In the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman’s son, Andrew Postman, makes a case for how relevant the book is today, although it was published in 1985. I agree that it definitely is applicable in 2014. One major thing that has changed is that the Internet has become a major force alongside and at times competing with television for people’s “screen time.”
The book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains kept coming to my mind while I read Amusing. Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet has contributed to humans thinking in fragmented, shallow ways and that it has influenced how they read—their eyes jump around on the screen versus reading linearly. Postman notes that he is not claiming that media changes affect changes in people’s “cognitive capacities,” although he thinks that people arguing as much are probably right (27). In a sense, though, both Postman and Carr are asserting that the media (TV in Postman’s case and the Internet in Carr’s) has altered how people think.
Postman argues that television is a medium of communication that makes people perceive serious matters as entertainment and not be required to think about any particular news clip or program for any extended length of time; Carr asserts that the Internet has lowered people’s capacity to concentrate on one topic and reflect deeply.
I kept thinking about this in terms of education. According to Postman, television has perpetuated the belief that education should be entertaining, and he describes “the refashioning of the classroom into a place where teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities” (148). I think many teachers do hope that their classes will somehow be entertaining as well as educational, and I think that creating interesting lesson plans is important to keep students’ attention.
However, the phenomenon of making education entertaining that Postman describes was not a big force in either of the two public schools I attended during K-12. He seems to be in some ways writing about the future in the chapter “Teaching as an Amusing Activity,” yet I wonder if schools really have made “edutainment” as much of a priority as Postman suggests. Without knowing how the K-12 schools in 2014 are operating on the inside, I am not sure, but I sense they are still making reading and writing a priority, and in many cases this involves—at least I hope—being trained to still think in depth and reflectively.
One major thing I take from Postman’s book is that teaching students to think about the medium itself and what kind of messages or thinking processes it is perpetuating can be a useful practice. Rather than judging television or Internet as negative, it is more important to consider what students are using them for and whether they can think analytically about how they affect their lives.