A Tribute to Neil Postman
eil Postman, social critic, media scholar, cultural commentator, and intellectual disciple of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, S.J. Jacques Ellul and others has died. He passed away in the early evening of Sunday, October 5, from complications relating to lung cancer, which he was diagnosed with two years ago.
Postman was the author of over 20 books, including the perennial best-sellers as Teaching As A Subversive Activity, The Disappearance of Childhood, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, and The End of Education. Yet Neil’s influence on the world of scholarship, popular culture, and religion was much more than that of a “talking head” on PBS, or a gravelly voice on NPR, or a dinner-and-debate companion to Camille Paglia in Harper’s magazine. Neil ate with vice-president Gore, spoke to the assembly at Davos Switzerland, and was the direct influence on Roger Waters’ (the former Pink Floyd lead-singer) stunning solo album, Amused to Death, a fact which single-handedly increased the enrollment numbers at NYU’s Media Ecology program. In the Master’s and Ph.D level of that program, Dr. Postman influenced hundreds of lives, directly contributed to dozens of communications departments, and has been a father and grandfather figure to many through his teaching, his generosity of spirit, and through thirty years of hosting the annual Media Ecology retreat in upstate New York.
The term media ecology was coined by Marshall McLuhan, the guru of the electronic age and the preeminent media theorist of the 20th century and a devout Catholic whose first published essay was on his own intellectual hero, G.K. Chesterton. According to the best of anyone’s recollection, Neil Postman first uttered the phrase media ecology in public to a lecture audience in November of 1968, a fact I’ve always appreciated, since it was the month and year of my birth. What the phrase actually means, of course, is something you can spend the rest of your own life pondering, but here’s a starter.
I was fortunate enough to study under Dr. Postman from 1995 to 1996, in the Master’s Degree program at NYU, and then again, from 1997 until his death this past October, in the Ph.D. program in Media Ecology. Since my area of interest was the intersection of media and religion, Neil took me under his wing in a way that was gracious, personal, and meaningful. Neil was not only the department chair; he was also my academic advisor and my dissertation committee chair. He was more than just a good teacher; he was a good listener, a good questioner, and a good encourager. He was a great storyteller, and many of his stories are ones that I still tell my own students.
While Neil was not himself religious, he was nevertheless a friend to religion, and to those who were believers. Like so many things, he was surprisingly good at contributing to those fields in which he was not a specialist. His Jewish background, race, and overall mensch-ness allowed Dr. Postman to particularly enjoy the irony of being most widely read and revered in, of all places, Germany. This was but one of many implicit ways that he taught his students to value the position of the outsider as the one who could best see in and through the semantic environments created by media and technology. He wore as a badge of honor the fact that he never once published a scholarly (refereed) article, while at the same time he was quoted by all those who were published in the official journals. He saw, as most communication departments historically have seen, that the real motivation behind studying communication media and its effects was to prevent another holocaust. As he understood it, social science was simply a form of moral theology under a different name, and a theory was only useful insofar as it had “explanatory power” and a “connection to some identifiable moral purpose.”