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The End of Education: A Recourse to Purpose in Pandemic Times

What would Neil Postman say about education in these times?

School shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale have steered education and schooling to a completely new reality. The immediacy and novelty of such situations could result in going off the road with why we were there in the first place. Leaning too much on technology can be the very reason for this.

Reading Neil Postman, an American critic and educator (1931–2003), in such times is crucial to rethink how dependent we are on the ‘how’ than the ‘why’ of education. Postman deems very much appropriate for this especially because of his views on technology.

The End of Education, a book written by Neil Postman, might be able to answer some questions of the education/school problems.

According to Postman education is has two dimensions. One is the engineering dimension, the means by which young people acquire an education. The other one is a metaphysical dimension that is the underlying purpose or mission or the end of education. Postman believes that the primary focus is mostly on the engineering aspect of education today, while very little attention is paid to the metaphysics of schooling. He says:

“without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better.” (p — x-xi).

Postman shows that if teachers, parents, and the children do not have a purpose, if they do not believe in anything or they do not have a god to serve, then the schools become houses of detention rather that attention. Therefore, it is significant to have a shared or common narrative that they can live by, because “public education depends absolutely on the existence of shared narratives and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness” (p- 17). What is public about public school “is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods” because “public education does not serve a public. It creates a public”, which is solely inspired by a reason and powered by a shared narrative that all are in service to.

red apple fruit on four pyle books

The ‘End’ in The ‘End’ of Education could have two meanings: one is the literal meaning of an end, a point of no return, and the other is purpose, the meanings we give to things in our lives. Postman refers to End as purposes of education or gods that need to be served. However, he also says that either meaning could apply for the future of schooling. And this is because education is absent.

“I return to the subject [of education] now, not because the education world has suffered from my absence, but because I have [suffered from the absence of education]” (p — ix).

Serving False Gods of Education

“There was a time when educators became famous for providing reasons for learning; now they become famous for inventing a method”

Postman throughout the book describes some current gods (purposes of education) that are being served as false gods. The god of economic utility, technology, consumerism, and multiculturalism, he says that these gods are not capable of providing rich education and maintaining a life worth living. The stories of those gods are pointless and the future with worshipping those is not promising. In serving those false gods, the chance of a better life is scarce because their knowledge is imparted and purposes are mortal. Educators in serving the false gods are not as those in the past because educators of past “ became famous for providing reasons for learning; now they become famous for inventing a method” (p- 26).

Who are the True Gods of Education?

“he who has a why can bear with almost any how” Nietzsche

Postman proposes several alternative narratives to be served instead of the false gods of education. He believed they would serve us better. They are;

  1. Spaceship Earth: that humans are responsible for and stewards of the planet.
  2. The American Experiment: the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous arguments.
  3. The Fallen Angel: history and the advancement of knowledge as a series of making mistakes and corrections.
  4. The Laws of Diversity: difference contributes to increased vitality and excellence, and, ultimately, to a sense of unity.
  5. The Word Weavers/The World Makers: understanding that the world is created through language, through definitions, questions, and metaphors.

Postman promotes these as purposes to education as replacements for the importance given the engineering aspects of education like the assessment, evaluation, curriculum, management. Instead, focus more on the metaphysical aspects of education.

He further argues that it is easier to live when we know the why question, the reason for what we live for. Nietzsche remarks “he who has a why can bear with almost any how”. For if we know what are we schooling our kids for, the methodology of how to do it will be much easier. Teachers will know why they teach, the principal will realize their role in administrating the school, parents will see what they are dreaming of, and the students are better at understanding their role for society and humanity at large.

In Conclusion

The COVID-19 global pandemic may have put a pause on the ways we do things. It is true. But it should also make us rethink the conventional ways we do things. How we teach, learn, see ourselves as part of whats going on around us, and more importantly how we engage and reengage with the purposes of education, why my kid is going to school? why did I do education? how different should it be from then?


Reference to the book: Postman, N. (1995). The End Of Education: Redefining the Value Of School. New York: Knopf.


This post was first published on Medium on Jun 16, 2020

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