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Sunday, September 24, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taking Our Schools To Task

----------------------------------------------------------------- "The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Schools" by Neil Postman Knopf, $22 -----------------------------------------------------------------

"The End of Education" is not as apocalyptic as it sounds. Neil Postman agrees there is a crisis in public education, but his concern is not so much with the means of public education as with the ends.

Why do we educate our children? Is getting a good job after graduation reason enough? Postman thinks not. Thus he sets himself the monumental task of providing a reason - or an end - to education.

Does he succeed? Partly. Postman - a Columbia professor and author of 20 books, including the undergraduate staple "Amusing Ourselves to Death" - demolishes several false "gods" that students are being asked to serve, such as economic utility, technology and multiculturalism.

He then lists five gods he thinks may serve us better: "Spaceship Earth" (the notion of humans as caretakers of the planet); "The Fallen Angel" (history as a series of errors and corrections); "The American Experiment" (the nation as a perpetually fascinating question mark); "The Laws of Diversity" (sameness as the enemy of vitality and creativity); and "The Word Weavers/The World Makers" (using language to create the world).

Get rid of textbooks

Postman offers enough innovations to anger just about everyone: Textbooks should be thrown out; archaeology, astronomy and anthropology should be given the highest priority; religion - all religions - should be included in the curriculum. Patriotism should be encouraged, he says, and teachers should swap subjects - and those subjects should be taught historically.

Yet behind each suggestion is a keen insight into the human condition and an overarching theory about learning that relates back to Postman's five gods. Textbook knowledge, he complains, is presented as "a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward the truth." Religions are important because they are "the stories of how different people of different times and places have tried to achieve a sense of transcendence."

What Postman is encouraging, in other words, is the kind of deep questioning that reveals the existential roots of our environment. He wants to provide children the sense that we live in a world that is volatile, not stagnant.

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But he reveals scary statistics: "Between the ages of three and eighteen, the average American youngster will see about 500,000 television commercials, which means that the television commercial is the single most substantial source of values to which the young are exposed."

Even in the face of such grim knowledge, Postman is able to maintain a sense of humor. Noting that educator Diane Ravitch, who feels technology will one day replace public schools, has written that, "If Little Eva cannot sleep, she can learn algebra instead," Postman responds: "Where did Little Eva come from, Mars? . . . What Ravitch is talking about here is not a new technology but a new species of child."

Occasionally Postman reveals the naivete of the detached scholar. He implies that business leaders want open and curious workers when automatons would better suit the low-skill jobs we keep generating. And can any innovation - let alone Postman's all-encompassing suggestions - make it past entrenched school administrators and contentious parents?

At 198 pages, "The End of Education" is hardly a blueprint for an entirely new school system. But the book's purpose, as Postman notes, "is not only to put forward reasons that make sense but to . . . (promote) a serious conversation about reasons." In this, I hope he succeeds. "The End of Education" is one of those books that makes you feel the world would be a better place if only everyone read it. Seattle writer Erik Lundegaard has written for The New York Times Magazine and The Utne Reader.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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