Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review of The End of Education by Neil Postman

by Bobby Shaddox

Postman, Neil.
The End of Education. New York. Vintage Books. 1995. Print.

What is the purpose of education? What are our reasons for schooling? Neil Postman urges us to find an “end” (purpose) or face its “end” (demise). The author examines popular “gods,” or narratives, that have fueled and provided meaning for American education throughout the last century, explains the current lack of a compelling narrative and poses five possibilities for new gods that can create a unified, yet diverse public. Postman defines a “great narrative” as a story “that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose… one that has sufficient credibility, complexity, and symbolic power to enable one to organize one’s life around it” (p. 6). He argues that the narratives underlying the contemporary idea of education fail to serve us well and could spark the end of public schooling. He reviews the first half of the 20th century and its great narratives that functioned for their time and place – the democracy-story, the chosen-people-story (Jews) and the protestant-ethic-story. He discusses later gods that failed to inspire – Communism, Nazism, Darwinism, Freudian Psychology and even Einstein’s Science. Postman attributes our current “crisis in narrative” (p. 23) to the adoption of false gods: economic utility, consumership, technology and separatism (extreme multiculturalism).

Postman’s ideas for five new gods that may better serve public education (and American culture) are:

  1. The Spaceship Earth - The story of the Earth as a “vulnerable space capsule” with humans as its stewards and caretakers
  2. The Fallen Angel - The story that human beings make mistakes, but can get closer to the truth by learning from their errors and eliminating what is false
  3. The American Experiment - The story of America as a grand experiment (a perpetual question mark, not a definitive period) – one in which students are invited to play an active part\
  4. The Law of Diversity - The story of how human culture has been enriched and strengthened through the inclusion of different cultures and their ideas
  5. The Word Weavers/The World Makers - The story of how humans use language to give meaning to the surrounding world and, as a result, are then changed by their own creation

Striking Ideas

Wow! This book came into my life at the perfect time. I’ve been in love with ideas of Joseph Campbell, presented in The Power of Myth, for many years. The comparative mythologist explores the way that myths play an ongoing role in the modern world. Postman does a great job of grounding this notion and specifically identifying ways that gods (narratives), much like myths, can give meaning to education. This book helped me understand and articulate many of my disenchantments with education's ends and my fascination with great narratives and mythology (especially using them in the classroom).

Something I found fascinating was his focus on differentiating the notions of multiculturalism and cultural pluralism in education. I guess I had previously thought of them as synonymous ideas. Postman’s examples really helped delineate the opposing notions – separatism or unity through diversity (of course, many people will probably reject his definitions of these concepts – he does tend to focus on extreme forms of multiculturalism). However, Postman’s call to “revise the (American) story so that it allows children of all races to find a dignified place for themselves in it” and for groups to resist separating and elevating their cultural contributions above one another resonates with me. His Law of Diversity and American Experiment narratives come together to support this idea. In a turbid political and social climate where political machines seem hell bent on polarizing the public on the topics of immigration and homosexual rights, our country seems to be in dire need of a narrative that celebrates the benefits of its many ingredients and the on-going nature of its experiment.

Compelling Quotes

“…Whatever else we may call ourselves, we are the god-making species. Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future. To do their work, such narratives do not have to be “true” in a scientific sense. There are many enduring narratives whose details include things that are false to observable fact. The purpose of a narrative is to give meaning to the world, not to describe it scientifically. The measure for a narrative’s truth or falsity is in its consequences: Does it provide people with a sense of personal identity, a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct, explanations of that which cannot be known?” (p. 7)

“What makes public schools public is not so much that they have common gods. The reason for this is that public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. And in creating a right kind of public, the schools contribute towards strengthening the spiritual basis of the American Creed. That is how Jefferson understood it, how Horace Mann understood it, how John Dewey understood it. And, in fact, there is not other way to understand it. The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?” (p. 17-18)

“Cultural pluralism is a seventy-year-old idea whose purpose is to enlarge and enrich the American Creed – specifically, to show the young how their tribal identities and narratives fit into a more inclusive and comprehensive American story… The idea of a public school is not to make blacks black, or Koreans Korean, or Italians Italian, but to make Americans. The alternative leads, quite obviously, to the “Balkanization” of public schools – which is to say, their end.” (p. 50-57)


  1. Which narrative could best serve American schools? How would this be developed?
  2. Is the adoption of narratives effective if it’s happening on a small scale (and with varying narratives)? If I decided to teach an entire year of humanities through the lens of a narrative (like Spaceship Earth) would that make a difference in the big scheme of things?
  3. How does a teacher co-construct (with students) a shared narrative by which the year’s projects/curriculum will be guided?

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