BOOK NEWS AND REVIEWS
THE END OF EDUCATION: REDEFINING THE VALUE OF SCHOOL BY NEIL POSTMAN (1995). KNOPF: NEW YORK.
Postman is a Professor of Communication and Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. He has also been an elementary and secondary school teacher. His current book is not just another diatribe; rather it is an optimistic discussion of the reasons for public education. His main purpose is to motivate the reader to ask questions about why public education is necessary as we approach the beginning of the 21st century. Postman argues in the first part of the book that educators and laymen have been overly concerned with the means of achieving certain outcomes rather than identifying a set of important goals that all schools should aim to achieve. He says teachers and administrators do not ask questions about how the crisis in meaning and the lack of narrative symbols (e.g., restraint, social responsibility, humility and unity) in American society have affected the quality of its schools. "The answer that comes most readily and nastily to mind is that the majority of educators have ignored the question altogether [i.e., What are the implications for schooling?]. Many have focused their attention on the engineering of learning, their journals being filled with accounts of research that show this way or that to be better for teaching reading, mathematics, or social studies. . . ." (p. 26). According to the author, we have been worshiping many false gods in education for the last forty years, such as the emphasis on training instead of education, the over-reliance on technology to relieve boredom with school ("I am not arguing against using computers in school. I am arguing against our sleepwalking attitudes toward it, against allowing it to distract us from more important things, against making a god of it." p. 44), and offering multicultural programs that produce more divisiveness than unity among students from different ethnic groups. Postman says the old concept of cultural pluralism is a more useful one for creating a unified citizenry. He is concerned that these false narratives about what public schooling is about will lead to its end and subsequent replacement with private schooling. His solution to this problem is to offer five narratives containing powerful reasons for public education.
In the second part of The End of Education, Postman discusses the following narratives: (1) The Spaceship Earth. This reason for schooling centers around the idea that all students are caretakers of their planet. They must learn skills and study subjects to make them more knowledgeable citizens of the world. Schools should provide in-depth instruction in archeology, anthropology and astronomy to provide students with the necessary knowledge and perspective for developing into citizens who understand the problems of our planet and its inhabitants. (2) The Fallen Angel. Students must learn to question ideas, philosophies and dogmas. They need to take a scientific attitude towards learning by analyzing ideas from many different perspectives, and by seeking to identify errors in thinking and applications. All dogmas and claims to "absolute knowledge" should be immediately suspect, particularly among politicians and ideologues. Postman offers several ways schools can reduce dogmatism such as having teachers prepare courses outside their areas of expertise, abolishing textbooks, and giving students the opportunity to critique their teachers' lectures and instructional methods at the secondary and college levels. In this education narrative, teachers are: ". . .error detectors who hope to extend the intelligence of students by helping them reduce the mistakes in their knowledge and skills. In this way, if I may put it crudely, teachers become less interested in making students smart, more interested in making students less dumb. . . ." (p. 120). He also says this questioning approach to learning can be reinforced by having teachers and students read such books as In Praise of Folly (1549) by Erasmus and Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. (3) The American Experiment. Postman argues that many state boards of education (e.g., the New York Board of Regents) have ignored patriotism as a value. ". . . .Teachers are likely to think that self-love or, indeed, love for cultures other than America is a safer and more wholesome route to take. But in steering clear of patriotism, educators miss an opportunity to provide schooling with a profound and transcendent narrative that can educate and inspire students of all ages. I refer, of course, to the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous argument. . . ." (p. 132). Some ways suggested by the author for teaching in this patriotic vein are to have students examine such works as Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1792), the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He also discusses numerous examples of world literature that have analyzed the meaning of education. All of these sources of ideas can be used to provide students with the background for examining whether uncontrolled technological development will lead to the destruction of American culture and values. This problem and others related to freedom of expression, the melting-pot culture, and the meaning of education for all Americans are powerful stories about our nation. (4) The Law of Diversity. In this fourth narrative, students learn, for example, that great literature and scientific works have been developed by individuals from many different cultures and groups -- Hispanic, Black American, Female, Jewish, Polish, Greek, etc. The intermingling of ideas from these cultures is what is important, not their particular cultural or sexual identity. Other ways Postman recommends for producing unity from diversity are to study various religions, customs, and arts and artifacts. (5) The Word Weavers/The World Makers. This narrative emphasizes the study of language through the art and science of question asking, literature, grammar, linguistics and general semantics. He argues that the study of definitions, questions and metaphors be given the highest priority by students and teachers. And to broaden their understanding of the modern world, they need to study the great shapers and ideas in science, history, economics and technology.
As usual, Postman has many provocative insights into American society and schooling. His five narratives for improving schools should be carefully studied and analyzed by all teachers of the gifted and their parents. Postman has always been a master at posing "embarrassing" questions concerning the meaning and goals of American education. It is his questioning attitude regarding these problems that makes The End of Education a stimulating source of ideas for improving the education of gifted students.
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: Expanded Multimedia Edition (1995) by Time Warner Electronic Publishing -- 1271 Avenue of the Americas; New York, NY 10020.
This CD-ROM version contains thousands of quotations from 2,650 B.C. to the 1990s. One can search for specific ones by Topic, Author and Category, Date, Keyword, Source, and Media. The Media search is further divided into Video, Sound and Pictures. Interestingly, the Time Warner editors believe iconic representations and music are multimedia quotations -- some of these clever additions to Bartlett's book are sculpture and paintings by Calder, Dali, Chagall and da Vinci, and music by Bach, Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn. Further enhancements are the Media Timeline that can locate visual and sound quotations from ancient to modern times (15,000 B.C. to 1994), and the option that enables the viewer to select and set up a personalized quotations file. This feature will lead to many hours of enjoyment among gifted students and their teachers. In addition, we have been particularly fascinated by the ability of this software to search for quotations by original sources. Many of the great literary works (e.g., Absalom, Alsalom! (1936) by Faulkner and Essays (1580) by Montaigne are found in an extensive list.
REEXPERIENCING ALDOUS HUXLEY'S BRAVE NEW WORLD
BY MICHAEL E. WALTERS NEW YORK CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
An important trait of the gifted sensibility is that one does not merely read a book. Rather one experiences it -- sensibility makes the difference in how the gifted interact with literature. An "intelligent" individual can read and respond in an academic fashion to a book, essay, play or poem, but the ability to experience literature as a personal encounter distinguishes the gifted from the ordinary "intelligent" reader. When you reexperience one of the seminal books of your past, it also has the ability to arouse and stimulate your sensibility. Recently, I reexperienced Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). I was astounded and inspired by how relevant this book was almost 65 years after it was published. I had experienced it more than forty years ago in the 1950s.
There were several technological procedures and behaviors in this book that are very current today. Here is an amazing list: (1) Muzak -- piped in music constantly played inside public buildings; (2) Drugs -- in order for the populace to be permanently content, there was a drug called "soma" that granted the taker a perpetual hallucinogenic holiday; (3) Virtual Reality Media -- television and movies used in conjunction with a pill called "feelies" allowed the viewer to become part of what one was watching; (4) Behavioristic Conditioning -- one was conditioned to accept whatever status you were created to function as, e.g., worker, manager, intellectual. There are many other examples that gifted students can identify and write about.
The basic issue of Brave New World is the conflict between happiness and human suffering. All elements of personal relationships involving romance, the family and religion were extinguished. This conflict is ageless, and gifted students have a type of sensibility attuned to it. As they read Huxley, there are other works that can be used to enrich their understanding of happiness-stability versus suffering-instability such as the Dialogues of Plato (427?-347? B.C.) and Dostoevski's "The Grand Inquisitor" section from The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Shakespeare was banned in Brave New World because one experiences all of the elements of humanity by reading him -- e.g., love, betrayal, jealousy, fear, courage, humor and tragedy. The technicians of Huxley's world believed that human beings are merely creatures and should be conditioned to live in a utopia of personal happiness. After reexperiencing Aldous Huxley, I realized how close we are to a brave new world. We presently live in an environment that emphasizes constant and immediate satisfaction, media addiction, massive bureaucracies, voyeuristic sports and consumerism. This book is an useful experience for stimulating gifted students' sensibility. By studying it, they can acquire a deeper understanding of the cultural and spiritual conficts occurring in our emerging brave new world.
Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, April-May 1996