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October 7, 2003

Neil Postman (1931-2003): Some Recollections

The author, media critic and NYU professor Neil Postman is dead at 72. Some comments on his life and work by one of his students.

I have no count, but I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman, who died Sunday, was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures—with reputation but no real discipline—have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.

He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore one’s mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas. Now what discipline, what department is that?

Everyone who knew Postman—and I include perhaps a hundred thousand who only heard him speak—knew him first through humor, which was the reflection in person of the satire in most of his books, each of which is a pamphlet, an essay between covers: The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) was satire about the infantalization in American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) was satire about entertainment and what it was doing to us. Technopoly (1993) was satire on the “surrender of culture to technology.” One of the first journals he associated with was Monacle (long gone), a magazine of political satire, which is where he met Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, which is how he came to serve on The Nation’s board, even though he was the world’s worst leftist and couldn’t stomach the right. Of course in all the satire there was Neil’s sermon, but again: what discipline is that?

The civilized man

Postman’s intellectual pose, as well as his poise in public settings, as well as his great gift, which was terribly good humor, came down essentially to this: the trials of a civilized man in a century of barbarism. It later softened into the civilized man in a culture of television. But the barbaric that was in television, between the wicked dots, softened, but still there… well, Postman had the eye for that. He would teach you this angry eye, and that was one reason I hung around NYU and got a Ph.D. He knew what to ignore, when to object.

“You have to understand, what Americans do is watch television.” I heard this many times. “I am not saying that’s who they are. But that is what they do. Americans… watch… television.” And he would have figures sometimes demonstrating it: the number of commercials a child would see betwen five and eighteen (the number was 675,000 in 1979.) But frankly he had zero interest in mastering figures about the big machine of commercial TV. He had a big machine of his own, which was simply everything he ever read and learned from wiser heads, all the books he placed against television in order to see it more clearly. One of his essays is entitled, “Social Science as Moral Theology” (1988).

Among those I heard him talk about most often were Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, G.K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred North Whitehead, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Philippe Aries, Jacques Ellul, Rudolph Arnheim, Norbert Elias, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Christopher Lasch, Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, and of course Marshall McLuhan, whom Postman met in the 1950s, before anyone had ever heard of the Canadian English professor who would write Understanding Media (1964). McLuhan always regretted that he had not founded a Ph.D program like Postman’s, and until the re-discovery of McLuhan by young people of the Internet Age, that program helped keep interest in his ideas alive. “The medium is the message,” McLuhan’s most famous line, is not an easy idea to grasp. It just looks that way.

Neil Postman was easily the best public speaker I ever heard, and most who heard him agreed with that. He never spoke off the cuff, never from notes. He wrote all his speeches in longhand, and would try them on students first, usually revising a few words just to give you the sense that you had participated by listening. He wrote twenty books with only a felt tipped pen on notebook paper; all sentences crafted by hand. This too was satire, on “progress” in writing instruments. Postman, world famous media scholar, was famous among students and friends for refusing any technology thought to “improve” something in which he had never requested improvements. A simple rule, with hilarious consequences. He didn’t care if you had a better solution to a problem he never felt was real, and he would make fun of you if you tried to recommend it.

Resenting technology

That is what I mean by the pose of the civilized man, beset by answering machines. The pose is shared by many standup comedians, and Neil had that in him. He also had edge. Television, he always said, is inhuman to children because it gives them answers to questions they never asked. It did this for purposes of control. Educational television—Sesame Street—was not the alternative; it was the worst offender. This view denied a lot of people, including educated liberals, comfort. To him that was education.

Postman resented being controlled by technology or bureaucracy, way more than most Americans. He resented the new for retiring an “old” that had no reason to quit. But he thought it funny—and fascinating—that people allowed this manipulation, especially Americans, who were the most open to it. Postman had a big audience and gave many speeches in Germany, where several of his books were best sellers during the 1980s, in part because there was so much in American life he simply rejected. Thus he wrote with a pen, never used email, owned no computer and had no regrets about never going online. To him it was not a matter of convenience. It was about keeping an independent mind by making independent use of objects. In this way, he taught me and many others to think for ourselves, precisely because we didn’t think as he did.

Postman’s general philosophy, which was General Education, also known as the Great Books approach, was made known to me shortly after I enrolled in a graduate program under his chairmanship in 1980. I was there to study the media, and he was at that time a Professor of Media Ecology (a name for his anti-discipline). As he explained to me: “We’re just trying to give people a good liberal arts education.” Which, he further argued, and easily demonstrated himself, was exactly the tool needed to understand the gathering beast… The Media. In an age of specialization, this is not how academic life works. But his did.

The first curriculum

Postman, one should remember, was originally an English teacher. He entered the University in a time of expansion and optimism in public schooling. We were building lots of schools and creating big public universities then. His degree was in English Education, from Teacher’s College at Columbia. From 1959 on, his home was the School of Education at NYU. His original and core readership remained school teachers, and I witnessed it numerous times, the ritual: a woman in her 40s or 50s would approach after a speech. “Professor Postman, I just want to tell you, I read your book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity…(1969) That book changed my life.” Often she would have the book with her, and he would sign it… with a felt tip pen. This made an impression on me. A stray sentence lifted from that book:

We must emphasize that the concept, “that we must unlearn dead concepts” is itself new, and so rather incongenial to most who confront it the first time.

If Postman was an English teacher, he realized very early that a bigger, brighter and more compelling classroom existed out there, and it would teach your kids no matter how good you were at reaching them. Today this is a commonplace… they get it from television! But in the 1950s, when Postman began serious study, it was a far more original thought: We’re being out taught by the media. For this he later found a briilliant description. Television, he said, is the first curriculum. School is second.

There’s no accounting for what you absorb from such a man. For he knew the two secrets of all great teachers, things no Teacher’s College can teach: First, you don’t put knowledge into people, you draw it out. (Which is why personality was his one and only classroom “method.”) Second, if you can manage to conceal, artfully, some crucial part of what you are saying, then young people who are listening really, really hard will make it their business to find you out. And that’s when you can really teach them. I must have heard it a thousand times. “It’s not that simple,” the student says to Postman. Oh? And right there, the drawing out begins.

There’s no point, he felt, in being an English teacher today—armed with literature and its human testimony—if the conditions for successful teaching are all around us being “disappeared.” (A favorite construction of his.) That’s why he became a media critic. And that is the master image, if there is one, in all of Neil Postman’s writings: either a disappearing we should regret, or a forgetting we have failed to do.

The greatest sentence he wrote will, I am sure, give comfort at some time in the future. It’s the first sentence in The Disappearance of Childhood. “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

This also appeared in Salon Oct. 9, 2003.

Click for the New York Times obituary.

Eulogy by son Andrew Postman.

The Los Angeles Times obituary is more like a brief intellectual biography.

Share reflections on Neil Postman’s life and works in the Comments section…

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 7, 2003 2:46 PM   Print


Thank you for this moving eulogy.

Posted by: acline at October 7, 2003 5:05 PM | Permalink

Thank you for these thoughtful recollections.

I have spent many enjoyable hours with Neil's wonderful work and had the great pleasure of hearing him speak a few years ago. He had a powerful ability to reveal and challenge hidden assumptions. The questions he posed forced us to stand outside of ourselves in order to help us to reconsider our lives. Moreover, it was clear that he cared about the world a great deal.

Neil Postman's ideas, insights and contributions will remain an inspiration to all of us.

Posted by: Brian Alger at October 7, 2003 11:16 PM | Permalink

Neil Postman had a great impact on the way I see the world. Your piece is most excellent.

Posted by: Jonathan at October 8, 2003 11:26 PM | Permalink

Jay's observations are true to the man I knew (though not well) and to his many writings (with which I had considerable acquaintance). Neil Postman was a thinker in the Socratic sense. He loved the give and take of ideas, the tumble of an argument, and the endless direction of discourse. He was committed, in a way that others are not, to the great Madisonian experiment in free speech. He believed in it enough to strike out at a culture that far too often mocks that ideal. Neil opened minds at a time when others were content to close them. He was also a gifted writer who knew that how something was “said” could be as important as what was “said.” In this sense, he was Platonic. By such measures, then, Neil Postman was a man who stood outside of the crowd and thereby remained immune from its stifling and mindless conformity.

Posted by: Ron Collins at October 9, 2003 4:55 PM | Permalink

I read Postman's indictment of television, "Amusing ourselves to death," in 1987. The argumentation was brilliant and the conclusion unescapable. I unplugged my television and haven't watched anything on it since but videos. I'm deeply in Postman's debt --so far, the TV-hours he liberated add up to roughly three years of conversation, reading and musing... life.

Posted by: henrycopeland at October 9, 2003 10:29 PM | Permalink

Neil had come to speak to a class I taught on Amusing Ourselves to Death. I heard "But it's not that simple," or some iteration thereof bellow from the students a dozen times. He must have loved it. This was a whole class enthralled by his lunacy and malfeasance. If I have a particular opinion on the world, that is to say, if I have some modicum of wisdom or maturity, it was given to me in large part through his teachings. He has tilted everything I see and will see. I hope he is somewhere, watching the world and laughing. The Age of Show Business is alive and well. Particularly in California.
I thanked him once, but it wasn't enough and never will be. He eschewed technology and by doing so, saw the future more clearly.

Posted by: Jordan at October 10, 2003 11:15 AM | Permalink

I wasn't aware of Postman's passing until I read your publication in Salon. Technopoly was definitely thought provoking (my first and only encounter with Postman), especially for a college student who knew nothing about anything. He will be missed, that's all I have to say.

Posted by: Steve Gordon at October 10, 2003 11:47 AM | Permalink

Gripping, influential and indelible: these are a few words that come to mind when I think of Neil Postman’s writings.

Posted by: Tyler Spradley at October 10, 2003 12:06 PM | Permalink

Thank you one and all. The true dimensions of Postman's mark on people come more into view with these stories.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 10, 2003 4:46 PM | Permalink

When I read about Neil Postman's passing in the New York Times, I immediately sent the page to an old journalism professor of mine, with the following text:

"I waited too long to go to grad school. I so wanted to study with him. I'm always amazed that he is not more famous. So Sad."

And I am. Thank you for insight into the life/mind of a man I'll never have the honor of meeting in person.

Posted by: Samara Aberman at October 10, 2003 4:56 PM | Permalink

Thank you for the opportunity to remember such a gifted professor and one of the great influences on my life. I had the pleasure of being his student as an undergrad more than 10 years ago. I can recall -- like it was only yesterday -- sitting in his class, hanging on every word -- and leaving each class with a million ideas coursing through my brain. He will be greatly missed.

Posted by: Carol at October 10, 2003 5:30 PM | Permalink

Robert Stacy McCain, a writer and editor at the Washington Times and a self-declared cultural conservative, emailed me with this comment:

Like you, I greatly admired Postman and enjoyed his books which--well-thumbed, dog-eared and underscored--occupy honored space on my bookshelf.

I wish you had made mention of the fact that Postman was one of those rare men of the Left whose writings were widely admired on the Right. Oh, I am sure there are uber-libertarians who saw him as an enemy of the market, butI count myself one of the many cultural conservatives who shared Postman's rage at television and its impact on our society.

Postman struck me, above all, as a man who loved civilization, who understood that ordinary decency-- simple politeness--was vital to the
good society. Unlike the contemporary cultural Left, Postman evinced no animus against the customs and habits of "bourgeois" family life, and did not suggest we succumbed to "false consciousness" in cherishing the simple comforts of home and hearth. He understood that literacy is essential to civil society, that the television habit is destructive of literacy, and thus that TV -- by its very nature -- is a public menace.

In all this, Postman would get no argument from most thinking conservatives, and his observations were so penetrating, and so vividly argued, that they permanently embedded themselves in the mind of the reader. I shall never forget reading his point that the main lesson taught by "Sesame Street" is... how to watch TV. EXACTLY. Educational television is an oxymoron. I often wondered why, when Gingrich and company were railing against funding for public broadcasting, they never thought to call Postman to witness before some congressional hearing.

At any rate, I saw your column on Salon and wanted to share my admiration for your mentor. He was a great mind who articulated truths that transcended partisan categories.
-- Robert Stacy McCain

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 12, 2003 9:13 PM | Permalink

Ask any Media Ecologist and they will tell you, and tell you . . . and tell you! . . . that we are never at a loss for words. But over the last several days, words have eluded me; tears, however, have not. And to share those tears with my fellow media ecologists--an extended family that has been formed and nurtured over the years by a common cannon of uncommon philosophical writings and teaching--is exactly what I’ve longed to do. Then it occurred to me: This longing is for my siblings. Siblings with whom I need to share my grief, Dr. Postman’s “children” if you will.

Well, perhaps not children in the most common sense of the word (I can hear Neil challenging me on this as I write!), but certainly in the sense that we are the living messages that Neil has sent to a time that he will not see . . . but a time that I’m sure he clearly envisioned.

We as Media Ecologists know a celebrity from a hero as well as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet knew “a hawk from a handsaw.” Neil opened the door for us to know that. (Some may say--and rightfully so--opened it and goaded us through it!). Neil was, and will forever remain, a hero to all of us. And not to just my fellow Media Ecologists, my siblings, but to all those who will never know that they have been positively touched by his work; perhaps once removed, through the well guided efforts of his “children.”

Posted by: Anthony White at October 13, 2003 2:20 AM | Permalink

I came into work this past Saturday, turned on my PC, opened IE, proceeded to pull down my Favorites list, and clicked on the bookmark to Postman's NYU webpage. To my surprise the "page was not found". Since I was used to bookmarks being outdated, I browsed back to the Department homepage and attempted to find him through the faculty links page. However, as you might guess, he was no longer listed. Eventually, I found an article about his passing by doing a search on NYUs website for his name. I am still somewhat stunned.

A very recent fan of Postman, I was introduced to his work (Amusing Ourselves to Death) this past summer through a co-worker. Just this week, without hearing about his death, I finished Technopoly, and heard him for the first time, on a taped interview, speaking about the book.

Well, in that short time his work influenced me enough to be here -- to spend time reading these messages, and writing my own (for whatever it's worth).

While not the Luddite that Postman was, I think many of his ideas and his critical mindset need to be shared with those who study, shape, and spend time with the media.

Being new to his work, (almost a decade after Technopoly and two since AOtD) I was concerned about it's relevance to our current society -- I mean, a lot has happened with the media in that time span. However, It is quite clear that it is not only still relevant today, but more important than ever.

The world will miss this great "Loving Resistance Fighter".

Posted by: Matt at October 13, 2003 9:20 AM | Permalink

David C. Barnett, a producer and reporter at WCPN, the NPR affiliate in Cleveland, wrote me with this reflection:

Your piece in Salon brought back some fond memories. Just before Amusing Ourselves to Death came out, he gave a lecture at The College of Wooster here in Ohio, where I used to work. I was unfamiliar with his writings before this and was truly stunned by his presentation. Here was someone articulating ideas that I had thought about for years. He was incisive. He was comprehensive. AND he was funny. I ll never forget that talk. I count both Amusing& and Disappearance of Childhood as two of the most important books I ever read. I loved the idea of a discipline called Media Ecology. Many years later, after I had worked my way into the radio business, I got the opportunity to interview him for a story about the status of childhood, and we commiserated over the fact that his predictions had been confirmed with a vengeance. I never had him as professor, and yet I did have him as a professor. It s sad that he s gone, but his legacy is powerful. Thanks for your thoughtful essay. --David C. Barnett

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 13, 2003 3:51 PM | Permalink

Around 13 years ago, during the reign of the first George Bush, I was putting together a proposal for Britain's Channel 4 television on Bush's Vice-President Dan Quayle. The program was to be called "Dan Quayle's Brain." It's thesis was simple, Quayle was the first person to grow up in the TV era to get within a heartbeat of the presidency. This made him fundamentally different than the president he served. What was in his brain was a series of moving images from TV, not a series of pictures imagined from reading. C4 gave me money to travel to New York for a research trip. Having devoured Amusing Ourselves to Death, I set up an appointment to meet Neil Postman. I wanted him for my money interview. If there was a smarter, funnier, more articulate man writing on the impact of television on the American Psyche I don't know who he was. He was also exceptionally generous with his time. I spent one of those magic hours that journalists sometimes have, when you can have a private tutorial with a great and kind man.

C4 in the end greenlighted then turned the project around, then, ultimately, turned down the proposal. (in the absence of a real film industry in Britain, TV executives play the role of studio morons here).When I wrote Neil to tell him and apologize for wasting his time, he sent me a lovely letter saying not to worry, he knew the idea was far too interesting to ever actually be made.

I only wish I had had an opportunity to interview him more recently. He was a great, great man.

Michael Goldfarb
Senior Correspondent
Inside Out
WBUR Boston

Posted by: michael goldfarb at October 14, 2003 3:43 PM | Permalink

I am very sad to find out that Mr. Postman died.
His books were seminal philosophical documents for the founding of our charter school, Liberty Common School, started by Dr. Randy and Ruth Ann Everett. He had an immense impact on those of us who really care about education and the impact of contemporary culture on the lives of children.
Another great thinker gone.

Posted by: Laurel at October 14, 2003 4:27 PM | Permalink

I knew him Horatio, a fellow of infinite depth and decency. In fact, I wish I had seen him more often. I met him when, many years ago, he came to be a guest on a radio program that I do. I read the book and thought so well of it that I assigned it in an undergraduate course I was doing at the University of Chicago.

The same sequence was repeated a few more times as others of his books were published. A first class public intellectual who worried, properly, about the technological malformation of our once civil culture. He will, indeed, be much missed.

Posted by: milton rosenberg at October 16, 2003 9:39 PM | Permalink

Neil Postman encouraged more educators than probably anyone in his generation. Whenever I look out across lecture notes to a classroom of students who appear very uncertain as to why they are there (and therefore feel very uncertain as to why I myself am there), all I need to do is think of Neil Postman and I am ready to go again. I never had the privilege of sitting in his classes, but through his books, and two (cherished) letters, he was one of the most important teachers I ever had.

He was basically a secular Jew, and I am basically a conservative Christian, but he taught me more than almost any Christian I can think of (C. S. Lewis?). He made me impenitently Socratic; and while he taught me to spot BS, he saved me from cynicism by also teaching me to laugh at it--in myself and in others.

In my course in Media Ecology here at Grove City College, one of the first texts I have students read is Amusing Ourselves to Death; not because chronologically it is the first work in media ecology, but because it sells them on the importance of the class. I can't make a very eloquent apology for the course, but Postman does it for me unfailingly.

It is a terrible loss that he is gone; but unlike most of us, he has left a profound and ongoing contribution in his publications. Surely there, his wisdom and wit will edify and amuse for many years.

Posted by: Dr. T. David Gordon at October 17, 2003 4:27 PM | Permalink

I just started reading Mr. Neil Postman's books few weeks ago. In fact, less than three weeks ago. He was a great writer, critic, and educator. His ideas were great. My heart goes out to his family.

Kingsley Okifo,Brooklyn - New York City

Posted by: Kingsley Okifo at October 18, 2003 12:36 AM | Permalink

The visual image in my memory is one of a healthy, engaging, and enormously perceptive Professor Postman. This image is based on an interview I was privileged to have with him in 1990. In January I had begun a doctoral program in homiletics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr Joel Nederhood taught an intensive two week course titled “Effective Preaching in a Media Age.” His insight into the nature of television as a medium captured my imagination. Little did I know how the next step would change my perception of communication media. I read the first book on the course reading list: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

As soon as I returned to my home and ministry in New Rochelle, New York, I called Prof. Postman at NYU to request an interview. What would a New York Jewish intellectual have to do with a conservative Presbyterian minister? I thought. It turned out that he was intrigued by the interest shown by Protestants in his work. More than that he was a truly generous man who enjoyed engaging people with his insight. The interview lasted for over two hours. I was impressed with Prof. Postman’s candor and penetrating intelligence. But I think we connected in another more subtle way. He was an intellectual iconoclast, who had an instinct to question all conventional wisdom. As a northern New Englander from a long line of iconoclasts I resonated with this trait in his character. His verbal craftsmanship together with his critical judgment opened wide the door to the world of McLuhan, Ong, Ellul and Media Ecology. He was a great communicator!

In 1998, as I began to write my thesis, Prof. Postman recommended that I contact Lance Strate and join the Media Ecology Association listserv. The conversation that Prof. Postman contributed to so profoundly continues. But without him I would never have known that such a conversation existed. I am grateful. My heart goes out to his family, friends and colleagues.

Posted by: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds at October 18, 2003 3:58 PM | Permalink

Postman's contribution was helping us see what we otherwise might not have seen by ourselves--might not have seen unless tugged on at the pants leg. He was like the little dog in the Wizard of Oz who pulled back the curtain to reveal the man in the machine. Thank you Neil Postman. We will never be the same.

Posted by: Arthur W. Hunt III at October 18, 2003 9:40 PM | Permalink

I did not come across the sad news of Neil Postman's death until today. So obviously I'm not "informing myself to death" - to freely quote from a speech Postman delivered in Germany in 1990.

Ten years ago, I interviewed Mr. Postman for a local paper in the lakeside resort of Velden, Austria. Our two-hour dinner conversation and his powerful ideas, completely new to me at the time, had a lasting and widely unexpected influnce on me: seven years later, my doctor's thesis on "Culture and Its Counterparts: a Criticism of Neil Postman's Media Ecology" was published in German ("Die Wortkultur und ihre Widersacher Peter Lang: Frankfurt, New York 2000).

Although I'm not in line with many of his views, Postman has sharpened my thinking about the hidden impacts of the mass-media world and the promises it breaks. I'll remember him, his inspiring books and the wonderful talk we had in 1993. Postman's warning and enlightening voice will be missing in a world in which we are amusing ourselves to death.

Posted by: Dr. Ingomar Robier at October 21, 2003 10:33 AM | Permalink

I read "Amusing ourselves to death" in 1993. It inspired me for years and his observations still stay with me to this day. In particular, when he was speaking about people's attention span and sense of community (how citizens would listen to political speakers for 8 hours and break only to eat). But mostly, it made me turn off my TV for 5 years. It made me really question what it meant to be informed, especially with these sound-bites of news we hear now. It also fascinated me to listen to people's reactions when they discovered that I didn't know who OJ Simpson was during the height of his trial - who cares??? Dr. Postmas was very inspirational and a very sad loss.

Posted by: Kim at October 21, 2003 12:45 PM | Permalink

It was Neil's sense of humor, wondrous, child-like
in his seemingly innocent yet truly complex grasp of things that remain with me, that and his jargon-free, elegantly simple writing that made everything so clear.

Posted by: Myrna Frommer at October 21, 2003 8:56 PM | Permalink

Via email from a former student:

I enjoyed what you wrote on Salon about Neil Postman. I was a student in the media ecology department between 1979 and 1981 when I was an editor of NYU's Alumni News and also majoring in video production. And of all the various instructors I had, Neil Postman was the most impressive one by far. No one even came close.

I remember speaking to him in his office one day, a year or two after my studies had ended. I don't remember what I was there for, perhaps to get career advice, as I remember him telling me I should write fiction for Cosmopolitan (which I never managed to do, as it wasn't quite my style, although I was flattered that he thought I had it in me). But I do remember asking him if he was doing voiceovers on radio and tv commercials. Of course that was a very funny notion. But there was indeed some voiceover man at the time whose husky, friendly voice sounded just like's Neil's. I said I hoped he would listen to it somehow, some time, knowing that he probably wouldn't.

I don't remember anyone who was in my Neil Postman classes in those days, and I welcome the opportunity to share my memories with someone else who was inspired by him.

Judy Pokras

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 27, 2003 9:33 AM | Permalink

I am deeply saddened by the death of such an eloquent and thoughtful man. I originally found Postman through "Technopoly" which I bought by chance in an airport because, as a designer, I loved the cover design. The contents proved to be more compelling than I could have imagined, and I was hooked. I read all of Postman's books and imagined that I would someday take classes with him at NYU. That will not happen, and more to the point, we have lost an original thinker, a man who was very sensible and who dared to challenge the consequences of technology and reveal the dark side of our most cherished advances. We are the poorer for his passing, and I wonder who will take up the challenge that conteporary life poses. He took a position that becomes less popular, and more valuable, as time passes. More power to him, and I salute his intelligence and compassionate take on humanity.

Posted by: Sharon Collins at October 28, 2003 12:55 AM | Permalink

I remember meeting Dr. Postman at NYU in his office. We talked about his time at Columbia and how it influenced his thinking about communications issues. I thanked him for his great books and for taking the time to see me. He will be remembered as a great teacher and mentor.

Posted by: Dr. Robert J. Petrausch at October 30, 2003 4:35 PM | Permalink

"Death ends a life, but not a relationship"--Robert Anderson,

I was a student and eventual graduate of the doctoral program in the Media Ecology program at NYU, and attended "courses" with Neil Postman for about four years. Although among Neil's peeves was the victory of the visual over the expository and technology over culture, and although our readings and discussions revolved around a variety of writers whom one could classify as media ecological thinkers, ultimately I think that media ecology was a meta-concept for a far more important one: that one should develop one's own perspective on life with the influence of the those thinkers who represented those whom we consider significant in the "history of ideas" combined with our own perspicacity. Of course, media subvert this history because media's goal is to eradicate history by seducing us to live in a mundane, rather insignificant present. Although Neil's ideas were prescient, often revelatory, and at times incredibly prophetic, those who take up his mantle should, I think, consider that it was his personality that distinguished him. His civiity and kindness were his trademarks; and without them, those who continue his intellectual tradition should not only look without, that is, "at" the society we live in, but "within," at our motives, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, so we may become better people. I am not optimistic about loosening the popular media's control over the "average" American's agenda, and am fearful that media critics will be relegated to a dependent role where their writings will more nearly serve as self-advancement and aggrandizement within an academic framework. That is, why, perhaps, I have dissolved many of my bonds to this critical project, because I want to remain caring and affectionate, not disparaging--something that Neil maintained in his years of teaching. Or as Krishnamurti once said when asked by a questioner what might one do to improve society, answered, "It is better you inquire what you can do to improve yourself." The outcome of my experience in the Media Ecology program has come through the development of my creativity and my attempt to communicate in positive ways, those things that the media do not have the competency for. Through poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction, I have found my personal antidote to a mass mediated world. As Neil often cited (was it Niels Bohr?), the opposite of a great idea is another great idea. Thus, I have to say unless one has a great idea, silence is preferable. I believe ultimately, Neil's message was close to Allen Ginsburg's in his poem, 'Howl': "America, when will you be angelic?"

Posted by: alan at November 4, 2003 11:04 PM | Permalink

I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Dr Neil Postman.
My first encounter with Dr Postman’s work was at Sydney Teachers’ College (Australia) in 1973. “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” was our teacher education ‘Bible’. Over the next thirty years it was my great joy and privilege to read (and re-read) every other of his books.
Few writers can match the crisp written expression that was his, nor his insightful responses to and about a society that increasingly surrenders to the belief in the supremacy of electronic technology.
But for me, as an educator, perhaps Dr Postman’s greatest legacy was his unwavering belief that true education is more about stimulating the intellect to ask the right questions, rather than it is about producing the ‘right’ answers.
Vale, Neil Postman. For me your work has been a truly mind-altering substance.

Posted by: Jackie Cipollone at November 12, 2003 4:49 AM | Permalink

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dr Neil Postman. I first learned of Neil and his idea on a Bill Mover PBS show called "Consuming Images." It was then I knew I had to meet him. It took awhile, but I met Neil at a summer workshop on Media Literacy in 1994. I soon became a student of his in Media Ecology. Though I never finished my degree, Neil and his ideas transformed my thinking and my relationship to ideas, people and our American Institutions.

My friends and I were fortunate to meet and to hear Neil speak on 3 occasions at Montclair State University. His ideas then and now were thoughtful, stimulating and often controversial. Montclair State faculty still recall his wit, charm and humanity. While many didn't always agree with Neil's thinking, they respected his great capacity to provide a historical perspective on education as well as the visible and invisible impact of technology in our lives. My sympathy are with you all.

Good-bye Neil and thank you!

Posted by: John O'Brien at November 12, 2003 2:48 PM | Permalink

I have used Neil Postman's "Technopoly" in my classes for several years. As an information systems professor with a past rooted in nuclear weapons technology, I found him to be a welcome (and necessary) antidote to the breathless enthusiasm and/or stifling apathy of many of my students.

A British colleague who is a communications professor told me the sad news today.

I sincerely hope that others will step forward to fill the void.

Gary Blome
Assistant Professor of Information Systems
Mercer University
Major, USAF (Ret.)

Posted by: Gary Blome at November 15, 2003 1:02 AM | Permalink

At the age of 61 I'm going to do a Doctorate (Paris) about links between media (which was my job during 30 years ...) and violence.

"Amusing Ourselves to Death" 'Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business' is a very important book to understand what's going on for the future generations ... alas !

No more thinking. A World of NO THINKING, but "amusing" and "buying". A Disney World ... of violence.

Thak you, Mr Postman, thank you.

Posted by: zaccarie at December 14, 2003 4:13 AM | Permalink

There's no way I can top what's been said here by the honorable and saddened legions of Postman's fans, of whom I am one, but this forum has been most insightful.

I have been influenced by a few writers and thinkers...Alan Watts, Toffler...but Neil Postman has had more influence than any other thinker in my life and career. Especially now as it seems I am vulnerable to becoming road kill on the information superhighway.

Perhaps the more deeply one is rooted in computers and technology, the more violently the world seems to change; the more one is attached to the natural world, the more stable the world seems.

All of the ideas on every page of his books seem to have very deep roots which run off in all directions. Each page is dense and rich with great ideas; I read Technopoly again and again and I'm still just beginning to get into it!

Have I missed something? Thus far we had heard very little from Neil about the impact of the internet and it's dangers, what it takes away from our lives. Technopoly was written before the internet "phenomenon" fully took hold. I'm afraid that this undiscovered lesson, too, awaits us in the future somewhere.

I don't think Neil -- or anyone -- had sufficient opportunity to fully analyze this new medium.

Thanks to Bill Moyers for introducing me to Neil Postman in his documentary series "The Public Mind". I predict Neil's legacy will grow with his passing. What a great, great mind, preserved now, with the help of the alphabet.

-John C Graves

Posted by: John Graves at December 17, 2003 12:22 AM | Permalink

"The song has ended but the melody lingers on."

There seems little doubt that Professor Postman will touch the future.


Posted by: Chris R. Kasch at January 3, 2004 1:41 PM | Permalink

It was just today that I finished my first Neil Postman book "Teaching As A Subversive Activity" at the suggestion Neil's college roomate Dr. Jim McDonnel, and I can't wait to bring it to my fellow teachers attention at tomorrow's faculty meeting. What a shame that this book was not required reading in all "Methods" classes. What is so frightening to ponder is that in the almost 40 years since he wrote this book, little, by my observation (21 years in the H.S. classroom), has changed in the ways public schools conduct themselves, though the students' "crap-detectors" are still as strong as ever. Still, my students feel as though they have little confidence in their abilities to deflect or change that which they perceive as such. They just have to sit there and take it because it has been deemed "in their best interest" by people in suits and ties who somehow "know" this. He reinforced my belief that "we teach who we are", and that many of us go to our graves in ignorance of ourselves and of why we teach what we do. If the best vision is insight, Dr. Postman opened a lot of eyes. I'm off to read his next book.

Posted by: John Perricone at January 4, 2004 6:18 PM | Permalink

From the Intro