Teaching as a Conserving Activity, by Neil Postman, New York: Delacorte Press, 1980, 224 pp., $9.95.
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner were, with their smash hit book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, possibly the most celebrated advocates of the "new education" in the past decade. Deriding the notion of any form of education in which the teacher leads or guides, they promoted a "questions curriculum," which was to reflect the students' "needs and interests." In responding to such questions as "What do you worry about most?" and "What bothers you most about adults? Why?" students were to shape their own curriculums and find deliverance from "requirements," which the authors characterized as "systems of prescriptions and proscriptions intended solely to limit the physical and intellectual movement of students." The questions curriculum, with the teacher as companion, was to help students develop "survival skills" for a world of "future shock" by encouraging "meaning making."
The notion of student-directed education caught on, in various degrees of implementation, to an astonishing degree in schools throughout the country. This success owed itself in considerable part to the fact that advocates of student-directed forms of education managed to cast themselves in a progressive light as the promoters of personal growth, freedom, tolerance, and profound concern for the future. Influential voices, such as those of the New York Times, Playboy, Saturday Review, and Marshall McLuhan, joined in a chorus affirming the role the players had created for themselves. Those opposed to what was being advanced were to find themselves repeatedly and involuntarily cast in the role of the sinner, who had committed what historian John Lukacs has noted is the "worst kind of intellectual (and social) sin" in modern America: "a preference for ideas, which instead of progressive, were reactionary ones."
In spite of all the innovations, however, the '70s were to bear witness to a strange phenomenon, all the more remarkable because it took place in the world's most affluent society, which was spending well above $100 billion a year on education. Schools began producing increasing numbers of semi-illiterates whose inventory of survival skills ran so low that they couldn't properly fill out job application forms or perform simple arithmetical computations. The world of future shock was pounding on the door to be let in, and the shock troops that were being mustered up to meet the challenge had these impressive statistics to offer about their state of preparedness: one in five was functionally illiterate; they had compiled the lowest average for college board scores in 14 years; and those in their first year of college were reading at an average of four grade levels below their counterparts a decade before. In New York City, their diplomas, which should have certified some intellectual competence and achievement, were described by a former commissioner of education as nothing more than "certificates of attendance."
Not surprisingly, the public rebelled, spawning the "back to basics" movement. While ridiculed and repudiated by the educational establishment, the movement sustained and increased its momentum by clinging to the conviction that the community—that is, the tax-paying public—has a crucial role to play in determining the kind of education they are financing for their and others' children. For overwhelming numbers of parents, this meant achieving competency in the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic—at least that much. For many it also meant an end to what they perceived as social engineering in the classroom in the form of sex education and "values clarification" instruction.
Paradoxically, one of the voices now arguing for a return to a more traditional form of education is none other than Neil Postman himself. In his new book, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (written without Weingartner), he advocates a "thermostatic" educational philosophy in which "education tries to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative." This is necessary because
our own culture is overdosing on change…and the plain fact is that too much change, too fast, for too long has the effect of making social institutions useless and individuals perpetually unfit to live amid the conditions of their own culture.…The last thing that teaching needs to be in our present situation is revolutionary, ground breaking and highly charged with new values.
Postman characterizes television as "the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the United States." Since television teaches that "serious human worries are resolvable through relatively simple means," a schooling is needed that, in contradistinction, teaches that there is a "structure to ideas," that "they are built one upon another, and you must be able to comprehend lower orders of concepts before comprehending those of greater complexity."
One of the most stunning reversals in Postman's thought is with regard to school curriculum. He now charges that "school courses are reduced to twenty-minute modules so that children's attention will not wander. Required courses are eliminated and replaced with inconsequential electives.…There even develops a widespread interest in what are called 'alternative curriculums.'" Instead, the school curriculum should be "subject-matter-centered, word-centered, reason-centered, future-centered, hierarchical, secular, socializing, segmented, and coherent."
Postman is also critical, however, of the "back to basics movement." "As far as I understand it," he states,
this movement for educational reform has its origins in a genuinely felt dissatisfaction with the ability of the young to cope with digital symbolism, i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic. The response to the problem is to place instruction, learning, and evaluation under the jurisdiction of a precise technical system so that at any point what is happening can be described in quantifiable terms. Moreover, any subject whose absorption does not lend itself to quantifiable description is, by definition, not regarded as basic. This is, of course the response of the technocrat.…In the usual "back to the basics" formulation of our problem, the solution lies in improving our statistics, not our students.
But while Postman can rightly deplore increasing efforts in our society and schools to quantify and reduce to technical terms all forms of human behavior, he completely misreads the motivating power of the "back to basics" movement, which originated as a response to the influence of his works and those of his like-minded colleagues in the educational trade. Anyone who has spent time with parents concerned about the quality of education knows that foremost in their minds is the content of the school curriculum and the caliber of teaching personnel. There is concern not only for the traditional three Rs but also for teaching students to appreciate excellent literature and to acquire a historical understanding of the world.
Of course, when the members of a community do not believe that their children are being provided the kind of education that prepares them to be competent and productive members of society, it should not be surprising to see demands for accountability, which can lead to various forms of testing yielding numerical indexes for competency in reading, general knowledge, and mathematics. But to say that such scores are the entire purpose of the "back to basics" movement is to miss the point entirely. The thrust of this movement has been for more effective and responsible instruction of basic skills and knowledge—basic in the sense of being essential for survival in our society. And if the movement has at times seemed to lack sophistication and appeared too single-minded, it has nevertheless drawn public attention to the crucial questions concerning what should be taught in public schools and who should control them.
One of the most refreshing features of Postman's current thought is his rejection of what has been described as social engineering in the schools. In the case of sex education, for example, he maintains that it is "sheer insolence and patronizing insolence at that, that the schools have even proposed to deal with these matters." He argues further that the notion that "the school must assume responsibility for every aspect of a child's development is self-defeating nonsense." While schools should be "healthy and just environments…we must not expect schools to be psychiatric clinics or teachers to be effective social workers and political reformers." He also suggests that it is unrealistic to think that schools can provide children with motivation to learn, for while a "teacher who inspires confidence, gives encouragement, and exudes warmth and understanding will facilitate learning," only parents can provide children with the "emotional and social preparation for school learning." These observations are a sharp departure from his previous assertion that schooling should be concerned with the "whole child."
In conclusion, Teaching as a Conserving Activity is a welcome addition to the current literature repudiating the carelessness and excess of the trendy educational currents prevailing in the '60s and '70s. The victims are all around us. Postman now describes his earlier work as having "joined in the fun." Only he knows why he doesn't admit to some genuine remorse for his contribution to the current educational chaos. Doing so would have increased his moral stature with the reading public and allayed any suspicions that he is merely hitching his wagon to the new star in the sky to avoid being left behind. Somehow his grinning countenance on the back of his new book's cover is at odds with the grim reality of the vast numbers of the educationally impaired young people he helped to spawn. Considering the slip-shod philosophy the old Postman was promoting, however, it is good to have the new model under just about any terms.
But there is something more important to consider in the metamorphosis of Postman than the affirmation of common sense. There is the sober fact that the public has placed itself too much at the mercy of self-styled educational innovators during the past two decades. How many Postmans have to undergo metamorphoses before consumers of education are offered something that is responsive to their desires? Must a community continue financing an educational system that responds to public outrage only when pressed to the wall? Why shouldn't parents be able to use the tax dollars they currently must hand over to the public educational system for the schooling of their choice for their children? These are some of the tough questions posed, however unwittingly, between the lines of Postman's new book.
Louis Segesvary recently joined the Foreign Service and formerly taught in the Department of Defense school system in Germany. His most recent article in REASON was "Can't Read, Can't Write, Can't Calculate" (Sept. 1979), which analyzed the effects of Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Teaching Is a ________ Activity".