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July 10, 2010

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

How the Past Can Improve Our Future
Neil Postman - ISBN - 9780375701276

Neil Postman was a humanist, professor, media theorist, cultural critic and dynamic author for over forty years, and most famous for Amusing Ourselves to Death--a critique of television. But he also wrote numerous other tracts, my favorite of which is here introduced. He adamantly observed in Technopoly, that "new technology can never substitute for human values." His most dynamic reinforcement of this belief, however, is in his study of how and why the 18th century was the pinnacle of achievement, and how it might guide us in the 21st century if we would but explore, understand and implement the wisdom of those who made it so.

He is certainly one of the most astute and knowledgeable social commentators of this or any era. I submit the following quotations from this man as evidence, and an entrée into this informative little tome:

• "We live in a world of too much information, confusing specialized knowledge and far too little wisdom."
• "Knowledge is organized information. Wisdom is the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems."
• "Any fool can have an opinion; to know what one needs to know to have an opinion is wisdom."
• "The problem to be solved in the 21st century is how to transform information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom."

This is an example of my re-exploration of a book which I devoured a decade ago. I read it again recently, and recommend it highly. Brilliant and incisive, he is a critic in the best sense, and not one to grouse so much as to describe what he sees and convince the reader that it is so. I believe that his writings--all of them--should be required reading for everyone at the college level, and certainly by everyone who feels compelled to pursue any activity within the public sphere. I often treat myself to such a volume from the past which I remember as fulsome, if not why; to re-explore how my attitudes have been molded in ways which I cannot specifically recall. If you have read this tome in the past I encourage you to do so again. If you haven't, I'd like to introduce you to one of the most important people of the 20th century . . . in my never-to-be-humble opinion.

His opening quote is subtly savage: "Soon we will know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us." We will, he emphasizes, overwhelm 18th century knowledge with new information about which we shall crow in insolent delight as we overlook the proverbial forest because the damned trees are in our way. On nearly every page is an observation, theorem, quote or statement sufficient to produce a gasp from the reader. One is often thunderstruck into silence and reflection.

History's purpose is "to remind us about our better dreams." It was in the 18th century we discovered a humane course into the future; "ideas [to be carried] with confidence and dignity across the bridge to the 21st century." Enlightenment: the provocateur of ideas of how to approach reality and to rediscover truth--even that there is such a thing as truth. He suggests not that we return to that century, but that we study and use it for "what it is worth and for all that it is worth." Adopt its principles, not its details.

To be sure, during the period known as the enlightenment--the age of reason--we were (especially early on) still burning witches, using torture, embracing slavery, oppressing women and benefiting from child labor . . . BUT the very idea that these things were wrong emerged during this period as well.

Contrary to received modern wisdom the rationalists of the era were not God haters; rather, they rightfully mistrusted organized religion because of what the churches had become. They stripped the world of superstition and were unafraid of the articles taught to be alien and dangerous. Christianity, they believed, offered valuable lessons, raised serious moral questions and delivered most of the answers! In this they represented nothing less than "radical reorientation" in the way we thought about the world. Still, they maintained their humanity. Shelley commented that "reason, unaided and untempered by poetic insight and humane feeling, turns ugly and dangerous."

We have become a people without Gods to serve . . . hollow, empty and anxious. We distrust language, are uncertain about the most obvious features of reality, and lack conviction as we doubt the existence of truth. We are so utterly lost that we lack even the suspicion that we might have gone astray. His attack on 20th century hacks who dissemble is scholarly but unrelenting and almost vicious as he quotes some humorous and wonderfully imbecilic paragraphs to make his point. He is not one to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. In exposing modern deconstructionism for what it really is, Postman opines that, "Derrida, in defending deMan, is saying that telling the truth should be avoided because it is time consuming."

It is a thought provoking read; especially so in this current period of radical change . . . without much apparent hope, in my opinion. I encourage you to do so ASAP.

You're welcome !!

Posted by Curmudgeon at July 10, 2010 3:46 PM