[Niehls Bohr] meant to teach us, as have other wise people, that it is better to have access to more than one profound truth. To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism. -Neil Postman (The End of Education)
I recently had occasion to assign to my students of Media and Popular Culture a selection from Neil Postman’s “The End of Education,” in which the above quote is featured. The selection, an Introduction and Chapter One, is something I consider both profound and empowering for students, and yet there seemed to be something missing in the class discussion. Now, I’m not oblivious to the type of game that students play in order to get by at universities (or other types of schools), and I expect there’s a healthy mix of students who didn’t read, didn’t read closely, read but only because they had to write a response, and of course read and enjoyed, but don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.
The thing that was missing, beyond the aforementioned obstacles to meaningful discourse, was outside-the-book-research. For all the powers of information access we enjoy, not a single student could tell me who Niehls Bohr was, and when pressed not a single student had bothered to simply Google the name. I’ve taught Academic Reading to students in the (not too distant) past, and have always made a point, when discussing critical reading, to teach the methods. I’ve taught about previewing, skimming and scanning, writing in the margins and note-taking, and the supplemental use of web searches in finding deeper appreciation for the subject matter, including the background of the author and any references of the sort described here.
Is it that my students weren’t sufficiently trained and/or familiar with the type of reading experience I’ve mentioned? Perhaps. Were they just lazy? Maybe. I suspect that both of those things are true to some degree, but I also suspect that the problem lies at the heart of our education system. These students, you see, come from a culture of schooling that emphasizes testing and a fact-based relationship with the subject matter that favors textbooks and memorization. They’re more concerned with “what they have to know” rather than having a transformational experience through the subject matter. The outcome of the journey is accreditation and vocation. There’s nothing wrong with getting your passport stamped or rounding oneself into a desirable hire, but I suspect that the number of requirements in the system, and the culture of testing, is to blame for the perceived lack of interest in using information tools to enhance the experience of learning.
To return to the quote at the start of this post, the sentiment expressed seems to be among the top percentile of important lessons that an education can bring in a world of close-lived tensions and volatility. In an environment where selective exposure is a real issue, holding comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is a life skill worth pursuing. When exposed to that sentiment, and asked to deal with it in public, my students held back…at least at first. (They do a great job when brought out of the shell.) When distracted by the 1000+ things that they’re distracted with in life and online, how does one punctuate important truths in a way that makes schooling meaningful again? The first step is, of course, to encourage the value of reading. The second is to teach the methodologies associated with question-making and critical reading, which include the positive enhancement of reading possible through information technology. This is a current point of discussion in journalism schools, but overlaps in 1000s of important ways in discussions of schooling as well.
For the record, Niehls Bohr was a physicist and philosopher famous for modeling the atom, among other things, and for his humanitarian work in protecting European Jews from the rise of Nazism. Bohr was a philosophical father of complementarity (which informs the Postman quote further) and designed a Coat of Arms to be placed on his grave featuring the taijitsu, or yin and yang, to illustrate his commitment to a particular scientific and worldview.