Book Review - Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

A bridge from the Enlightenment

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
Dr. Neil Postman
New York: Vintage Books, 1999
193 pages

My mom has this eerie ability to locate little appreciated books with small popularity that turn out to be guidepost works toward the new culture of reason and liberty.  Building a Bridge is one such book.

Dr. Postman (1931-2003) was a professor who lectured at New York University and wrote several books on culture and the sociological implications of technology.  In Bridge, he conveys the importance of the Enlightenment (flowering in the 18th century) to the 21st century, especially in language and writing.

To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?

— Dr. Neil Postman

Postman is a white knight crusading quietly on the horse of "the examined life" and the life of the mind, the life worth living.  He starts with anecdotes of the current state of knowledge, or shall we say ignorance, of Americans.  He heard on the radio somewhere between 35 and 62 percent of the American public believe aliens have landed on the planet.

Most of us have heard 70 percent of the population believes Iraq was guilty of the 911 attacks.  And, of course, a smirking mass-murderer occupies the White House because an alarming number of Americans think George Bush was appointed by God to lead us.

Few who read the Reason to Freedom site regularly need to be convinced that popular superstition is a danger we cannot afford to ignore.  Or that we cannot afford to not remedy.

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century has as its primary purpose the elevation of the importance of conceptual knowledge, in my judgment, through the author’s following points:

  • The concept of progress was a revolutionary new idea during The Enlightenment—for all intents and purposes, for Dr. Postman The Enlightenment is the 18th century—and virtually all Enlightenment thinkers held it as a basic premise.
  • Technology as a logical consequence of progress was a product of the 18th century that grew to fruition in the 19th century with the most startling array of inventions that fueled the Industrial Revolution.
  • Any particular technology is not unreservedly beneficial to everyone.  Consider the fact that American children watch 5,000 hours of television before entering the first grade.  Technology is a branch of moral philosophy and must be examined to obtain wise use.
  • The advance of education or teaching due to technology is approximately nil to a "three to four yard loss."  Access to more information does not make 50% of college students aware of what year American independence was proclaimed or which planet is third from the sun.
  • The Enlightenment has also been referred to as the Age of Prose.  The majority of 18th century thinkers believed words were representative of reality and that knowledge through language was a desirable, reachable end of the average man.
  • "Postmodernism" may be understood as the systematic use of words for the purpose of destroying the ability to obtain conceptual knowledge.  It is a synonym of the anti-Enlightenment and a root cause of the wanton human destruction unleashed in the 20th century, often referred to as the "Century of Statism."

Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning.

— Dr. Postman

  • Information by itself is useless.  Knowledge can be beneficial given wisdom.  Postman defines all three terms and poses a series of questions that stimulate one’s thinking toward how we can grow in awareness.
  • Men of The Enlightenment such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were practical philosophers—Postman resurrects the term "philosophes"—who felt knowledge without application or human benefit was largely pointless.
  • The concept of childhood was an innovation of The Enlightenment, a period during which a person was shielded and "cultivated" by, mainly, his or her family.  Childhood is threatened by the technology of "too much information."  Reading and understanding of books, of the large narratives society offers, provides a full experience of humanity; the breakdown of childhood produces too many poorly formed adults.
  • "Reading is by its nature serious business.  It is also, of course, an essentially rational activity."
  • Politics and education are interwoven.  If we want a better society, we have to have a more intelligent society.  Postman has the novel concept of developing "skillful question asking," that this should even be an accredited course in public universities.

My guess is if you scratched Dr. Postman you’d find a rational libertarian in there pretty close to the surface.  If he seems coy in making his case for developing the tools of deep understanding (reason and scrupulous use of language) and the freedom to live one’s life to the fullest, I have an idea it’s because:

  1. He’s a university professor and can’t be typecast as any harbinger or fellow traveler of the reason-liberty movement crowd, and
  2. Proselytizing is not his style.

I’m reminded of Dr. Jacob Bronowski and the Ascent of Man.  Though Dr. Bronowski approached his subject more from the natural sciences, where Postman comes in from the humanities.  A clever guy.  Full of insights.  Fun to read, not too long.  And I really like his appreciation of the emblematic common-man giant of the 18th century, Thomas Paine.  Bridge is the perfect book-discussion-club book.