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How the Past Can Improve Our Future
By Neil Postman
Alfred Knopf, 1999

George Santayana famously observed that when we forget the mistakes of the past we are condemned to repeat them. Soren Kierkegaard struck a similar chord when he said that there is no such thing as a visionary, that those who claim to know what tomorrow will bring are merely reclaiming some idea from the past and projecting in into the future.

Neil Postman uses these aphorisms as a point of departure in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, a witty and absorbing little book aimed at revitalizing some of the neglected ideals of the past and applying them to the pressing challenges facing us at the turn of the millennium. While it doesn't rank among Postman's best (and has been criticized for drawing heavily on his previous works), it is nevertheless a prescient, sensible, and nicely argued book.

The case Postman makes is this: "In order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century, we will have to take into it some good ideas. And in order to do that, we need to look back to take stock of the good ideas available to us."

Postman admits that the fifth century B.C. produced a wealth of good ideas — most notably, the idea of democracy — but he rejects Ancient Greece because the Athenians are "too far from us and too strange and too insular and too unacquainted with the power of technology" to help guide us into a new century. He also dismisses the God-centered outlook of the Middle Ages, noting that "in a theocratic world, everyone is a fundamentalist." In a technological and multicultural society such as ours, "fundamentalism is a side issue, confined to those places that are still theocratic and are therefore regarded as a danger to world harmony."

Postman feels that the eighteenth century is the most useful source of intellectual and social guidance because it offers "a humane direction to the future." It was the century of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Adam Smith, the American founding fathers, and many other seminal minds. It was the century we first articulated our ideas about inductive science, about religious and political freedom, about popular education, and about rational commerce. It was a time when reason began its triumph over superstition, and it was the age when a profoundly new understanding of the meaning and purpose of history began to take hold — the idea of progress. Postman speaks of this period variously as the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, and the dawn of the modern world.

He is not interested in offering an intellectual history of the period so much as culling from it a useful set of ideas and principles that can illuminate the present. As such, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century is designed to function on two levels: as an overview of Enlightenment thought and, more importantly, as a critique of modern culture, one which he feels is in dire need of moral direction and guidance.

We live in a culture saturated with meaningless information and obsessed with technology, he says. Philosophy no longer addresses itself to profound metaphysical problems but rather to the deconstruction of syntax and grammar. Children are no longer viewed as adults in the making, but rather as consumers, as a "market" to be exploited for commercial gain. And public education has lost an animating sense of purpose, oriented as it is more toward the form than the substance of instruction.

As Postman sees it, many of today's social and political ills stem from the loss of a common narrative. By narrative, he means a story that is "sufficiently profound and complex to offer explanations of the origins and future of a people," a story that can "construct ideals, prescribe rules of conduct, specify sources of authority, and, in doing all this, pro-vide a sense of continuity and purpose." As we begin a new century, he says, many of us suffer from a kind of psychic disorientation, a confusion that accompanies the absence of a narrative to give organization and meaning to our world — a story of transcendence and mythic power.

Where can we find such a narrative? Postman believes that the democratic ideal may serve as a unifying story as we look to the future. While our conception of democracy is itself a kind of myth — "a kind of fantasy about what ought to be" — it still has the power to connect individuals, to provide a common language and a set of ideals, and to provide a range of practical goals for the twenty-first century. We would do well to remember that these fantasies, these dreams, are the legacy of the Enlightenment and have served as the foundation of how we define "democracy." If we try to remember how our eighteenth-century forebears attempted to get it right, then our own chances are improved.

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Related book review: Scott London discusses Neil Postman's The End of Education.

Related book review: Scott reviews Postman's Technopoly.

Copyright 2000 by Scott London. All rights reserved.