Sean Murphy, Neil Postman And Technology: The Faustian Bargain


I sit down with Sean Murphy, the headmaster of Palmer Trinity, the private school where I teach in Palmetto Bay, Florida. We debate the future of K-12 education and what role technology can and should play inside the classroom.

Last year, I moved the student newspaper to an entirely online format. This year, I purchased a semi-professional digital camcorder, green screen and advanced video editing software for my journalism and yearbook classes.

In my five years at Palmer, I have become known as a “techie.” Much of this has to do with the kinds of courses I teach. Still, I get the sense that some of my colleagues have branded me as a rebel, embracing technology and abandoning more traditional, pencil-and-paper pedagogy.

In part, I meet with Murphy to assure him that I have not gone nutty, and that I abhor using technology simply because its “cool.”

We agree on everything: technology can definitely enhance the learning process, but too many students are easily distracted by video games, social media, and an array of remote and online applications.

“Technology is a double-edged sword,” Mr. Murphy tells me. “On one hand it puts us in touch with each other and with an infinite array of information. But that flood of stimulation doesn’t help us choose the things that make our lives more meaningful or satisfying in the long run. In fact, the sheer volume of stimulation usually becomes overwhelming and disappointing.”

Murphy walks me to his bookshelf, jam-packed with works on education, writing and poetry—reflective of his extremely intelligent, inquisitive, and deep-thinking nature.

He hands me a cop of Neil Postman’s The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. I was first introduced to this seemingly clairvoyant author, essayist, and social critic at Brandeis University.

“It’s a little dated,” Murphy says. “But I think you might find some useful, interesting stuff in there.”

Several days later, I’m 40 pages into Postman’s work when a certain passage really catches my eye:

“The computer and its associated technologies are awesome additions to a culture, and they are quite capable of altering the psychic, let alone the sleeping, habits of our young,” Postman writes. “But like all important technologies of the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking away, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other. It is strange—indeed, shocking—that with the twenty-first century so close on our heels, we can still talk of new technologies as if they were unmixed blessings, gifts, as it were, from the gods.”

Postman died in 2003, but his work remains truer than ever.

People often discuss what famous person, dead or alive, they would most like to meet. Postman ranks at the top of my list. I would love to ask him about one-to-one laptop programs and whether in trying to help by placing devices in students’ hands, we are taking away something more important.

Thankfully, Postman’s Technopoly, The Surrender of Culture to Technology, published in 1993, offers a good glimpse of what he might think. In a CSPAN interview about his work, Postman grabs my attention:

America has developed a new religion, as it were, and the religion is its faith  that human progress and technological innovation are the same thing—and that paradise can be achieved through greater and greater commitment to technology.

It’s no secret that I fully support one-to-one programs, and for good reason: Cutting-edge learning software, dynamic Web 2.0 platforms for communicating and sharing ideas, and instantaneous information provide endless learning possibilities, which even Postman couldn’t possibly fathom before his death.

All the same, we must heed Postman’s warning. Paradise cannot be achieved by blindly embracing the next new thing, in this case technology. Simply giving students laptops doesn’t mean that the devices will be used correctly, or at all. Postman would certainly agree, and he warns about the dangers of individuals becoming overly enthralled with “crap.”

“One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of crap,” Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published in 1985.

If it is integrated effectively, I wouldn’t use such language to describe technology—quite the contrary. Still, I am cautious about excessive and unnecessary use of it in the classroom.

Outside of my journalism classes, I rarely allow my students to use their laptops—only when they need to work on a project as a designated in-class activity. This isn’t because my lessons are boring, or that kids aren’t interested in learning. The temptation to check sports highlights, fashion blogs, and teen “news” sites is just overpowering.

It’s the job of a teacher to show and promote proper use, but herein lies another problem.

Too often, I hear of teachers frustrated with the simplest technological tasks, such as turning on a projector or computer, playing a film or uploading content to a class page. While they struggle, their well-meaning schools encourage even more use of online learning and technology. Frustrated teachers burn time trying to work something that they know little or nothing about. Postman is spot-on: in this environment, no greater progress can be made.

Murphy and I agree that too often teachers view technology as a panacea to all of education’s problems. But I find solace in that Postman admits that in moderation, technology isn’t necessarily bad.

In this book, I mostly emphasize the bad part. But I admit, happily at the beginning of the book, that anyone who looks at technology as an either-or development, that is either as all good or all bad, is making a mistake.

When I was a college student, my journalism professor, Michael J. Socolow, assigned Postman’s  Amusing Ourselves to Death.

I glance through my old, worn-out copy, when I stop at a particular highlighted passage:

In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches, and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.

I speak about Postman’s legacy with my editor, Bruce Musgrave, who points me to another insightful remark by Postman:

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.  The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

If ever a soothsayer walked this earth, Postman takes the cake. Decades before social networking even existed, he predicted the challenges we would face in retaining a sense of what truly matters.

Teachers have an obligation to help students sharpen the good side of the double-edged sword.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply April 27, 2013

    Scott du Feu

    I challenge a teacher to be able to teach the same lesson better on a blackback board than on a whiteboard. And, I challenge a teacher to teach a better lesson on a whiteboard, than on a Smartboard. Technology, used the correct way, can only aid out teaching ability, make it better for the students, and engage them more. Of course, like anything else, technology can be used poorly or inappropriately, but surely no one can deny that it has in the past twenty years made teaching easier, and in my opinion consequently better. So much more can be achieved in now teaching than 20 years ago, even more than 10 or 5 years ago. The time saved with the technology today allows us so much more time to cover the material, in this writers opinion it can also be covered in much more depth. Now that doesn’t mean that since we can do more in the time, we should fly through the curriculum and fill it with even more topics. On the contrary, it might well be fact that the curriculum is too broad already, but what technology has allowed us to do is use our time in the classroom more wisely. Just look at a simple task like comparing and contrasting something. With a Smartboard, or computer projected image, the teacher can write up the opinions of the students, move them around, add to them, combine them, and make it all more easily readable than writing on a whiteboard, and save time and allow more discussion to take place. And at the end of it, he can print or post the whole lesson/discussion. And this is perhaps the most simplistic use of technology that so many seem to fight. But why do they fight it? Do they fight it because they feel it detracts from more personalized teaching, or is it really because they aren’t familiar with the technology, don’t want to learn it, fear it, or just don’t like the idea of change. Surely as the teaching profession grows up with sort of technology we have today, and the technology of tomorrow (and I literally mean tomorrow, since it advances so quickly), there will be a much bigger swing to using technology and a much greater acceptance of it. And for those who still want to ‘teach old school’, nothing will ever replace the one on one interaction a teacher has with his/her students or the influence he/she has on them – how can it? A look, a word, a smile from a teacher will never be replaced by technology, even if it is on a computer screen or projected on a wall. All you have to do is Skype (or similar) with a loved one (your wife, your parents, your children) to know that even from miles away a word, a look, a smile can be some important even on the screen.

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