18 April 2009

Book Review: An Amusing World

Title: Amusing Ourselves to Death
Author: Neil Postman
Published: 1985 Pages: 163
Genre: Nonfiction
Rating: 4/5

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In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman posits that the world of entertainment is the predecessor, or possibly the culmination, of Aldous Huxley's vision in Brave New World, so I, of course, read them together. Huxley's novel presents a world in which people are so concerned with being happy they are willing to give up freedom. Conditioned from actual conception biologically and then further conditioned through sleep-teaching, people live lives which have been entirely mapped out for them: each class following the prescribed and hypnopaedically conditioned beliefs and activities given to them such as promiscuity ("everyone belongs to everyone else"), a fear of solitude, a perfect understanding of their job but nothing else, and a drug called soma to dispel any unhappy thoughts.

To Postman, I suppose both the drug and the conditioning translates as television or in a larger context, the media. And I can very much see this in modern society. I often teach that our ideological beliefs are taught to us through tv. What we think of as acceptable behavior and goals are dictated by the stars both off and on screen...conditioning. Television of course is also what we do to kill time, make us happy, and help us escape from our everyday lives....soma. A different look at Postman can be found on Brandon's Blog Et Alia here.

One of the main issues presented in both books is the lack of knowledge, indeed the lack of a desire for knowledge, in the population of these societies. Both societies, the real and the fictional, seem perfectly happy to know as little as possible. They take their information in small doses without question whether from Postman's media or Huxley's proverb-based conditioning. They don't go beyond what they are given to apply logic and reason, and they don't worry about how or if the information is relevant to their lives.

I agree wholeheartedly that this description is applicable to contemporary society. I am often surprised by what my students don't know, but more often surprised by the fact that they don't care to know. An extra credit quiz I give in my classes asks students to answer such questions as "in what decade did the American civil war end", "when did women get the right to vote", and "who wrote King Lear". I also give true/false questions like "Africa is the largest country in the world". Every semester I am saddened when I get the results and see that out of 30 such questions, the average student can only answer 3. My students don't see their results and feel embarrassed or suddenly desire to learn more; they don't see it as indicative of anything negative. Why does a nurse need to know about the civil war? What use is Shakespeare to a mechanic? These are more often the responses I receive, said with a laugh and a look highly reminiscent of condescension. They seem to find my concern laughable.

I'm not saying that knowing that the civil war ended in the 1860s is any sort of mark of intelligence - afterall knowing facts without context is one of Postman's concerns - but I do worry that the American population is falling into Huxley's vision of a world in which the past is irrelevant and almost obscene. Without the context of our past what are we?

In my students, I can hear Huxley's Lenina saying "I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody's happy nowadays." But at what price happiness? And if you have been conditioned to a particular perception of what it means to be happy, can you ever be actually happy?

Title: Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
Published: 1998 Pages: 288
Genre: Dystopia
Rating: 3.5/5

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I have to wonder, as Brandon did, about the irony of my (for the most part) agreement with both authors while I am blogging on the issues and simultaneously watching Transformers on tv. Postman was not against tv; he just felt that the viewing audience needed to be more aware of the true nature of tv - entertainment not serious information. As such, he may not be too offended. Huxley may have seen television as a form of soma, but I'm combining my soma with a more intellectual pursuit. I like to think that both Postman and Huxley would see my current actions as acceptable if not ideal. Afterall, I'm not mindlessly consuming or using my media....... but I do so enjoy it.

So after that rambling bit of thought, I do have a question. How do we bring lengthy discourse and the application of thought and reason to our media-developed ADHD population?

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