This Day in Jewish History, 1931

Birth of Professor Who Saw Television for What It Was

Neil Postman, humanist, writer and educator who wouldn’t publish academic papers, saw culture as struggle between ‘Athenians’ and ‘Visigoths.’

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March 8, 1931, is the birthdate of the late educator, great humanist and social critic Neil Postman, probably best known for his 1985 book on the effects of television on culture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Even people who never read the book understood its title.

Neil Milton Postman was the son of Bea and Murray Postman, and grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Murray was a truck driver whose father, Abe, had owned a saloon on the Lower East Side.

The Postmans weren’t religiously observant – as an adult, Neil recalled how he and his siblings had dinner each Friday night at a Chinese restaurant – but Jewishness infused all aspects of their existence.

Brooklyn in the mid-20th century had some two million Jewish residents, so “when they called Brooklyn the borough of churches, we didn’t know what the hell they were talking about,” Postman told Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer (as quoted in their book “Growing up Jewish in America”).

Postman also described to the Frommers how he and a few friends, one of them named Sammy Rutigliano, played a regular two-on-two basketball game at the gym of the Young Israel of Flatbush synagogue. “Our agreement with the shammes, or caretaker, was that he would let us play, and we would participate in the evening prayers whenever he was short of a minyan. He was always short of a minyan. He would ask, ‘Are you all Jewish?’ We’d say, ‘Of course.’ Sammy would come along; they’d stick a yarmulke on his head, and he’d become part of the minyan.”

Sam Rutigliano, by the way, grew up to be a professional-football coach, including, in 1978-1984, chief coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Postman attended college at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he played basketball and was one of the highest scorers in the country in 1953. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees, the latter in 1958, from Columbia University Teachers College, in the field of English education.

The professor writing for the common folk

Postman was a seemingly paradoxical figure. As a student of the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, who early on understood that the medium often trumped the content of the message it was transmitting, he was a writer who didn’t use email and didn’t own either a computer or typewriter – until the end of his life, writing everything in longhand with a felt-tip pen. He spent 40 years at New York University, where he began teaching in 1959, and where he was both a department head and founded the graduate program in “media ecology.” But everything he published was intended for a general audience, with no scholarly articles or books among the voluminous body of writing he left behind.

Equally ironic is that one of Postman’s earliest books, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (1969), promoted many of the principles of open education, including elimination of tests and encouragement of independent thinking over rote learning. A decade later, however, when he wrote “Teaching as a Conserving Activity” (both books were cowritten with Charles Weingartner), Postman was endorsing school dress codes, and calling on schools to drill students in standard English. The change, said the Los Angeles Times in its obituary for Postman, in 2003, was spurred by the growing cultural dominance of television: “The electronic medium had become ‘the command center’ of American society, he said, and this was not good news.”

In an imaginary commencement address he wrote, and invited readers to use if they so desired, he described contemporary culture as facing a standoff between what he called “Athenians” and “Visigoths.” To be an Athenian, he wrote, “is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art,” whereas for Visigoths, “there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity.” (Sound familiar?)

Yet, Postman was as far from being an elitist or snob as possible, with the eulogy delivered by his son Andrew at his funeral offering touching evidence of Postman’s openness and generosity.

Postman’s early death, on October 5, 2003, at age 72, was from lung cancer. But more than a decade, and countless technological innovations, later, the influence of his thought remains pervasive.