Neil Postman On Disguised Technologies, And The Night Class

In his sometimes curiously conservative Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman writes:

Some technologies come in disguise. Rudyard Kipling called them “technologies in repose.” They do not look like technologies, and because of that they do their work, for good or ill, without much criticism or even awareness. This applies not only to IQ tests and to polls and to all systems of ranking and grading but to credit cards, accounting procedures, and achievement tests. It applies in the educational world to what are called “academic courses,” as well. A course is a technology for learning. I have “taught” about two hundred of them and do not know why each one lasts exactly fifteen weeks, or why each meeting lasts exactly one hour and fifty minutes. If the answer is that this is done for administrative convenience, then a course is a fraudulent technology. It is put forward as a desirable structure for learning when in fact it is only a structure for allocating space, for convenient record-keeping, and for control of faculty time. The point is that the origin of and raison d’être for a course are concealed from us. We come to believe it exists for one reason when it exists for quite another. One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

The paradigmatic instance of the intrusion of ‘administrative convenience’ into pedagogy is the three-hour evening class, which meets once a week. Despite protestations from some of my colleagues that their night classes ‘go well’, I remain singularly convinced that such a class is an exercise in futility. Students and professors are already tired at the end of the day–especially if both have been working prior to the class meeting–and little seems to be accomplished educationally past the one-hour mark. (The post-break period is particularly tedious.) There is also the small matter of not being able to resume discussions, to revisit, quickly, an issue that needs revisitation, till an entire week has passed. In short, this kind of class has very little to commend it from the pedagogical point of view.

But there is plenty on the administrative front: teach once and you are done; attend once and you are done; the three-hour evening class is an efficient use of building space and time. Most importantly, because very few students can afford to attend university full-time and must work to make their education financially viable, the night class affords them a way to further cram their schedules. A bureaucrat’s delight.  And really, is any more justification needed than that?

Note #1: The Wikipedia entry for Technopoly helpfully excerpts Postman’s definition of the term:

Postman defines technopoly as a “totalitarian technocracy”, which demands the “submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”. Echoing Ellul’s 1964 conceptualisation of technology as autonomous, “self-determinative” independently of human action, and undirected in its growth, technology in a time of Technopoly actively eliminates all other ‘thought-worlds’. Thus, it reduces human life to finding meaning in machines and technique. [citations removed; link added]

Note #2: I’m well aware that the night class serves a valuable function for those trying to change careers or seeking additional professional qualifications.

2 comments on “Neil Postman On Disguised Technologies, And The Night Class

  1. Having read Postman years ago, I found his arguments interesting but not as convincing as Ellul’s. As to his conservatism, I didn’t find it curious. That’s what conservatives looked and sounded like in those days.

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