional theocracy the answer is, We do what we do because it is the way of God. It is His will, and we must obey. American culture gives a strikingly similar answer: It is the way of technology. It is its will, and we must obey. Of course, people obey their gods because they believe it is good for them to do so, and there is no denying that the uses of technological thinking and its products have brought unimagined benefits to many people. But to the extent that the benefits have been accompanied by an unquestioned ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature, by the assumption that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress, and by the demonstrably false proposition that technological thinking offers the best solution to our most profound human problems, we make ourselves into childish fanatics, pursuing false hopes and an impotent idol.
That this is a mistake is what the sixteenth-century Japanese and nineteenth-century Englishmen can teach us. If I may paraphrase a piece of wisdom from another religion: Technology was made for man, not man for technology.
What all of this means for education is fairly obvious (at least to me). The most important point is that our devotion to technology blinds us to the issue of what education is for. In America, we improve the education of our youth by improving what are called learning technologies. At the moment, it is considered necessary to introduce computers to the classroom, as it once was thought necessary to bring closed-circuit television and film to the classroom. To the question, Why should we do this? the answer is: To make learning more efficient and more interesting. Such an answer is considered entirely adequate, since, to the technological fundamentalists, efficiency and interest need no justification. It is, therefore, usually not noticed that this answer does not address the question, What is learning for?
Efficiency and interest is a technical answeran answer about means, not endsand it offers no pathway to a consideration of educational philosophy. Indeed, it blocks the way to such a consideration by beginning with the question of how we should proceed rather than with the question of why. It is probably not necessary to say that, by definition, there can be no education philosophy that does not address what learning is for. Confucius, Plato, Quintilian, Cicero, Comenius, Erasmus, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Russell, Montessori, Whitehead, Deweyeach believed that there was some transcendent political, spiritual, or social idea that must be advanced through education. Confucius advocated teaching the Way because in tradition he saw the best hope for social order. As our first systematic fascist, Plato wished education to produce philosopher kings. Cicero argued that education must free the student from the tyranny of the present. Jefferson thought the purpose of education is to teach the young how to protect their liberties. Rousseau wished education to free the young from the unnatural constraints of a wicked and arbitrary social order. And among John Dewey's aims was to help the student function without certainty in a world of constant change and puzzling ambiguities.
What does technology have to do with finding a profound reason for educating the young? Nothing. Indeed, if it were up to me, I would bar educators from talking about technical improvements until they have disclosed their reasons for offering an education in the first place. And such reasons are to be found in places where machines do not dwell and where gods of a different order speak their words.
Illustration by Joe Lee.
Neil Postman is professor of media ecology and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. Postman has written 18 books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking, 1985). Postman received the George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language from the National Council of Teachers of English in 1986 and the Distinguished Professor Award from NYU in 1988. He served as a member of the New York State Commission on Cameras in the Courts in 1988 and 1989 and was the Laurence Lombard Visiting Professor of The Press and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1991. His most recent books, both published in 1992, are Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Knopf) and How to Watch TV News (Viking/Penguin), written with Steve Powers.