'End' Infectious, Inspiring

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman 209 pp., Alfred A. Knopf $22

Sick of standardized tests and 12 pencils. Imagine this essay question on your SAT's

Describe five of the most significant errors scholars have made in biology (or physics, history, etc.). Indicate why they are errors, who made them and what persons are mainly responsible for correcting them. You may receive extra credit if you can describe an error that was made by the error corrector.

This optimistic but continually critical approach, writes Neil Postman, is exactly what American schools need. His latest book, The End of Education, is packed with similarly unconventional ideas which he hopes can reinvigorate our floundering educational system. Textbooks should be abolished, he says because they knowledge as finals and fixed. Teachers should be forced for semester to teach their worst subject--thus learning empathy for students who may be neither motivated nor talented.

These are daring suggestions but Postman the credentials to back them up. Though currently chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at NYC he's taught in elementary and secondary schools. And the twenty books he's written include studies of both children and education. "The end of education" turns out to be a rather ominous pun: Postman believes that unless the educational system can decide on an "end," it will end.

Ever-optimistic, Postman's book is dedicated to finding just such a purpose. It ignores technicalities (class size, teachers salaries) to focus on what he calls "gods" educational frameworks of a near mythological scope. Postman takes an as to what he considers our false cultural gods including the god of absolute scientific truth, the god of economic utilitarianism and the god of consumerism. Instead he offers five new gods which he hopes will provide moral guidance, a sense of continuity, explanations of the past, clarity to the present hope for the future.

Overly ambitious Perhaps Yet many of Postman's arguments ring disturbingly true. He criticizes those who view technology as a panacea, noting that though the Internet may be an excellent disseminator of information, teacher student and student - student interaction is irreplaceable. He also deplores the mutation of cultural pluralism into "multiculturalism." While the former advocates the acceptance and inclusion of all cultures, he believes the latter seems preoccupied with a dangerously divisive, ethnocentric fragmentation.

Postman's alternative to multiculturalism, like all the gods he suggests, has an almost religiously transcendent quality. "Diversity," as he defines it, encompasses the study of multiple languages (especially the English language, "the most multicultural language on Earth") in addition to comparative religion, sociology, anthropology and surprisingly, the study of museums. This kind of perspective is intended to give our students some intellectual "hybrid vigor."


The other four gods he presents contain a similar mixture of idealism and practicality. "The Spaceship Earth" depicts all humans as stewards of a fragile planet, implicitly teaching tolerance and social responsibility. "The Fallen Angel" encourages critical thinking by stressing that error is inevitable, that blind dogma is dangerous and that much of what students learn in school is incorrect in "the American Experiment," he claims that having a government based on democracy and continuous argument is cause for patriotism. Yet, he cautions, we must remember that though "no shame need endure forever no accomplishment merits excessive pride." Finally, "The Word Weavers/The World Makers" focuses on humans unique facility with language--notably, how language can shape, control and cloud our ideas.

Like all ideals, Postman's suggestions will be difficult to implement Yet his sincere conviction in the potential for change is both infections and inspiring. The End of Education deserves to be read by students as well as educators Swept up in a wave of pre-professional zeal we quickly forget that education can have a purpose in itself. This book provides hope that schooling can be, as he says not about how to make a living, but how to make .