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From Barnes & NobleBack for the Future
Neil Postman calls himself an "enemy" of the 20th century. He has never been a fan of television or video games, as he reveals in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Though he does not perceive himself as a neo-Luddite, he is apprehensive about the direction in which technology is leading us, as he explains in Technopoly. And he is aghast at the present state of our educational system and the dissipation of "childhood," as he relates in The End of Education and The Disappearance of Childhood.
But Postman is far from a curmudgeon without a cause, or a solution. In his most controversial book to date, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Postman revisits the subjects of his earlier works to suggest ways to ensure a better pathway over the bridge to the 21st century for those who "are still searching for a way to confront the future, a way that faces reality as it is, that is connected to a humane tradition, that provides sane authority and meaningful purpose."
Postman finds useful instruction in the Age of Enlightenment, a period that he defines as beginning in the middle of the 17th century, with John Locke and Isaac Newton, and extending to the 19th century, with John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the romantic poets. It was the age that saw the invention of the idea of progress and our modern conception of happiness. Reason was beginning to triumph over superstition, and both the philosophers and philosophes (those interested "in practical, concrete matters as scientists, educators, humanitarians, and reformers") developed the ways we think about inductive science, religious and political freedom, popular education, rational commerce, and the nation-state. It was the age of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Pestalozzi, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin -- some of the greatest minds of the last 300 years.
While it has been argued that the 20th century gave us the rejection of racial and gender hierarchies, as well as a time of increased access to higher education, Postman explains that these were born out of the Age of Enlightenment. He does not deny that witches were burned at the stake as late as 1793 (in Poland), slavery was still in existence, and the Inquisition continued until the end of the 18th century. He instead draws our attention to the fact that Jefferson (a slave owner) denounced the African slave trade in the Declaration of Independence, and Frederick the Great employed the anti-despot Voltaire as his court philosopher. "You can take any century you please and make a list of its inhumanities. The eighteenth is no exception. But it is there, and in no other, that we have the beginnings of much that is worthwhile about the modern world."
There are three "transcendent narratives" of this century, according to the author: fascism, Nazism, and communism, and they gave way to more destruction than human history has ever witnessed. Postman naturally prefers the narrative of the Enlightenment; it is one of skepticism, a virtue in Postman's eyes, and our century surely could use that mode of critical thinking. Postman faults our current age (as yet unnamed) for our inability to ask the crucial questions we need to understand how to move forward. We don't ask of technology, for example, "What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?", "Whose problem is it?", and "Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?" Postman's solution for our future is to uphold the Enlightenment's legacy of skepticism, beginning with rethinking the ways we educate our children. He suggests that children be taught the art and science of asking questions, the concepts of semantics and scientific thinking, the history and principles of technological change, and comparative religion.
While the "twenty-first century" is "only a name," Postman concedes that "it is a name we use to foster hope, to inspire renewal, to get another chance to do it right...if we try to remember how others before us tried to get it right, our own chances are improved."