Looking backward into the new millennium

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BUILDING A BRIDGE TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY By Neil Postman Alfred A. Knopf 213 pp., $24

As we prepare to start a new millennium, where are we headed and what compass will we use to stay on course?

This question animates Neil Postman's new book, "Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future." The title suggests his answer. Postman believes that we should retrieve the "good ideas" espoused by Enlightenment humanists such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Franklin.

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In particular, Postman celebrates the ways in which leading 18th-century thinkers both embraced and questioned the rationalist faith in progress that characterized their age. Excited by the thrill of discovery, they garnered hope and vitality from the notion of scientific advance, while at the same time recognized its limitations and pitfalls. Like Postman, the Enlightenment rationalists he admires were iconoclasts who revolted against prevailing orthodoxy and inherited superstitions. Many of them questioned the widespread assumption that technological innovations necessarily fostered moral and social improvements, and they believed that there was a transcendent purpose to existence, a divine source of meaning embedded in life's mystery.

For almost 30 years, Postman, chair of New York University's Department of Culture and Communications, has been one of the most articulate and impassioned skeptics. A self-described "enemy of this century," he resembles Rousseau and Thoreau in his relentless and often acerbic questioning of the presumed benefits of modern technology. He wants to infuse the march of our technoculture with humane values and long-range concerns.

In provocative books such as "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (1985), "Technopoly" (1992), and "The End of Education" (1995), Postman has highlighted the dangers of a television-absorbed nation and a naive embrace of technology and pedagogical fads. In the process, he has steadfastly pleaded for a more reflective approach to cultural change.

"Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century" is meant "for those who are still searching for a way to confront the future, a way that faces reality as it is, that is connected to a humane tradition, that provides sane authority and meaningful purpose."

Postman fears that we are becoming tools of our tools. He proudly confesses that he does not use a computer; he writes with pen and paper. To him, the Internet is a "mere distraction." He refuses to use e-mail or voice mail. Yet he insists that he is not "anti-technology." Instead, he strives to avoid being "tyrannized" by the relentless march of electronic media. Like Franklin, Jefferson, and Voltaire, he stresses, we should take greater care in thinking through the broader implications of new technology and constantly ask what costs and benefits derive from new gadgets.

For example, Postman notes that automobiles improved personal mobility but in the process have "poisoned our air, choked our cities with traffic," and degraded the natural environment. And more immediately, he asks, have we considered the corrosive effects of the computer revolution on our "psychic habits, social relations, and, most certainly, in our political institutions, especially electoral politics"?

Postman acknowledges that the computer revolution has provided an almost limitless supply of information. The problem yet to be addressed, however, "is how to transform information into knowledge, and how to transform knowledge into wisdom."

In our digital age, Postman fears for our freedom and our humane sensibilities. The mind-numbing and manipulative effects of multimedia culture threaten independent thinking. Our only hope, Postman asserts, is for parents and teachers to instill in children "the cultivation of a skeptical outlook based on reason." Engendering such critical thinking will be crucial to protecting individual liberty and democratic processes. Postman also highlights the need for children to be exposed to religion. Any person claiming to be educated, he insists, must appreciate the role played by religion in the formation of culture. It simply is not possible, he concludes, for an educated person to avoid asking questions about why we are on this planet and for what purpose.

Readers already familiar with Postman's previous books will find little new here. "Building a Bridge to the 18th Century" reiterates most of the themes and concerns that he has been wrestling with for years. Yet we need repeated reminders about the dangers of a mindless embrace of technological "progress." Postman's brisk critique of contemporary trends and his urgent appeal for a common-sense skepticism make for compelling reading. His prose is witty and combative, lucid and self-revealing. If at times his provocative proposals seem quixotic, one cannot help but admire his range of interests and his moral stamina - as well as his dogged integrity.

*David Shi is the president of Furman University, Greenville, S.C., and the co-author with George Tindall of 'America: a Narrative History' (Norton, 1996).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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