The Medium is the Message

This is the title of chapter 2 from Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Published in 1969, it was described as a ” no-holds-barred assault on outdated teaching methods, with dramatic and practical proposals on how education can be made relevant to today’s world.” Well, unfortunately, it couldn’t be more relevant today.

Here’s an except from chapter 2 (pp. 20-21):

So, what students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them to say.  Constantly, they must try to supply “The Right Answer.”  It does not seem to matter if the subject is English or history or science; mostly, students do the same thing.  And since it is indisputably (if not publicly) recognized that the ostensible “content” of such courses is rarely remembered beyond the last quiz (in which you are required to remember only 65 percent of what you were told), it is safe to say that just about the only learning that occurs in classrooms is that which is communicated by the structure of the classroom itself.  What are these learnings?  What are these messages?  Here are a few among many, none of which you will ever find officially listed among the aims of teachers:

Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active criticism.

Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students and is, in any case, none of their business.

Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated “facts” is the goal of education.

The voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment.

One’s own ideas and those of one’s classmates are inconsequential.

Feelings are irrelevant in education.

There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.

English is not History and History is not Science and Science is not Art and Art is not Music, and Art and Music are minor subjects and English, History and Science major subjects, and a subject is something you “take” and, when you have taken it, you have “had” it, and if you have “had” it, you are immune and need not take it again.  (The Vaccination Theory of Education?)

Published by Jon Erickson

Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy University of Vermont

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