Advice From N.Y. Techno-Sage: To Avoid Stumbling, Look Back

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future , by Neil Postman. Alfred A. Knopf, 213 pages, $24.

An incoming instant message from my niece appears on my screen. I hit the respond button, and we exchange exclamations. This relatively new America Online technology, so quickly becoming young people’s preferred method of communication, doesn’t exactly lend itself to whole sentences, and I find myself feeling nostalgic for the more, well, literary technology of e-mail. I type that I have been reading Neil Postman, a guy who has done more thinking than most about the question of what’s lost every time a new technology enters our lives. My last question to her is whether she thinks that we might ever write to each other again, as in ink on paper, envelopes, stamps and all that. It’s not likely. We are just no longer letter-writing people, plain and simple.

A professor of culture and communication at New York University, Mr. Postman has been thinking about the effects of technology on our culture for several decades now. This has not made him sanguine. In fact, he believes (like Aldous Huxley) that our society is in a race between disaster and education. He has devoted his career to explaining the disaster (Literacy debased! Participatory democracy steamrolled!) and to aiding the cause of education. His latest book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century , is his most ambitious attempt yet to help America survive the future.

Mr. Postman is best known for his near-apocalyptic view of the role that television plays in our lives. In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986), he attacked the “enemy with a smiling face” that has brought spiritual devastation to America. In Technopoly (1991), Mr. Postman took aim at the computer, which, he claims, is a solution to a nonexistent problem–and a threat, as well, to individual autonomy.

In these and other works, Mr. Postman addressed the disaster side of the Huxleyan equation; elsewhere he devotes himself to the education side. The underlying theme of The End of Education (1995), for example, is that the best hope for preserving the promise of a democratic society in the post-industrial age is education that teaches skepticism. Central to this mission must be the strong and precise use of language. Mr. Postman wants to defeat the propaganda of commercial advertising and puncture hypocrisy by pushing on soft language until it collapses; he wants to teach children to do the same.

In Building a Bridge to the 18th Century , the impending disaster familiar to Postman readers is set in stark relief by comparison with the beguiling charms of the 18th century. Mr. Postman argues that our society should be regrounded in the ideas and principles of the Enlightenment.

The chapter headings in the new book–”Education,” “Language,” “Technology,” “Children,” “Information”–read like a best-hits of his past work. Somehow, however, there is a comfort in the repetition, as though Mr. Postman were a preacher intoning the same phrases over and over again. We readers are incorrigible sinners who nevertheless relish the satisfaction of listening every Sunday to hellfire and brimstone.

But there’s more in the new book than the repetition of earlier themes. Mr. Postman, a self-confessed “enemy of this century,” has clearly found new depths of inspiration by going back and comparing, point by point, our contemporary world with the 18th century. He treats us to Thomas Paine’s beautiful prose and points out that Paine, an autodidact, was able to sway an entire population through the strength of his writing. What does it say about Paine’s culture, and what does it say about ours, that, as Mr. Postman implies, Paine wrote better than any of the current faculty at N.Y.U. (and could no doubt be better understood by the public)?

Mr. Postman keeps up a barrage of ideas, notions, provocations. He tells us what God’s death means for our survival; why, with respect to religion, Albert Einstein and John Stuart Mill had the right approach; why progress is an idea whose time has passed but must come again; how Einstein and his fellow physicists beat the deconstructionists to the punch on understanding the social construction of language; why newspapers are more essential than ever; how the book is necessary for the maintenance of civilized values; why children appear both in 14th-century painting andon20th-century TV as small adults, and why this should concern us; when the quest for fame started. And on and on. If not a feast, it’s certainly quite a buffet.

Unfortunately, a glibness occasionally creeps into his arguments. Are Socrates, John the Baptist, Jesus, Muhammad and Moses really all examples of what can happen to someone who challenges the “narrative” of a culture? A certain grandiosity mixed with a busyness of style undermines his strength. On the first (short) page of the introduction, he refers to Gertrude Stein, Marshall McLuhan, Kierkegaard, Bill Gates and George Santayana. He’s likely to illustrate a point by listing five poets, say, who had the same idea; one would suffice. And yet a writer with this many ideas bouncing around his head is soon forgiven.

To be Postmanian for a moment, what’s the message of his medium? With this book especially, Mr. Postman would seem to be wandering deep into the territory of moral exposition, though within the compass of social science. At one point, when he’s writing about the Romantic poets and Shelley’s essay “In Defense of Poetry,” Mr. Postman suggests that the Holocaust could be traced to a lack of poetry in German society or, more precisely, a lack of the love that is most powerfully engendered by poetry. “It is,” he argues, “poetic imagination, not scientific accomplishment, that is the engine of moral progress.” But what of Mr. Postman himself? Is this his poetic imagination at work? Shouldn’t Mr. Postman really be a Romantic poet?

The answer is that Mr. Postman, though he has much in common with Romantic malcontents like the Southern agrarians or G.K. Chesterton, is true to the age in which he lives. The message of the medium is that we live in the post-industrial age, and in our time our moral thinkers sometimes hold positions like chair of media ecology in the Department of Culture and Communication at N.Y.U. One can be sure that Mr. Postman appreciates the irony: Only a society as “advanced” as ours could have produced a scholar like himself–and yet he has spent his career attacking the culture that created him.

He is at any rate uncomfortable with the name of his discipline. He insists that social scientists are deceptively named because there is no science in what they do. They are storytellers; and the great ones, like Freud, Max Weber, William James, B.F. Skinner, Lewis Mumford and McLuhan, are among the greatest storytellers of our era. And as stories demand a poetic imagination, we can understand better how Mr. Postman views his work. In Building a Bridge to the 18th Century , he has written a story well worth reading. Advice From N.Y. Techno-Sage: To Avoid Stumbling, Look Back