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Technology and Education (5) – Education in an Instantgram World

It is Postman’s contention that modern communication, with its emphasis on the visible, has transformed American culture from a typographical mind to an Instantgram mind. In one memorable example Postman pointed out that it is now implausible to imagine that anyone like our 27th president, the multi-chinned, 300-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate. While it is true that the shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing an audience in writing or on the radio, it is quite relevant on television. Because television gives us a conversation in images, not words, his overweight image would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by his speech.

This movement from a typographical to an Instantgram culture has drastically transformed education. As an example of this transformation Postman cites Sesame Street. According to Postman, parents liked Sesame Street for several reasons, among them that it assuaged their guilt over the fact that they could not or would not restrict their children’s access to television. It also relieved parents of the responsibility of teaching their pre-school children how to read. What is more, Sesame Street is entirely consonant with the prevailing spirit of America. Its use of cute puppets, celebrities, catchy tunes, and rapid-fire editing is certainly a pleasure to children and therefore serves as an adequate preparation for their entry into a fun-loving culture.

Sesame Street was marketed as something that would lead students to love school. According to Postman, we now know that Sesame Street does not encourage children to love school, except when school is like Sesame Street. Indeed, Sesame Street undermines the traditional idea of schooling:

  1. Whereas the classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of the television is a private preserve.
  2. Whereas in the classroom one may ask the teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen
  3. Whereas school is centered around the development of language, television demands attention to images.
  4. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is a personal choice
  5. Whereas in school one fails to attend the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen.
  6. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum.
  7. Whereas in a classroom fun is never more than a means to an end, on television fun is an end in itself.

Education has traditionally been centered around books, and reading books and watching television represent entirely different ways of learning. This, according to Postman, is the primary educational issue in America today. Ultimately educational programs like Sesame Street do not educate, but rather only encourage children to love television. And this mindset makes teaching and entertainment inseparable. But look as hard as you will, you will not find the idea that education must be entertaining in Confucius or Plato or Cicero or Augustine or Locke. Instead, philosophers of education consistently assume that becoming educated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. Across many cultures and through the centuries great thinkers have argued that there must be sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young, but are hard-fought victories. In short, their shared view of education is the antithesis of what television and social media promote.

As Postman explains, television (and Youtube videos, Instantgram posts, tweets, Tic Toc videos, etc.) says that there are no prerequisites. Every television program is a complete package into itself, no previous knowledge is required. Television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself. In television, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings; a perplexed learner will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied, or worst of all, endured. It assumes that anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment and that it ought to. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of censorship, oblivion ,and neglect, but is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version what they have to say.

Consider the influence of commercials on education. The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are not only solvable, but that they are solvable fast and are solvable through the interventions of technology, techniques, and/or chemistry. Commercials teach that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones, drama is preferable over exposition, and being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions or problems. A student that has seen hundreds of thousands of commercials might well believe that all problems have simple solutions or that they ought to, that complex language is not to be trusted, that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression, or that argument is in bad taste and leads only to intolerable uncertainty.

But not all questions of history, literature, philosophy, or theology are solvable and their insolubleness does not mean they are not worth discussing! Indeed, the very investigation of these questions can help one to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Questions of math and science may have answers, but they are not easily solved and require much work to understand. Difficult questions often require long answers with much context and nuance; someone expecting an easy answer may not have the patience or interest to listen to a full answer (and may be tempted to listen to a demagogue that oversimplifies both the problem and its solution). In a world shaped by images a teacher not only has to work to teach material, but also has to work against a system of preconceptions that make the material more difficult to learn and receive.

Ultimately, television and social media are not detrimental to education because they take students away from books (though this is a problem), but because they create a mindset that works against the very acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. Postman offers as an analogy a polluted river. Many fish die, it may be dangerous to swim, but the river might still look the same and some fish will survive. In the same way, students today may still read books on their own, but the rational typographical mind that was the foundation for our educational system is gone and its loss affects us all.

This is a rather depressing way to end a message, but this message would get way too long if I attempted to offer advice here. I plan to do that in the last message of this series.