Needed: Stories About the True Purpose of Education

The End of Education

By Neil Postman

Alfred A. Knopf

195 pp., $22

A new book by Neil Postman is like an informed but opinionated editorial in your favorite newspaper. In his latest book, "The End of Education," he returns to the subject he has addressed most often: culture and education.

For Postman, modern society is something like a man who buys a new car and then gets so involved in driving it that he loses sight of where he meant to go. Our car is technology, and in our fascination with technology we have allowed the means to obscure the ends. Education is no exception.

The way to put purpose back into education, Postman says, is for it to fulfill one of the deepest human needs - something to believe in. He spends the better part of his book examining how to bring this "something" into classrooms.

According to Postman: "For school to make sense, the young, their parents, and their teachers must have a god to serve, or, even better, several gods. If they have none, school is pointless." Without something to believe in, learning becomes meaningless - the equivalent of driving around without anywhere to go.

What keeps too many schools from being effective, then, is the lack of a commonly accepted story "that tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose."

Sometimes he calls the answer a narrative, by analogy with the Judeo-Christian scripture stories. Alternatively, he invokes a god, by analogy with the "something" that, according to these scriptures, created the universe and gave us moral laws to live by. There are echoes here of the psychologist Rollo May, whose book "The Cry for Myth," Postman quotes.

In addition to describing some of the bad effects of trying to live without something to believe in, Postman lists some of the unsuccessful alternatives to God and the Bible that have been tried in recent times. Nazism, Marxism, science, and technology are all on his list of things that people have tried to make into the narratives and gods they hunger for.

The failures of Nazism and Marxism are obvious to most. The misuse of science and technology in this way Postman sees as equally unsuccessful.

The science-god is amoral and tells no meaningful story of our origin or destiny. The technology-god explains even less and poisons its blessings with side effects. Turning immigrants into Americans, preparing students to prosper in the American economy, and training consumers have all been tried as ways to give meaning to school. Better stories are desperately needed - secular stories that can do what God and the Bible once did for many American schools.

In the second part of his book, Postman proposes five narratives that he believes can give purpose and meaning to education in a secular age.

The Spaceship Earth, the Fallen Angel, the American Experiment, the Law of Diversity, and the Word Weavers/the World Makers are "elaborate narratives that may give nontrivial purposes to schooling" and "contribute a spiritual and serious intellectual dimension to learning."

His proposals are certainly thoughtful. Readers who agree that schools need such overarching stories, may find in them the seeds of educational reform. However, I felt a jolt in moving from analysis to solution. Not that Postman's proposals are not well chosen. Any of them would bring an exciting, unifying focus to a school's curriculum.

What startled me, though, was the prosaic feel of the second half compared with the intellectual sparks that were flying during Postman's analysis in the first half.

Then it hit me. For Postman, God and the Bible never were anything but a useful story, like Spaceship Earth. The sparks were in me, not in the book. Perhaps, then, this is one thing we learn from Postman's latest book. Our public schools cannot hope to organize themselves today around the deeply satisfying stories that once unified the communities they serve. Alternative stories are badly needed because we no longer share truths more profound than Spaceship Earth.

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