Amused to death

Well, finished reading Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’m aware that both Marc Prensky and Steve Johnson have read it, though as far as I can see neither really addresses its main points. A few ideas are flying around my head just now, I’ll try and set them down with some semblance of order.

A very core point is that digital visual media present the world in a very different way from type.

“Television’s strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads.” (p. 123)

“Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television-teaching always takes the form of story-telling…” (p. 148)

With television, or graphical games, how can we teach philosophy or spirituality? Or are these subjects to be considered unsuitable for the 21st Century? It is not that games or television cannot or do not have content about philosophy or spirituality, but these mediums are simply not suited to dealing with abstractions. Instead, we might expect programmes centred on the lives and characters of preachers, philosophers or scientists, rather than their abstract notions (‘Longitude’ is only one of many programmes that comes to mind here). If it can’t be shown easily in an image flashed on screen, it doesn’t work well in a visual medium.

Postman relates (p. 149-153) the story of the “The Voyage of the Mimi” – a project which, with several million dollars in government funding, created a series of television programmes, books and computer programmes. The central story of the programmes was of children travelling with a research ship to research the behaviour of humpback whales.

What Postman thinks is of greatest significance here is that the topic – and hence the curriculum is being shaped by what makes good television, rather than what makes good education. Whales and youngsters travelling with a ‘crusty sea captain’. I don’t recall ever seeing a programme that was any good at teaching calculus – perhaps some that could show why calculus is useful, but never one that was actually much good at teaching it. But perhaps calculus, like philosophy, is a topic that won’t be required in the 21st Century.

Postman is well aware that children brought up with television as a constant companion will grow up with quite different expectations of their education system – this is one point where he is in agreement with Marc Prensky, although they have quite different takes whether this is a good or bad thing. From page 144 of Postman:

“…every television show is educational. Just as reading a book – any kind of book – promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same.”

“[The television] style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning, or its hand-maiden, school learning.”

“Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them. And that is…. remote from what a classroom requires of them…”

This is the effect of collateral learning, “the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns” (p. 144). Is it beyond possibility for schools to teach students how to learn at school?

Indeed, I think I mentioned previously that a number of British universities are now introducing first year classes to teach students how to learn at university. Perhaps advocates of games-based learning might prefer it if instead the teaching were changed to adapt to the students. For university level physics, maths, philosophy and many other topics, I see this as being quite a challenge. Indeed, this is a major objection of Postman’s – that popular culture has led to a state of affairs where education is now seen as something that should be entertaining. Engage me or enrage me, as Prensky puts it.

Postman is worried that, in watching educational television, children are learning that “learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of an entertainment, and ought to” (p. 154). Prensky wants educators to become entertainers.

5 thoughts on “Amused to death

  1. Bill Kerr

    Very interesting how you contrast Postman’s book with Steven Johnson’s. (I read your 3 posts about this).

    I’ve been reading a lot about alan kay’s ideas recently and discovered that Postman was a member of the advisory board for the Viewpoints Research Institute until his death in 2003

    In his biography of Kay, John Maxwell analyses the connection b/w Postman’s social analysis and Kay’s ideas about using computers with children. I was tempted to cut and paste but it’s a bit too long.

    If you grab the Pdf and do a search for Postman you can see for yourself.

  2. Daniel Livingstone

    That looks good, but at over 200 pages might take a while to digest! By searching for ‘Postman’ in the text, I quickly found this Alan Kay quote however (pages 138/9):

    “As my wife once remarked to Vice President Al Gore, the “haves and havenots” of the future will not be caused so much by being connected or not to the Internet, since most important content is already available in public libraries, free and open to all. The real haves and have-nots are those who have or have not acquired the discernment to search for and make use of high content wherever it may be found.”

    Fairly similar sentiment I think… and one reflected by recent Pew studies that appear to show that people who use the internet as their primary news source may be less well informed than those who use TV and radio.

    Thanks for the link!

  3. mandy

    shoot me! this book is the most stressful thing ever having to read and FULLY UNDERSTAND it for a class? mmmmm… second time taking this class cause its insane to understand peoples logic :-X

  4. Daniel Livingstone

    Sorry you’re having trouble with the book Mandy, I obviously enjoyed it (I wasn’t even reading it for class… it was my own choice).

    To summarize my understanding, if it will help you, the book is arguing that popular culture and media shape how people learn about the world – and contemporary media lends itself towards flashy images and soundbites. Not to reasoned argument and deep understanding.

    That TV news has to be entertaining means that attractive and/or provocative anchors and catchy soundbites win over any in-depth analysis. Elections, for one obvious example, are less and less about who has the best policies – and can tell you WHY they are the best – and more and more about who looks good on television and who has the best soundbites.

    And people brought up in this media culture are likely to have reduced attention spans and think this natural and normal and may not see the value in anything that needs more than 30 seconds on TV to explain, or that can’t be told in a dramatic story form.

    IMHO, that is the essence of the book.


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