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March 25, 2004

Remembering Neil Postman, 1931-2003

"There aren’t any teachers until there are learners, and there aren’t any learners until something is disturbed in the student’s world." These were my remarks yesterday at NYU's memorial service for Neil Postman, who passed away on October 5th, 2003. He was my teacher.

Tribute to Neil Postman, 1931-2003
March, 24, 2004
New York University

“Remembering Neil Postman”

Remarks by Jay Rosen

Your program says that I am to speak as a “faculty colleague” of Neil’s. But as Neil would surely say in a situation like this, that’s just not the speech you’re going to get. I was a student of his, and I am so today.

Remembering Neil Postman is what we are here to do today. But it is also what we are commanded to do tomorrow, and in the long years ahead.

Remembering Neil is something you can do alone, and everyone here knows what I mean. But even then it is a social act. Think about it: when you picture Postman, in the privacy of your mind, you always picture him publicly. He is around people. You almost always hear him talking. In your head, in mine, he is found in conversation. And that is what I am calling social.

Memory is a social thing. Surely we say that today by coming together in tribute. If it’s social, then human communication is involved. If it’s communication, it passes to us through a medium. If there’s a medium, it imprints on us a message. The message of this medium, this forum, is that human plurality serves memory. Each of us has a part of the puzzle. When you share your piece you communicate Postman. Remembering Neil can be done alone, but not well. And honestly, I don’t recommend it.

Of the many, many things Neil was good at, what he was best at was human communication—all forms. Machines he mistrusted on principle. If I try to fathom today what principle he conveyed to me, it is probably this… There aren’t any teachers until there are learners, and there aren’t any learners until something is disturbed in the student’s world.

Neil’s method as a critic, and also a teacher, was to disturb your understanding before he shared his. One day, while still a graduate student, I walked into the old office in Shimkin Hall. Apropos of nothing, Neil says to me: “Jay, you’re basically a political writer, that’s what you care about, that’s what you do. Did you know that?”

I may have said I did know, but it was disturbing to realize later that I didn’t, until he told me. And that was the day I went from crayons to perfume, as a writer. Intellectually speaking, it was my “disappearance of childhood.” I started teaching myself political philosophy on the side, so as to catch up with Neil’s understanding of me.

He had disturbed me, so later I could learn. Place this against your own experience, those who were students of Postman. Before he taught you anything, he removed—or shifted about—something you really thought you knew. It was a subversive activity. It went along with his philosophy of unlearning things, which he said was education. And his point about undoing things, which he said technology always did. It went along with his needling humor, which never quite left things intact.

If you were the figure, he saw the ground. Neil had a gift for knowing what each individual had to learn in order finally to start learning— for real. And he employed his humor, another gift, against his disappointment when teaching didn’t work. He many times said it: stupidity is an achievement. You had to work at it. It could be studied, like a subject. And that is why he wrote satire. To give his ear for stupidity something to do.

All students of Neil’s subversive subject, media ecology, had to start with talk—with the study of language, and of an oral culture. Which is what we are, temporarily, here today. In one of the books he had us read, by Walter Ong, it is said that human voices are different than written words because the voice always speaks of an interior, an inside. Interiority is not a property of the flattened, and printed page.

No one’s voice spoke with more interior than Neil Postman’s. So much so, in my case, that I have lost all distinction between sounding my own voice and resounding with the lessons of his.

He will always disturb me. He will always teach.

In 1986 he took me to Vienna with him, where we both gave speeches to hundreds of Austrian writers and intellectuals. It was the night Kurt Waldheim had been re-elected President of Austria, an event that disturbed both of us, because we knew something about the Austrian past and the events of March 1938.

For some reason, we decided to walk back to our hotel that night. It took thirty minutes in the rain. We both felt that given the election returns, Vienna should be crying. But of course it wasn’t. I guess we wanted to see such a city for ourselves. By this time, you see, I was a political writer.

Years later, in a remember-when conversation, Neil gave me that smile of his—I am sure you know it—where it showed in his shining eyes. So I knew something comic was coming. “Yes, Jay,” he said, “that night… Vienna was ours.” Of course it wasn’t ours. That night it was theirs, the Austrians. There was his humor again, set deeply against our disappointment.

Now that story is yours, and yours can be ours, as we carry on with our social work, which is the living work of remembering one we loved: Neil Postman.

Though there are many other places to do so, you are welcome to share your refections on Postman in the comments section.

Neil Postman in a June 2000 keynote address:

Esther Dyson, who is one of the more prominent cheerleaders for technological growth, remarks in her recent book that those who worry too much about the electronic world can rest easy in the assurance that human nature will remain the same. Not surprisingly, she misses the point. Human nature may stay the same. But it is part of human nature to hate and kill, and it is part of human nature to love and protect. The question is, what part will be released and nurtured? What part will be suppressed and shriveled? And, of course, is there any connection between our obsession with our technology and our capacity for moral growth?

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 25, 2004 9:44 AM