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GP 7 December 2005: Why Not Turn Back the Clock?

Proto-Edwardians.  Back in the 1950s, before rebellion became all important, college students might sit in front of  leaded windows on a rainy November day and pretend to be Edwardians.  Each in attendance admitted to “a sinking spell.”  For them that meant sipping a brandy, smoking a long cigar—perhaps a Churchill, and conversing in low tones about a meteoric universe that paid no heed to the little doings of mankind.  Better yet if a fire were crackling and hissing in the background.  To conjure up the nineteenth century was to lend an ambience to the two-dimensional present it otherwise lacked.   

Pure Romanticism, of course.  But nothing wrong with that.  It implied that one could dress up the day or even enhance the very ambiguous future by drawing on another age.  It was a proper use of nostalgia.  A sentimental education equips one to deal with the barren moments that crop up in life.  The Edwardians themselves were the connective tissue between the Victorians and the twentieth century, interpreting the brave new world through the lens of the old. 

Neil Milton Postman.  On October 5, 2003, Neil Postman passed away before his work was done, taken by lung cancer.  He was the best thing that ever happened to New York University, and, despite a thoughtful obituary in the New York Times by Wolfgang Saxon, it’s clear that neither the mourning nor the monuments did justice to the man.  He was a most prolific writer about culture, education, and technology, the leader of a field he called “media ecology.” 

Early on, in 1961, he came out with Television and the Teaching of English, then launched a fusillade of articles and books that culminated in 1985 with Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, certainly his most popular work.  It inspired Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to devise an album called Amused to Death.  In general he theorized that our pervasive media, particularly TV, had gutted our culture.  We think one could argue as well that it has wounded our democracy.  Postman understand above all that only the printed word could express complex thoughts, a task beyond the power of TV and other multimedia.  Who would better understand the pitfalls of broadcasting’s effulgences than this consummate New Yorker? 

This good fellow had a tremendous personal impact on a host of people, starting with his family.  One need only read son Andrew Postman’s eulogy to and for his father given in Queens, October 8, 2003:  “My father had greatness, and I don’t know of anyone who was more widely admired.  But even better, my father had goodness, and I don’t know of anyone who was more genuinely loved.”  

Peter Kindlmann, an electrical design professor at Yale of breadth and depth, also cherishes Postman and has read widely in his works.  In talking about how student grading is a relatively new invention and a mixed blessing hatched up by one William Farish in 1792, he recalls none other than Postman, who wrote about the subject in Technopoly.  Both Postman and Kindlmann find it peculiar, and occasionally harmful, that we have attempted to assign quantitative grades to qualitative matters.  Something is lost in this equation. 

Unfortunately we never met the man.  We suspect that we ambled past him on one of our jogs around Washington Square, the only common for campusless NYU.  But he had the bad grace to die before we could bump into him. 

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future.  It was near the end of his game (1999), however, that Postman delivered the volume that interests us most.  If we are going to step back, why stop with the nineteenth century?  We can really go somewhere if we travel back to the eighteenth: 

What I am driving at is that in order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century, we will have to take into it some good ideas.  And in order to do that, we need to look back to take stock of the good ideas available to us.  I am suspicious of people who want us to be forward- looking….  If looking ahead means anything, it must mean finding in our past useful and humane ideas with which to fill our future.

With this in mind, I suggest that we turn our attention to the eighteenth century.  It is there, I think, that we may find ideas that offer a humane direction to the future…. 

His is an argument for history in these a-historical times, when we rarely remember the lessons of yesterday, much less the eighteenth century.  Certainly we have tinkered with the clock for less important reasons.  Every year we drift into Daylight Savings Time so that some mythical farmer will have an hour more of brightness to do his work, cheating the rest of us out of an hour in the evening.  Let’s save something worth saving—that century of independent thinking that gave birth to our country. 

Saving History.  In modern life, we have mowed down the past with abandon.  What remains are dysfunctional healthcare and educational systems, a stumbling communications and electricity infrastructure, a fractious culture, and much more that doesn’t quite work at the moment. America, more than most, has been the inventor of the world’s new technologies, and yet, irony abounding, we are not adjusting to them very well.  Can history help us get in sync?   Maybe there’s something in the past that’s restorative. 

Once upon a time there were forests primeval about this land that Longfellow could lyricize about.  In Maine, throughout the South, and elsewhere, they have been stripped away.  There’s lots of second growth now—a confused weak patchwork of woods—but the forests are lost to us.  Unless and until there is a will to grow things back in a better manner.

Do You Speak American?  Robert MacNeil, the one-time delightful co-host of the PBS Newshour, has turned to writing these days—both fact and fiction.  In his book, Do You Speak American?, he asks this question that we can answer without reading the book.  No, we don’t.  We have been pulled apart, section against section, gender against gender, trade against trade, so that we are many nations divided by a vaguely common language.  This has made it difficult for us to get our politics, and our business, and our lives done gracefully. 

Our conclusion here is, apparently, the diagnosis of the book.  In a fine essay about the documentary that sprung from MacNeil’s work, Will Schroeder in Humanities acknowledges that sectional differences have hardened as the years go by: 

These changes suggest that American speech is not becoming more homogeneous. “This is the most surprising result of our research,” says [linguist William] Labov.  “While local dialects of small communities may be receding, the larger regional patterns are becoming more different from each other.”  He says that the dialects of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Saint Louis, Dallas, and Los Angeles are more different from each other today than they were just fifty years ago. 

Maybe if we can reach back a bit, we can better come together again.  We can remember the ties that bind us together. 

Recovery of Discourse.  So what might we hope for if we could recover some of the eighteenth century?  Perhaps the renewal of conversation, and the end of sound bites.  Today, driven by the newscycle, our politicians spray us with nice sounding phrases and arrange their speeches for consumption by the broadcasters.  That means we are generally bereft of good debate and solid policymakers in either of our major parties, which are now most driven by the extremists in their midst.   

On the other hand, consider Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell’s little-noticed speech to the National Press Club on Thursday, December 1.  Called “An American Energy Harvest Plan: Jobs, Prosperity, Independence,” it could use a good editor and artful wordsmith.  But the substance is there.  You know clearly that Rendell is pumping alternate energy, massive coal gasification to take advantage of America’s coal reserves, and a bit of conservation.  Genial Governor Ed, who had a distinguished record as the 121st Mayor of Philadelphia, is on nobody’s short list for president, but he should be, even if he does not make the front page. Public service runs deep in his family, his wife Marjorie, a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  Instead of him, the Dems are highlighting glitterati candidates with half-baked programs. 

Both parties have a few brave folks who are willing to push the substantive day after day, very willing to bore the flighty media to tears.  Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, certainly fit that bill.  Perhaps a touch of the eighteenth century would help us to celebrate ideas and push charisma off to the side.  The cult of celebrity leads us to focus on the sizzle, and not on the steak.  As Jim Collins has said, the business leaders who really get things done don’t spend their lives strutting about the stage: 

If you have great charisma, you need to recognize it as a liability.  Too often, firms become dependent on the charismatic leader, and they tend to attract people who have a need to be around a hero.  [Those people] aren’t the ones who will be able to take a legacy and run with it after the founder leaves.  Instead of a cult of personality, you should aim to build a cult-like culture around your core business. 

You remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates.  Those who listened to the radio thought Nixon had won.  Those who watched TV knew Kennedy had shunted the bearded vice president aside.  Perhaps if we can recapture a sense of history, we will not be overwhelmed by media stars of any kind, in or out of Hollywood, from the age of radio or the land of digital TV.  The cult of celebrity, after all, is just one more phony religion. 

P.S.  For an important look at the nineteenth century, we recommend “Paris: Capital of the 19th Century,” a website in progress at Brown University which gives the reader a look at a country and time that experienced its own stresses with modernity.  Needless to say, Paris is not the capital of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. 

P.P.S.   Should you choose to read Postman at length, take a look at “The Neil Postman Information Page.”

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