Amusing Ourselves to Death?

May 1, 2017

Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes I want to pull the covers up over my head and avoid the daily grind. Sometimes I wish I could just watch Netflix or look at Facebook and leave the dishes in the sink.

I was reading an editorial in the Guardian the other day by the son of Neil Postman, media critic. Postman coined the phrase “amusing ourselves to death.” Here’s a quote from his book of the same title: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

Postman’s son knows his dad’s words have special relevance today. His editorial goes on to talk about the way in which the “lightning speed” of media can really inhibit the possibility of historical context, and our urge to use it. We are moving so fast, we don’t have to back up what we say, we can just say it forcefully and people will be impressed; they will misrecognize memes for discourse.

Sometimes I want to read only headlines. Sometimes I just want to just spout the party line. Sometimes I feel like if there was no Google I wouldn’t remember a G-D thing.

Postman Jr. writes, “For all the ways one can define fascism (and there are many), one essential trait is its allegiance to no idea of right but its own: it is, in short, ideological narcissism.” He suggests that in our current situation, where the average American adult has 74 hours of screen time, we are getting better and better at surrounding ourselves with amusements, and isolating our opinions and ideas. We do not look for common ground– we look for like minds.

His conclusion is that we need to make sure our young people are taught from a very young age to look for more than one source for their information, to make up their minds based on research and understanding; to learn to verify their information by using credible sources. I would argue that that also requires talking to people who may not agree with you. And in doing so, not policing their arguments but instead articulating eloquently your own position.

Sometimes I wish people could read my mind and I wouldn’t have to write things down. I wish I could play or bake cookies, and never have to face all the pain in the world or do what’s hard for me. Hard things are boring.

These days, I find myself talking a lot with parents and Center School teachers about how to make sure we are helping our kids confront what’s hard, tough it out, and be brave. I don’t mean simply when it comes to climbing a wall at the Rock Gym, performing on stage, or speaking up in class, although those are all very important. The Center School is, I believe, very good at encouraging “appropriate risk.” I’m more focused on the idea that kids should tough out the mundane or not so fun parts of their day. Even though we are a progressive school with child-led, play as learning, as our creed, children should be taught that there are aspects of the everyday that, (without applying practice and/or realism) are by their nature less appealing.  And yet they must be done. Memorizing math facts, Spanish verbs, or play lines, come to mind. Writing thank you notes, topic sentences, research papers, writing down your homework, these things can feel like drudgery. How about (dun, dun, DUN!) unpacking your lunch box, putting away laundry, changing the cat tray? Even at the magical Center School or in the homes of magical Center School families, the less exciting, not-favorite things have to get done. Discomfort is a significant part of being human.  Teaching kids this may be a radical move towards more nuanced, sturdy, competent kids.  Do I sound like one of those Facebook articles?  Do you already know all this?  Feel free to write to me with your feedback.  I love hearing from you.

Wow! It feels so good when I finish something that wasn’t my first choice. This letter for the blog is done! That was hard. Now off to finish reading the New Yorker piece on Trump’s first 100 days. I need to have evidence to back up my sweeping statements that he is a liar. It will take some time to digest all those tiny words and not just read the cartoons, but I can do it!

Charlie Spencer, Head of School
Contact Charlie: Email
Phone: 413-773-1700
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