Neil Postman argued the importance of shared narratives about what schools are for

The debate continues


Neil Postman stressed that his main purpose in his 1995 book the End of Education was to promote a serious conversation about the underlying reasons for education — not about policies, management, assessment, and other , as he described it, ‘engineering’ matters. While these are important, he states, “they ought rightfully to be addressed after decisions are made about what schools are for.”  Here we are  in 2013 still debating what schools are for.

Postman identified what he took to be the “false gods” of modern education. What keeps our schools from being effective, he said, is the lack of commonly accepted stories, or narratives, that give meaning and direction to schooling. In short education, is geared toward economic utility, consumerism, technology, multiculturalism and other ‘bogus’ objectives. The problem is that narratives such as these to his mind are incapable of providing a rich and sustaining rationale for public education.

For education to be meaningful, Postman contends, young people, their parents, and their teachers must have common, shared narratives. Narratives are essential because they provide a sense of personal identity, a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct, and explanations of that which cannot be known. The idea of public education requires not only shared narratives, but also the absence of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness. “What makes public schools public,” writes Postman, “is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods.”

So what are these narratives?  There are five:

Spaceship Earth” (the notion of humans as stewards of the planet); Through subjects such as ecology, anthropology, and astronomy, students could develop an ethic of care and a proper perspective on their place in the order of things.

 “The Fallen Angel” (a view of history and the advancement of knowledge as a series of errors and corrections); Postman says we ought to let our students peek more often behind the facade of textbook truths to the process of argument, reflection, and doubt.

 “The American Experiment” (the story of America as a great experiment and as a centre of continuous argument); Postman suggests that we all need a healthier dose of civic pride  and patriotism in order to make an ongoing contribution to the narrative of democracy and society

 “The Laws of Diversity” (the view that difference contributes to increased vitality and excellence, and, ultimately, to a sense of unity); By this he means that students should explore the inherently multicultural nature of modern beliefs and practices. If we look closely, Postman says, we find that language, religion, art, and custom travel well across cultural borders; historically they are the product of much borrowing and intermingling.

“The Word Weavers/The World Makers” (the understanding that the world is created through language — through definitions, questions, and metaphors). Postman urges a more reflexive approach to the use of language. Stressing our species’ unique legacy, he suggests that as “word weavers” we are also “world makers.” He urges us to “free our minds from the tyranny of definitions” (p. 183). Students must penetrate the root metaphors and definitions that provide frameworks for inquiry across the human arts and sciences.


Postman  offers some radical ideas. Too radical, maybe. He argues that textbooks should be altogether eliminated because they have a deadening effect on students and promote a view of education as the acquisition of immutable facts.  He proposes that teachers offer incentives to students who find errors in their teachers’ lessons. (no go area for unions) And he feels, as we have seen, that the subjects of archaeology, ecology, geology and astronomy be given the highest priority since they imbue students with a sense of awe and global interdependence (what about all the other subjects that demand time in curriculum, including the arts). Teaching on democracy and diversity and ‘American History’ are susceptible, of course, to manipulation by politicians who  can have their own often subjective , polarised   and parochial versions of what is important and right. (politicians all have their own  whimsical views about what should and should not appear in the curriculum)

Postman posits a moral philosophy of education which is certainly thought provoking.  He offers too a scaffolding upon which to build a curriculum. (slightly reminded here  of the Big History approach- which examines history scientifically using a multi-disciplinary   approach from the Big Bang to the present.  ) But it is hard to see how his vision has  much  resonance today. For example, also   taking into account his other work, he sees the erosion of culture by technology, so  the role of the school should not be to maintain pace with change but rather to provide an oasis of tradition and quietude from which to observe the technological frenzy that is modern society- so how would  that sit with current thinking? (though its true that wildly ambitious claims (ie evidence lite) have been made for how technology can improve learning outcomes)  He seems to be trying to save, as he sees it, public education because it is the only means by which American culture can be preserved from the rampages of uncontrolled technological development. So what sounded interesting and cutting edge in the 1990s now looks a bit jaded, maybe?

But, as the debate continues into 2013, on what education is for, he provides a useful and provocative source.


Postman, N. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.


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