Postliterate Humanity

by William S. Hamrick

William S. Hamrick is Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He is editor of Phenomenology in Practice and Theory Martinus Nijhof 1985). and author of An Existential Phenomenology of Law Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Kluwer 1987),plus a number of articles in Continental Thought. He is also Associate Editor of the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 232-247, Vol. 17, Number 4, Winter, 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr Hamrick relates process thought to issues unknown in Whitehead’s day, such as those revolving around the crisis schools face in competing with the information environment in an electronic age.

I borrow my title from Harvey Cox’s well known The Secular City, the aim of which was to map out and defend the relevance of religion for "the post-literate man of the electronic image" (TSC 11) whose urban, technological culture seemed to many so inhospitable for such an endeavor. Whether or not one agrees with Cox’s arguments about the positive religious opportunities in such a "technopolitan" environment, not many will dispute the necessity -- indeed, the inevitability -- of evaluating the significance of social changes on institutions in terms of the intelligibility of their operative concepts and their cultural relevance.

But if this need for revaluation is true of religion, it is even more so of education, and few have understood it as well, or illustrated it with such a commanding historical sweep, as did Alfred North Whitehead. This is perhaps the dominant impression that even the reader with the most cursory knowledge of his writings receives from The Aims of Education. And scholars familiar with the whole corpus know that, as Victor Lowe pointed out, "we can see how great a part of Whitehead’s activities, all through his life, has been expended on education. He wrote essays on it before he began to write as a philosopher, even a philosopher of physics . . . Principia Mathematica . . . is probably the only book bearing his name in which an interest in the activities of the mind does not often show itself" (DWP 21).

More than a half-century after The Aims of Education appeared in print, it is still true that, as Henry Wyman Holmes once observed, "The wit, the common sense, the penetration of the essays . . . commend them so decisively to teachers" (WVE 633). It is also probably true that, as Holmes goes on to assert, "What Whitehead does not see (or does not emphasize) is the enormous difficulty of making education for the duller minds and slower-moving bodies what it can be (and clearly should be) for the rest -- an active process leading to broad understandings and to special competence without the slightest rending ‘of the seamless cloth of learning"’ (WVE 637). But this fault aside, there are several enduring values in The Aims of Education, even for a culture drastically unlike that to which it was addressed, and thus relevant for reasons which its author could not have suspected. In the following pages, therefore, I first shall list summarily four of these values which, as a professional educator, I find particularly illuminating. Then I shall detail three crucial and dramatic ways in which society has changed since The Aims of Education. And finally, I shall sketch the new relevance of that text together with certain parts of Whitehead’s later philosophy which probably, but unhappily, are unknown by most educators.


The first of these insights is that education is not simply a mastery of "scraps of information." Echoing Faust’s mournful lament, Whitehead asserts that "A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth" (AE).1 Rather, since "Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling," it follows that "What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art" (AE I). In this scheme, education becomes "the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge" (AE 6), and Whitehead is well remembered for having detailed two related pitfalls on the road to acquiring this art. Both represent ways that education degenerates into "scraps of information."

The first trap is "inert ideas," that is, "ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations" (AE 1-2). And the second pitfall, which institutionalizes the first, is the "fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modem curriculum. There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations" (AE 10). But:

Instead of this single unity, we offer children -- Algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a Couple of Languages, never mastered; and lastly, most dreary of all, Literature, represented by plays of Shakespeare, with philological notes and short analyses of plot and character to be in substance committed to memory. Can such a list be said to represent Life, as it is known in the midst of the living of it? The best that can be said of it is, that it is a rapid table of contents which a deity might run over in his mind while he was thinking of creating a world, and had not yet determined how to put it together. (AE 10-Il)

The second, third, and fourth themes from The Aims of Education flow directly from the first. The second is that "The antithesis between a technical and a liberal education is fallacious. There can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical; that is, no education which does not impart both technique and intellectual vision" (AE 74). The Function of Reason will later parallel this claim with its distinction between the practical and speculative functions of Reason, but with the caveat that "the antithesis between the two functions of Reason is not quite so sharp as it seems at first sight" (FR 39).

The third insight is rather different. Returning to the connection between life and the curriculum, Whitehead considers that "So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any justification for existence since the popularization of printing in the fifteenth century . . . The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively" (AB 138-139). Or, as the disguised Mephistopheles more succinctly counseled the eagerly inquiring student, "Gray, my dear friend, is every theory/And green alone life’s golden tree" (F 207).

Along with this, fourth, the connection between education and the zest for life means avoiding the danger of "a faculty entirely unfit -- a faculty of very efficient pedants and dullards. The general public will only detect the difference after the university has stunted the promise of youth for scores of years" (AE 150). The faculty should be "a band of imaginative scholars" (AE 150) -- neither fools nor pedants. "Fools act on imagination without knowledge; pedants act on knowledge without imagination. The task of a university is to weld together imagination and experience" (AE 140). Whitehead continually and consistently argued that education had to be revitalized by redeveloping the excitement of learning in addition to routine, and this could be done by the reintroduction, through imagination, of novelty and creativity.

Insisting on creativity as well as on routine may be seen as a specific case of a later, more general claim that Whitehead’s process metaphysics makes about our own cosmic epoch. Namely, the well-being, and the very survival, of higher-order organisms require the successful interplay of several contrary factors. For example, we need stability, but also creativity; order as well as novelty, permanence balanced by change, endurance as well as life. We require the structure of institutions, but also flexibility; habit as well as adaptability, and tradition, history, and custom need the balance of freedom.

In Whitehead’s view, these are contraries, not contradictories. It is true that, in practice, the pendulum appears to swing much more to one extreme than to the other, as for instance, in the way that the 1950’s might be contrasted to the 1960’s, or the 1960’s to the 1970’s. And even in theory it is often difficult to avoid either/or thinking about the shape of social life. As Lon Fuller once observed, "Men have never been very ready to acknowledge that their thinking contains anything like an unresolved state of tension. They have never been very happy with what Morris Cohen calls ‘the principle of polarity,’ according to which notions apparently contradictory form indispensable complements for one another" (RFCL 381). Likewise, Whitehead’s view is that, for solid theoretical and practical reasons, we must strive for "an understanding of the interweaving of change and permanence, each required by the other. This interweaving is a primary fact of experience. It is at the base of our concepts of personal identity, of social identity, and of all sociological functionings" (MT 73).

It is also, therefore, at the foundation of educational theory. As he pointed out late in Process and Reality,

Another contrast is equally essential for the understanding of ideals -- the contrast between order as the condition for excellence, and order as stifling the freshness of living. This contrast is met with in the theory of education . The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. (PR 338, 339/514)

Now Whitehead was concerned with the educational process not only in terms of ideals, but also from the point of view of a cultural diagnosis of "the state of the art." And as far as the latter goes, in The Aims of Education and elsewhere, we find a consistent attack on educational institutions for their one-sided contributions to the life of the mind. That is, he viewed educational institutions as furnishing mostly those features of experience listed above which have to do with order, permanence, and stability. It was their contraries, rather, which were jeopardized, that is, those elements of life which revolve around the freshness of creativity and imagination. For example, foresight requires a sensitivity to evidence, perhaps itself a developed ability, so as to imaginatively perceive relevant future possibilities, coupled with an adaptability to changing circumstances. Certainly Whitehead appreciated the paradoxicality of educational institutions training people to be foresighted, since their curricula were mostly routinized programs geared to drearily providing a knowledge of the past. Thus, one great presupposition of Whitehead’s approach to education was that the past’s being given was not problematic, and in this context it is easy to understand his admiration for, and excitement about, the University of London and state universities in this country as opposed to Oxford or Cambridge. It is true that he often heaped praise on those stately bastions of academic respectability. But he also records the fact that his teaching career at the University of London changed his mind about the function of Universities in a modern, industrial civilization. And he goes on to claim for that institution and for our state universities that, untrammeled as they were by tradition and habit, "It is not too much to say that this novel adaptation of education is one of the features which may save civilization. The nearest analogy is that of the monasteries a thousand years earlier" (PANW 12).


Such are, in brief outline, some of the main enduring values from Whitehead’s reflections on education, chiefly from The Aims of Education, together with his perceptions of the relevance of the educational enterprise to his own culture. Now I want to change the frame of reference to the present and argue that (1) since Whitehead’s time, there have been at least three profound interrelated changes in the shape of social life; (2) these changes do not nullify his insights, but they do make them relevant in ways he never would have suspected; and (3) his emphasis on imagination, creativity, and a zest for life must be tempered to stress what he could take for granted, but which I believe we cannot.

The three social changes I have in mind are as follows. First, the rate of social change has been greatly accelerated because of dramatic technological advances and other factors. In a very fast-paced urban environment, foresight and planning for the future -- as opposed to reaction -- do not become irrelevant. Rather, their importance increases in direct proportion to the ways in which the rapidity of change threatens their very possibility.

This is not to say that Whitehead was unaware of, or paid no attention to social change. Indeed, he remarked that "we live in the first historical period which falsifies the assumption -- which colors our educational philosophy -- that each generation lives amidst traditions established by forefathers and will continue" (AI 117). And this was clearly part of the attraction to less tradition-bound universities. Now today, it may or may not be true that individually and collectively we suffer from a "future shock" syndrome. But it is certain that many, if not most, people are forced to make more choices faster, with less evidence, than in any previous epoch of our society.

The second profound social change is that we are now living in a nuclear age compounded by increasing international tensions, violence, terrorism, and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. This unsettling situation increases dramatically the stakes that are being gambled. Thus in 1929, Whitehead could confidently assert, as we no longer can, that "the evolutionary use of intelligence is that it enables the individual to profit by error without being slaughtered by it" (PR 168/256). To the extent that "error is the mark of the higher organisms," a nuclear mistake would eliminate this natural gradation. Or, as Whitehead himself put it in another context, "The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes" (AI 60).

Now in both The Function of Reason and Process and Reality, Whitehead makes several interesting remarks about the use of reason in evolutionary survival. But before we can appreciate their relevance to the educational process in our culture, we need to consider the third major social change, that is, what Neil Postman has called "the information environment" (TCA 29). While the accelerated pace of social change and the fact that we are living in a nuclear age are clearly phenomena of which no one is unaware, the same cannot be said of the crucial shift in the information environment. Some elaboration will be required, therefore, before illustrating the educational problems it poses and how it is related to the first two social changes.

The easiest way to set out this explanation is to take up Postman’s own order of exposition, albeit greatly compressed and disentangled from its more detailed substructures. The central thesis of Teaching as a Conserving Activity is that education is best thought of as a "thermostatic activity" (TCA 19): "To Norbert Wiener, who invented the science of feedback, the clearest example of cybernetics-in-action -- that is, the principle of oppositional complementarity -- is a thermostat, a mechanism for triggering opposing forces" (TCA 19). In a "dialectical relationship with its environment," "The function of education is always to offer the counter-argument, the other side of the picture. The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered" (TCA 19-20).

Education should thus serve as a balance to the prevailing biases of a given culture. Just as Whitehead argued, schools should promote change in

a society of great stability and firm tradition . . . [in which] the entire culture is engaged in remembering, if not reliving, its past. The conserving function of school is, then, redundant and, according to the thermostatic view, even dangerous. However, in a culture of high volatility and casual regard for its past such a responsibility becomes the school’s most essential service. The school stands as the only mass medium capable of putting forward the case for what is not happening in the culture. (TCA 21-22)

Thus, in our society, given the accelerated pace of life, "Our own culture is overdosing on change . . . . [social changes] have come in Toffleresque profusion and have led to such Kafkaesque confusion. It is enough to say that we have reached the point where the problem of conservation, not growth, must now be solved" (TCA 21). Postman considers, therefore, that

The major role of education in the years ahead is to help conserve that which is both necessary to a humane survival and threatened by a furious and exhausting culture . . . . a long time ago [in Teaching as a Subversive Activity] it seemed to me that only by looking ahead could we equip our children to face the present. It now seems to me that we might do it better by looking back. For a while. (TCA 25)

Now, then, we come to the "information environment" which is at once the chief danger to conserving what is necessary for a humane survival and consequently that upon which the thermostatic activity of education is to act. The information environment is created by the particular ways in which members of a certain society communicate with each other. These styles and patterns of communication

set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the sources of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capacities that will emerge. (TCA 29)

As a result, the task of educators is to illuminate the biases of the information environment and to balance them with a contrary voice.

The information environment in any given culture has a complex structure. It has form, and in our own society is dominated by the electronic media, with television at the center. A crucial fact here, to which I shall return below, is that the form of information is intimately bound up with the way we conceive -- in our own age, literally picture -- reality. But there is also quantity of information, and today it is indeed staggering. Whole institutions exist merely to collect, process, and distribute it. Thus, while institutions create our information, it is also true that information creates our institutions) And whenever there are significant mutations in the information structure, great social changes cannot be far behind.

Finally, information is conveyed and registered at a certain speed, and the technological advances here are not only wondrous to behold, but also have reshaped history. For example, the Vietnamese War was the first to be a livingroom, TV affair, and it is not too much to believe that the tide of public opinion finally turned against the whole enterprise in large part because of TV viewers sickened by the continuous sequence of gruesome spectacles on the nightly news. Thus Postman is correct that

Surely it is not too much to say that the configuration of all these properties of information has the deepest physiological, psychological, and social consequences. Nor is it too much to say -- in fact, it is saying the same thing -- that the configuration of these properties at any given time and place comprises an invisible environment around which we form our ideas about time and space, learning, knowledge, and social relations. (TCA 41)

Now when educators come to examine our electronic information environment for its biases, the first thing to be grasped is that it has a curriculum all its own. More exactly, it is a curriculum, just as school is (rather than "has"), if a curriculum be defined as

a course of study whose purpose is to train or cultivate both mind and character . . . . a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose, in its totality, is to influence, teach, train, or cultivate the mind and character of our youth. By this definition, television and school not only have curricula but are curricula; that is, they are total learning systems. (TCA 49)

In terms of the relative influence of the two curricula, even in the absence of totally reliable figures it is safe to conclude that each year the average child in this country spends more hours in front of the television set than in school. As a result, Postman considers that "television is not only a curriculum but constitutes the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the United States. That is why I call it the First Curriculum. School is the second" (TCA 50).

Now if school should oppose the biases of the electronic media environment, it cannot be merely because of the latter’s more significant impact on its clientele. The claim is not that school and television are doing the same thing and that one is more successful than the other. It must be, rather, that their conflicts are so significant that the types of education which one receives under their influences differ radically -- and with decisive social consequences. This is, in fact, the case, and some of their more important differences may be summarized as follows.

First, they use different means to compel attention and attendance. School has a traditionally uninteresting subject matter and must force people to attend through legal force. Television, on the other hand, compels attendance indirectly by being attention-centered: "In a certain sense, it has no goal other than keeping the attention of its students. Unlike the school, which selects its subject matter first and then tries to devise methods to attract interest in it, television first selects ways to attract interest, allowing content to be shaped accordingly" (TCA 51). Television watching is its own reward or, to put it another way, it, rather than school, is much more apt to realize the ideal of learning for its own sake.

This fact has important consequences about authority in a reversal of classic student-teacher roles. Namely, "In the school curriculum, if the student repeatedly does not pay attention, the teacher may remove him from class. In the TV curriculum, if the student repeatedly does not pay attention, the teacher is removed from class" (TCA 51-52). Along with this, we should also note that television does not administer penalties for not paying attention or doing lessons. But such is not the case with school, or life itself, for that matter.

The second great difference between the television curriculum and school is the way in which the information they convey is encoded. In the former, information is codified analogically; in the latter, however, it is digitally codified:

Analogic forms of information are systems of codification which have a real and intrinsic relationship to what they signify. A photograph is a good example . . . Analogic forms, in other words, have direct correspondences to the structure of nature itself. . . On the other hand, digital forms of information are entirely abstract, and have no natural correspondences to nature. The word man, whether spoken or written, has no intrinsic relationship to that which it stands for. (TCA 53)

One needs a semantic code and a grammatical structure to understand digital forms of information, but this is not the case for analogic forms.

To process digitally encoded information, one needs sophisticated cognitive abilities unnecessary for analogic forms. This stems from the essential contrast between "The image -- concrete, unique, non-paraphrasable -- versus the word -- abstract, conceptual, translatable. This is one of several conflicts between TV and school, and perhaps the most important" (TCA 55). Correspondingly, "This difference between symbols that demand conceptualization and reflection and symbols that evoke feeling has many implications, one of the most important being that the content of the TV curriculum is irrefutable . . . . Images and sentences are neither processed by the brain nor evaluated by the intelligence in the same way. They do different things and require different responses" (TCA 56).

It is true that scripts of television shows and commercials contain propositions that are true or false, but the televised word is phenomenologically distinguishable:

the picture stories on television, including those of commercials, do not make statements,’ except in the sense of evoking feelings . . . . There is no way to show that the feelings evoked by the imagery of a McDonald’s commercial are false, or indeed, true. Such words as true and false come out of a different universe of symbolism altogether. Propositions are true or false. Pictures are not. (TCA 57)4

Another great difference between school and television that follows from the way their information is encoded is that the school curriculum is

hierarchical, rigidly graded, and based on the principle of the prerequisite, whereas the TV curriculum is almost totally undifferentiated. Concepts, generalizations, verbal knowledge -- reasoning itself -- are hierarchical in nature. There is a structure to ideas. They are built one upon another, and you must be able to comprehend lower orders of concepts before comprehending those of greater complexity. That is almost the whole reason for prerequisites in school. (TCA 59)

But in television viewing, no program demands prerequisites and each is complete in itself. This is another reason why TV learning can satisfy the goal of learning for its own sake, for each story provides an immediate gratification of the desire for understanding and enjoyment.

Television, unlike school, provides the immediacy of pleasure via the pleasure of immediacy. Its learning modules are time-compressed, extremely shortened sequences of 10-60 second commercials and 30-60 minute programs subdivided into 8-10 minute segments. With special reference to the significant impact of commercials, young people are conditioned to concentrate intensely for very short temporal durations. Correspondingly, they get unused to exercises of intense concentration throughout a substantial period of time. One is certainly justified in expecting significant conditioning in television commercials not only because of the temporal factor, but also because they are almost always about serious problems. That is, they are not so much about products as about social problems to solve. The problems are serious, especially for young people, but the solutions are almost always trivial. For example:

Mouthwash commercials are not about bad breath, they are about the need for social acceptance and, frequently, about the need to be sexually attractive. Beer commercials are almost always about the need to share the values of a peer group . . . . a toilet paper commercial about one’s fear of nature. Television commercials are about products only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales. (TCA 61)

In television land, all these weighty problems can be solved instantly, by buying the appropriate product or services. In real life, and as traditionally taught in school, the nature of such problems and the ways to solve them are viewed in a sharply different manner. The "stubborn facts," as Whitehead liked to say, are much more indifferent to our wishes.

There is another aspect of this difference which is equally important. Namely, history is almost completely irrelevant in an information environment that restricts one’s attention to a narrow slice of temporal immediacy. This is so because "it is in the nature of TV’s imagistic, present-oriented, time-compressed curriculum to be nonsequential; that is, discontinuous. There is almost nothing on television, however high its quality, that has anything to do with anything else on television" (TCA 62). Whereas one would reasonably expect in a school curriculum, even a very bad one, some principle of coherent organization, the television curriculum is almost totally incoherent: "There is no chronology, or theme, or logical sequence. The world to which television is the window is presented as fragmented, unorganizable, without structure of any kind" (TCA 63).

The information environment of the television curriculum reveals one additional bias which is worth pointing out, namely, that it is largely authoritarian. Messages are conveyed in one direction only, so that the viewer retains the option to change programs or even to turn off the set, but never to provide any feedback by questioning, complaining, altering the form and/or content of the programs, and so forth. Of course, as Postman admits, school

is not famous for its democratic structure. But even the harshest school critic will concede that the classroom is by no means a unidirectional system. If nothing else, misbehavior itself is a form of feedback, and no teacher can be indifferent to it. . . . The school curriculum, then, for all its legendary demands for obedience and passivity, is far less authoritarian than the TV curriculum. (TCA 67)

Postman also points out how television is paradoxically non-authoritarian because it breaks up "the monopoly of the printed word" as analogously "The printing press broke the knowledge monopoly of those few writers and readers who controlled the manuscript culture" (TCA 68). But in an epoch in which more and more power, wealth, and influence accrue to the electronic media generally, and to television in particular, rather than to the written word, one has more reason to be concerned about its authoritarian, monopolistic qualities. Thus it is legitimate to wonder whether "Living, as we do, in an electronic world of pictures and sounds, can the written word have the same power with which we once invested it?" (TCA 42). Perhaps not. If Milton was correct that "a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit," television might be its Dracula.

In any case, Milton probably would have worried about the possibility of having master spirits in post-literate humanity, or whether most people would incline toward slavery to electronic media controllers, perhaps as in Fahrenheit 451. What is more, some protection against authoritarian control of the information environment has always been provided by a strong oral tradition which nourished articulate social criticism. But it is important to see clearly that our choice is no longer between a written and an oral culture. We are not returning to the Socratic alternative to the Platonic emphasis on the written word, or to the life of the mind as Montaigne treasured it. On the contrary, we have, and we are actively shaping the future of, an image culture, that of the "post-literate man of the electronic image" (TSC 11).

Postman’s thermostatic view means that (school) education should correctively balance the biases of the electronic information environment rather than eliminate the media entirely. It is true that his criticisms sometimes border on the simplistic by, for example, not distinguishing between the effects of being conditioned by Masterpiece Theatre as opposed to The New Newlywed Game or Wheel of Fortune. But it is also the case that he does not pretend, predict, or even desire that television in particular will vanish. His criticisms are not directed toward content, but rather toward form. Thus they are not the standard fare of either moral conservatism or more liberal attacks on the inanity of most of TV’s mind-wasting exercises (Newton Minnow’s "vast wasteland"). Rather, he is concerned with the form and style of the presentation of the television curriculum because it is that which is most significant in the shaping of people’s minds.

As a result of this concern, Postman is also led to reflect on the consequences of not correcting the several biases detailed above. First, he speculates, but only that, on the physiological effects on brain development. Since the left hemisphere is mostly geared to handling linguistic information and is decisively influential in our powers of reasoning, speaking, writing, computing, categorizing, and so forth as opposed to the right hemisphere’s control of pattern recognition and much of our visual aesthetic appreciation, the speculation is that people would eventually be "right-brained." But throughout several millenia of evolution, it appears that it is the other hemisphere which has been increasingly dominant.

It is difficult to say what the final results of this shift would mean over the course of, say, two or three centuries of electronic image conditioning, but this is only speculation about the future. Returning to the present and something that is already known, Postman observes that there are serious psychological changes even now attributable to television, at least in part:

For example, I have already suggested that the highly compressed TV learning modules, especially those of ten-to thirty-second commercials, are affecting attention span. Many teachers have commented on the fact that students, of all ages ‘turn off when some lesson or lecture takes longer than, say, eight to ten minutes. TV conditioning leads to the expectation that there will be a new point of view or focus of interest or even subject matter every few minutes, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the young to sustain attention in situations where there is a fixed point of view or an extended linear progression. (TCA 73)

Not only does this make it extremely difficult for teachers to be interesting in the classroom, or in dealing with digitally encoded information, "But even more important, writing, which is the clearest demonstration of the power of analytical and sequential thinking, seems increasingly to be an alien form to many of our young, even to those who may be regarded as extremely intelligent" (TCA 73). Certainly this fact threatens many skills, abilities, and even the perception of general culture -- from logic and doing science on the one hand to good literature and decent journalism on the other. But more generally, Postman is worried about why young people "turn away from civilized speech," and in his view, the right answer is that "the electronic information environment, with television at its center, is fundamentally hostile to conceptual, segmented, linear modes of expression, so that both writing and speech must lose some of their power" (TCA 74).

The use of language can also be a craft, and part of the skill of being a linguistic craftsperson -- a wordsmith, if you like -- is the ability to be sensitive to the nuances and ambiguities of words and expressions and thus the effects that they will have on the reader or listener. But there is little place for this in the electronic information environment, especially in television, because "its imagery is fast moving, concrete, discontinuous, alogical, requiring emotional response, not conceptual processing. Not being propositional in form, its imagery does not provide grounds for argument and contains little ambiguity. There is nothing to debate about. Nothing to refute. Nothing to negate" (TCA 75).

There is a tight link between being successfully conditioned by such an information environment, being blind to ambiguities in evidence, and, with the accelerating pace of social change, both demanding and expecting instant solutions to life’s problems. "The fragmented, impatient speech of the young" and "their illogical, unsyntactical writing" are only two effects or concomitant developments of "the rapid emergence of an all-instant society: instant therapy, instant religion, instant food, instant friends, even instant reading. Instancy is one of the main teachings of our present information environment. Constancy is one of the main teachings of civilization" (TCA 76). Speed reading, which no doubt developed in response to the enormously increased volume of information, not to say the worthlessness of much of it, is contemptuous of ambiguities of meanings, the notion that language can be a craft, and thus of much of artistic creation. Therefore, "A person trained to read a page in three seconds is being taught contempt for complexity and ambiguity. A person trained to restructure his or her life in a weekend of therapy is being taught not only contempt for complexity and ambiguity but for the meaning of one’s own past" (TCA 76).

But given the considerably greater power of influence exercised by the electronic media, Postman comes to the regretful conclusion that traditional school education yields to it

at almost every point and in the worst possible way -- by trying to mimic the forms of the electronic curriculum and therefore to indulge its biases. School courses are reduced to twenty-minute modules so that children’s attention will not wander. Required courses are eliminated and replaced with inconsequential electives. Teachers become entertainers. Programmed machines and other techniques which stress isolated learning are introduced. Audio-visual aids flood the classroom. Relevant -- that is, attention-centered -- topics are stressed. (TCA 85)6

The task for the future, therefore, is to provide our youth with a "healthful balance, and therefore a survival-insuring direction" by stressing the qualities of the traditional school curriculum which "is subject-matter-centered, word-centered, reason-centered, future-centered, hierarchical . . . and coherent" (TCA 86).


I have gone on at some length in the preceding pages about Postman’s cultural diagnosis and worries about the contemporary function of education, although I have certainly not stated the whole of his case or even touched on his proposed solutions. But such length is justified, I believe, because of the richness of detail with which he explains and illustrates the third major social change since the days of Whitehead’s writings, that of the information environment, which is pervasive enough that its conditioning activities usually remain hidden from most of us.

Such detail is also plainly necessary to frame an adequate Whiteheadian response to these arguments beginning with what they imply for realizing those insights from The Aims of Education briefly summarized in Part I above. I shall take the third and fourth ones first, since they are simpler than the others. The third was that, on its intellectual side, the raison d’être of universities is to impart information imaginatively. Tightly connected with this, the fourth insight was that, in striving for a unity of education, the zest for life, and imagination, education should be interesting. In particular, the faculty should be a "band of imaginative scholars," neither very efficient pedants who are ambulatory storehouses of unimaginative knowledge nor fools who act on an abundance of ignorant imagination.

As far as I know, Whitehead did not give us any examples of the latter, but as regards the former, he left no doubt as to what sort of targets he had in mind. Such, for example, was the celebrated Dr. Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the mid-nineteenth century, and immortalized in the following well-known rhyme:

I am Master of this College;

And what I know not,

Is not knowledge.

In Whitehead’s view, "This attitude is always prevalent in the learned world. It sterilizes imaginative thought, and thereby blocks progress" (MT 59).

But as Postman has pointed out, in a culture thoroughly conditioned by electronic media, the main problems for imaginatively imparting information in educational institutions are radically different from what Whitehead had in mind or probably could have suspected. Even if some professors today do have pretensions to omniscience, the explosion in the quantity of information to be imparted makes them as well as Dr. Whewell -- and Faust too, for that matter -- amusing anachronisms. However, as elaborated above, that is not for students today the chief obstacle to making education interesting. Rather, it is a question of making school education interesting, that is, of maintaining our integrity. One new aim of education must then be to resist imitating the incomparably more interesting and vivid electronic media to distinguish what goes on in the classroom from time-compressed, disjointed, non-sequential presentations of subject matter. Rather than being entertainers for immediate pleasure, we need now to emphasize stability instead of novelty, order instead of change, and constancy in place of instancy. We need have no fear, as did Whitehead, that novelty is in jeopardy. That the whole society supplies in daily abundance.

Thus, to take advantage of both novelty and stability, instructors ought certainly to refer to the wider world of the electronic information environment and to build in examples in classroom lectures and discussions. But balance will require that they point out to students all that the electronic media do not supply the life of the mind. There is nothing in principle which prevents us from imaginatively pointing out the difference between cognitive and imaginative abilities and of reinforcing the former.

The same line of thought, and new aims of education, apply as well to the first two enduring values from The Aims of Education. These are a bit more complex, but no less relevant to the structure of our information environment. The first of these was that education is not equivalent to "scraps of information." Culture is "activity of thought and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling." As a result, educational institutions should strive to produce individuals who possess both a knowledge of general culture as well as a specialization. Education becomes "the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge," and the pitfalls of inert ideas and the disconnection of subjects in a school curriculum are to be avoided.

Here, I believe, things have become simply much worse rather than different from Whitehead’s day to our own. Certainly he could not have seen much in conditioning by instantial electronic images that is compatible with the above claims. For one thing, there is comparatively little in the content of television programming which encourages receptiveness to beauty or humane feeling. This is so not only of visual phenomena but also, and perhaps especially, the linguistic because the great bulk of language on television -- and radio too, for that matter -- is merely a parody of civilized speech. Particularly in the case of commercial messages, language becomes a surrealistic, frenetic, high-volume self-ridicule with little or no cognitive content, let alone defensible arguments.

Furthermore, the receptiveness to beauty, and probably humane feeling as well, is threatened by the form of the electronic media curriculum. A rapid succession of instantial images which is "fundamentally hostile to conceptual, segmented, linear modes of expression" (TCA 74) is a poor context for cultivating certain minimum abilities required for aesthetic appreciation. That is, one would need the capability to organize a diversity of data in harmonious patterns while building up a richer and richer variety in as coherent a unity as possible. Or as Whitehead indicated in The Function of Reason, ‘The higher forms of intellectual experience only arise when there are complex integrations, and reintegrations of mental and physical experience" (pp. 32-33).

Of course, the protest against inert ideas and a curriculum of disconnected subjects would be even more telling against an electronic image medium than against traditional school curricula, for the reasons Postman gives. If the latter fails to give students a true picture of life as it is lived, how much more is this so of the former? As a matter of fact, Whitehead himself once said something like this in an example that now seems almost quaint by comparison with the electronic media of 1980:

Personal interviews carry more weight than grammophone records. What an economy could be achieved if the Faculties of Colleges could be replaced by fifty grammophones and a few thousand records [But] The sense of reality can never he adequately sustained amidst mere sensa, either of sound or sight. The connexity of existence is of the essence of understanding. (MT 45-46)

Sensa, for Whitehead -- in his later works, termed "data of presentational immediacy" as opposed to those of "causal efficacy" which link past and present -- are clear, precise, and in themselves are, as Hume showed so well, cut off from both past and future. As such, they are trivial: "The importance of clarity does not arise until we have interpreted it in terms of the vast issues vaguely haunting the fullness of existence" (MT 148). But understanding the latter involves, among other things, recourse to history, the integration of data into coherent patterns of explanation, and the use of sequential reasoning -- all illnourished in a medium of electronic images or "scraps of information."

The final enduring value from The Aims of Education described above is that we should avoid the fallacious antithesis between a technical and a liberal education. In this case, I do not believe that it is so much the form of the electronic media curriculum which inhibits producing people who possess both a knowledge of general culture as well as a technical specialization. It is, rather, the volume of information together with the accelerated pace of social change which requires us to make decisions -- Some crucial and most relatively unimportant -- in such a hurried, unreflective way. Dr. Whewell is an amusing, if illuminating, anachronism precisely because having to quickly process a huge amount of information makes mastering general culture seem more and more an impossible dream.

In an age dominated by economic bad times, professionalism, and specialists of all types, Whitehead would not disagree that students should be able to use "expert knowledge in some special direction" in coping with our sort of information environment and a society of fast-paced change. But on the other hand, he would surely argue that a prime aim of education today would be the thermostatic one of providing a knowledge of general culture -- intellectual vision in addition to technique. One could then have some hope of avoiding the production of a society composed merely of what Germans call Technikidioten -- blind, mindless technicians. To again repair to Adventures of Ideas, "The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes" (60). This is perhaps especially applicable to the recombinant DNA technologies of biological engineers who are actively shaping a new Genetic Age here and now.

The above quotation appeared first in this paper in the context of nuclear power, the second major social change from Whitehead’s era to our own. This fact coupled with the accelerated rate of social change and the mutations of form and quantity in the information environment, give us real reason to be concerned for survival itself. Whitehead explains why this is so in an illuminating section of Process and Reality with which more educators and government bureaucrats should be familiar.

The subject is how Nature solves the problem of survival, and what is asserted of the natural world certainly applies, mutatis mutondis, to the social. A society has adapted to its environment when it is "specialized" in relation to certain features of it: "A complex society which is stable provided that the environment exhibits certain features is said to be ‘specialized’ in respect to those features" (PR 100/153). Unspecialized societies are better at adapting to their environments because they are more flexible, but they are "apt to be deficient in structural pattern, when viewed as a whole" (PR 100/153). "Thus," says Whitehead, "The problem for Nature is the production of societies which are ‘structured’ with a high ‘complexity,’ and which are at the same tune ‘unspecialized.’ In this way, intensity [of experience] is mated with survival" (PR 101/154).

Now there are two ways in which (successful) structured societies can solve this problem. The first is by perceiving the environment vaguely enough (in his technical language, transmutation) to block out unwelcome details: "The environment may then change indefinitely so far as concerns the ignored details -- so long as they can be ignored" (PR 101/154). But, although most of us behave this way at some times of our lives -- and perhaps some of us most of the time -- it is a highly risky survival strategy. For instead of foresight and planning, there is only reaction, and the great problem is that it is never possible to know in advance when it will be too late to react to a calamitous environmental change -- especially in a nuclear age!

Thus it is not surprising that Whitehead considers this first survival strategy more appropriate for lower-order organisms. For those of a higher order, the second solution is much better suited. It consists of the enhancement of mentality to envisage novel possibilities relevant to a given situation (in his technical language, conceptually reverted and propositional feelings). Therefore,

The second way of solving the problem is by an initiative in conceptual prehensions, i.e., in appetition . . . . In the case of the higher organisms, this conceptual initiative amounts to thinking about the diverse experiences; in the case of lower organisms, this conceptual initiative merely amounts to thoughtless adjustment of aesthetic emphasis in obedience to an ideal of harmony. (PR 102/155-156)

Since part of the practical function of reason is to effect our survival, and since in employing the second survival strategy reason becomes "the emphasis upon novelty" (FR 20), it is easy to understand how someone in a basically conserving society would value up novelty and future-oriented behavior to the seeming exclusion of order and the preservation of the past via efficient causation (feelings of "causal efficacy"). But Whitehead would be the first to remind our vastly changed society that we need both -- as noted in the beginning of this essay. Thus, for example, as also pointed out above, foresight requires an adequate sensitivity to nuances and ambiguities of meanings. But this in turn demands a knowledge of relevant history. And to make foresight effective, we need disciplined logical thought. Or, to put the matter in a different way, there are novelties and novelties, and foresight makes use of those that are relevant. But the perception of relevance -- and thus the efficacious use of practical reason -- require a firm grounding in the past and the secure possession of the capacities and skills just referred to which are nurtured by the traditional school curriculum.

In our new aims of education for the 1980’s and beyond, therefore, we shall have to dedicate ourselves to bringing back, among other things, the civilized use of language (both written and oral), a sensitivity to beauty, powers of analytical reasoning, the intellectual vision of ourselves as historical creatures, the ability to cognitively articulate ideas rather than let communication skills courses degenerate into merely "touchie-feelie" experiences of "affirming the other," and finally, a sensitivity to the nuances, complexities, and ambiguities of meanings.7 In this way, and only in this way, our educational system will equip its students for the future with an intellectual vision comprised of both knowledge and foresightful adaptability to environmental changes.

A final note: I do not believe that Whitehead would have much sympathy for what is known as the "back-to-the-basics" movement in education today. It is true that none of the capacities and abilities noted above is much encouraged by a fast-changing society which displays little toleration or appreciation for careful thinking and reflection, not to mention decent art and music. And this is not likely to change in an epoch, the universities of which threaten to become merely pre-med or pre-engineering factories, and which is dominated by narrow-minded specialists and Technikidioten. Nonetheless, I think that the latter is just the reason why Whitehead would distance himself from the back-to-the-basics movement, for its proponents usually argue for the development of narrowly defined techniques or skills -- but not for any intellectual vision. As Postman phrases it,

the curriculum of "modern secular education" does not have "a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, except if it is, as ‘back to the basics’ would have it, a person who possesses ‘skills.’ In other words, a technocrat’s ideal -- a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills. If, in fact, there is at present any underlying theme to American education it is precisely that: Education is to provide jobs. It has no purpose other than as preparation for entrance into the economy. (TCA 133)

In the face of "this emptiness of moral, social, and even intellectual motivation and meaning, not only in our schools but in our culture," (TCA 133), we should not be surprised at the persistence of what is surely one of the most depressing sentences in the English language, "I only work here."



DWP -- Victor Lowe. "The Development of Whitehead’s Philosophy." PANW 15-124.

F -- Johann Wolfgang van Goerte. Faust. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1963.

PANW -- Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. The Library of Living Philosophers. 2nd ed. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1971.

RFCL -- Lon Fuller. "Reason and Fiat in Case Law" Harvard Law Review 59 (1946): 376-95.

TCA -- Neil Postman. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Delacorte Press, 1979.

TSC -- Harvey Cox, The Secular City. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

WVE -- Henry Wyman Holmes. "Whitehead’s Views on Education." PANW 619-40.


1Compare Faust’s famous ennui: "And here I am, for all my lore,/The wretched fool I was before" (F 371).

2 Postman refers to Whitehead only once, repeating the usual misquote: "All philosophy, Whitehead remarked, is only a footnote to Plato" (TCA 32).

3 The number of "information workers" in our society is increasing so dramatically that Douglas Cater, senior fellow of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, said as long as eight years ago that "Approximately half the American payroll now goes for the manipulation of symbols rather than the production of things." ("The Social Repercussions of an ‘Information Society."’ Chronicle of Higher Education 20/18 (June 30, 1980): I).

4 Postman also claims at this point, at the ellipsis of the passage quoted, that "That is why, incidentally. the truth-in-advertising laws are mostly pointless" (TCA 57). I do not agree completely for reasons that are too lengthy to develop here, but revolve around the fact that there is a way of manipulating a sequence of words and pictures to make or imply claims that are true or false. To that extent, however limited, the television curriculum is refutable.

5Areopagitica Paradise Lost and Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Northrop Frye, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965: 464. Areopagitica should be required reading for not only journalism students, but also for anyone who cares seriously about the preservation of education in a free society.

6One regrettable example of selling out to the electronic media curriculum at which Postman probably would not be surprised comes from a certain junior college near my university. Misguided technocrats succeeded in getting a course in film editing accepted as satisfying the freshman English composition requirement.

7 "The true philosopher," said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is he who has inseparably the taste for evidence and the sense of ambiguity." Eloge de la philosophie. Paris: Gallimard, 1953, 10-11.