David's Reviews > Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century by Neil Postman
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's review
Feb 13, 09

bookshelves: read-in-2009
Read in February, 2009

In this, his final book, Postman's main thesis is that we must look to history to find wisdom to help us tackle the challenges of the future. Having dismissed the 20th century as a disaster, in which people were deluded by the deadly trio of fascism, nazism, and communism, and technological progress was subverted to facilitate more efficient methods of mass killing, he proposes examining the 18th century, the era of the Enlightenment, as the best place to start.

I enjoyed this book far more than I had anticipated. "Amusing Ourselves to Death" was kind of frustrating, a mixture of accurate insights and shrill complaint, largely negative in tone, with no obvious useful conclusion. The tone of this book is far more constructive and, while I don't by any means agree with everything Postman has to say, I found most of the material thought-provoking, with two exceptions.

One part that gave me difficulty was the chapter on childhood (a topic that he has explored in one of his earlier books, apparently), which seemed completely off the mark. Specifically, his argument that childhood is primarily a social construct, invented in the 17th century and perfected in the 18th, at risk of vanishing entirely under the onslaught of information available in our time seems fundamentally misguided. It ignores the reality of the fundamental division that puberty represents in human development. No matter what society or epoch one considers, sexual maturation represents a natural milestone that carries within it an implicit definition of childhood. The natural order, and the imperative to propagate the species, lead virtually all societies to treat those who have not yet realized their reproductive capacity (i.e. "children") differently from those who have attained puberty.

But then, one gets the strong impression that science was never Postman's strong suit. This also contributes to the second aspect of the book that I found problematic - his profound distrust of technology in all its aspects. I should be clear here - I actually agree with Postman that a healthy scepticism about alleged technological "advances" is in order. We should have learned by now not to take the tech prophets' over-hyped claims at face value. And the experience of the last century demonstrates conclusively that delegating responsibility for dealing with the ethical, moral, political and sociological questions raised by scientific progress to the scientists and engineers is a recipe for disaster. The level of Postman's distrust seems exaggerated, however, and gives the impression that it is primarily a result of ignorance, and thus not entirely rational.

(While reading the book, I couldn't stop thinking about how much fun it would be to have Neil Postman and Ray Kurzweil participate in a panel discussion about what the future holds).

The other parts of the book, in particular the chapters on "language", "information", and "narratives" were persuasively argued and thought-provoking. The final chapter, on "education", inherited some of the difficulties arising from Postman's flawed conception of childhood. But overall, I found this book interesting, well-argued, and well-written.
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