Back in 1995, Neil Postman challenged educators across America to think about education, not in terms of the means (the curriculum, teaching methods, standardized testing, the role of technology, etc.) but the end, namely, its ultimate purpose and role in society.
For Postman, this was an existential question that cannot be ignored. “To put it simply,” he said, “there is no surer way to bring an end to education, than for education to have no end.”
Nearly 30 years and a pandemic later, I found myself re-reading this philosophical essay, struck by the continued relevance of his central thesis that “for school to make sense, the young, their parents, and their teachers must have a god [ie a story]... If they have none, school is pointless”.
In 2022, it could still be argued that a shared narrative about the why of school is going to be essential if education is to remain a relevant component of society; and not any kind of story, “but one that tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideas, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of community and purpose.” But what kind of story is rich and robust enough to connect us to our past, guide us into the future, and convene our students, parents, and teachers around a single and inspiring goal?
The answer, implicit in Postman’s essay, is simple: it is the ones that we will start to imagine when we finally “enter the conversation with enthusiasm and resolve.” Incidentally, he adds that, in his experience, school administrators and professors of education appear to be far more predisposed and willing to discuss “policies, management, assessment, and other engineering matters” than embark upon a serious conversation about the reason for school.
Consequently, to help us along the way, Postman kicks off the conversation by offering five narratives, which, he believes, offer “sufficient resonance and power to be taken seriously as reasons for schooling.”
I will paraphrase one of these narratives, just to illustrate the point. It is called The Spaceship Earth. This is the story of human beings as stewards of Earth, caretakers of a vulnerable space capsule. It is a story in which young people learn about “interdependence and global cooperation… a story that depicts waste and indifference as evil, that requires a vision of the future and a commitment to the present.” In short, it is a story that turns on a single question: are you taking sufficient care of your home?
In terms of learning, Postman goes on to elaborate, this is not a story in which students “play life” or merely study within the confines of a small room with chairs in it; rather they find their education in the process of learning to take care of the planet. And yes, he concludes, perhaps the consequence will be that children no longer memorize the principal rivers of Uruguay and “live out their lives in ignorance of these facts”, but they might just leave school with “a sense of responsibility for the planet” rooted in “a sense of responsibility for one’s own neighborhood.”
My purpose today is not to argue that this is a credible story to answer the question of what school should be for, even if the current trajectory of our planet would appear to make Postman’s imaginings back in 1995 remarkably prescient. What I am suggesting, however, is that there are three lessons we would do well to take from what he writes.
First, the meta-narrative that we are all looking for isn’t just for edu-geeks. We need to pursue answers to the question of what school is for as much for our students, their parents, as well as our colleagues.
Second, these conversations demand enthusiasm and resolve. They can’t be squeezed into the occasional meeting or relegated to discussions about what we are going to put on our school’s website.
Third, and finally, having a story that we’ve made up is better than having no story at all. To give Postman the final word: "without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better." Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash