Defending Against the Indefensible

Throughout the span of the past few weeks I have traversed the globe, visiting several countries and regions, only to realize that although new methods develop, language as a way of expressing ones self has remained the most effective. Despite this fact, language still has its pitfalls. Neil Postman, in his essay ‘Defending Against the Indefensible,’; outlines seven concepts that can be used to aid a student in better understanding the language as a means of communication. He describes how modern teaching methods leave a student vulnerable to the ‘prejudices of their elders’;, further stating that a good teacher must always be skeptical.

He urges teachers of all subjects to break free from traditional teachings as well as ‘linguistical tyranny’; His first principle regards the process of definition. As I sit in an every day classroom I notice several things. Many, if not all student simply nod their heads while a teacher explains, be it a theory in Math, or a formula in Science. Not once have I encountered a student willing to raise their hand and question the definition, or meaning that a teacher has rambled off to them.

Neil Postman states his feelings on this best when he writes, ‘ It is a form of stupidity when to accept without reflection someone else’s definition. He wants people to realize that definitions are not god given, and that to question the validity is acceptable. Upon looking in a dictionary at any word you will see that all have several meanings. The same may apply to our lives, while one definition may apply to you another may not. The ability to question a definition is a crucial part of communication. For example: in the practice of law a case might call for someone to define the freedom of press, and that very definition may mean two completely different things to two different people.

Postman’s first principle was one that I feel needed to be addressed. Too often our teachers impose the same definition they learned, valid, or not. If one is not allowed to defend a definition, especially an unjust one, then communication becomes more difficult. ‘All the knowledge one could ever attain is by asking questions, so logically these questions should be properly formed. ‘; Postman’s second principle involves the skill of question asking. Simply put, this means that the answer we get depends on the question we ask. How you phrase a question makes all the difference in the world.

A query asked in two separate ways can result in two completely different answers. ‘A question is the most important tool we have’; states Postman. Take scientists for example. Their entire career is based on asking questions, stating a hypothesis, and furthermore, answering them by conducting experiments. Postman calls for the art of question asking to be infused with the current school curriculum, because to often students do not ask questions. When a student arrives at school on the first day they often notice many changes.

Although welcome, these changes sometimes make a student wonder why he or she was not asked if they would prefer them. This is the perfect example of how one phrases a question wrong. Although a student might voice their opinion by saying, ‘I would like a better school’; they don’t imply in which way they would like to achieve that. Although it was a noteworthy concept, I found it to have many flaws. Postman believes that this concept be put on high priority. He never examines how teachers are to teach this radical way of thinking.

There are other factors in a student’s high school career, and his ideas are not the only ones that need to be considered. Yet again I find that Postman’s third concept is not in my favor either. He says that words previously thought simple to us, such as good, bad, and true, may be completely ignored by the common student. This is due to the fact that words like this have become commonplace causing a student to simply glaze over them. He asks that if vocabulary tests remain, then at least test a student on simple words.

Postman argues that if a student were to see hidden meaning in a word, then they could use it to their defense. It is my belief that Postman may be correct now, what about in the future. If attention were turned to smaller words, then surely our vocabulary will diminish, and the same thing that happened to words such as true, and false, will happen to words such as semantic, and pedagogical. Vocabulary tests should be left as they are. If a student wishes to study words of everyday use, read a book, or watch television.

The next principle was thought provoking as well. The use of a metaphor as a tool in education is rarely used, as Postman notes. ‘Unless our students are aware of how metaphors shape arguments, organize perceptions, and control feelings, their understanding is severely limited. Postman displays how most political speeches are laced with metaphors, and how teacher’s methods are shaped by a metaphor. A student who doesn’t understand a metaphor, or when it is being applied tends to have a more closed outlook.

A metaphor, used as a communication skill, is best described in a political way. Think of Reagan’s Voodoo economics, or Bill Clinton building a bridge to the 21st century. Politicians can easily scam an ignorant voter, should one not understand a metaphor. For example: Clinton refers to building a bridge, but does not tell us with which tools he intends to build it with. This particular concept is valid alone for the above reason. Whether you are talking to a teacher or watching television, metaphors need to understand. The fifth concept is that of reification.

This means confusing words with things. We falsely associate simple words with things they don’t even resemble. This occurs many times when we communicate. Sometimes used to exaggerate the importance of a detail when telling a story, or trying to increase the appeal of consumer goods. Postman wants reification to be taught in school so students may see the inner workings of it. Reification is a very potent thing in every day life, and the study of reification in school is an admirable thing. Students should be made wary of advertising gimmicks.

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