Neil Postman on pop culture vs. classical art in education

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Neil Postman on pop culture vs. classical art in education

From ARC Staff

Published before 2005


I have been reading Neil Postman's book Technopoly and shared one of the summations in the last chapter with Tim. He thought you and others might appreciate the argument put forth. These are direct quotes cut from his book.

'[B]ack to the basics' advocates [...] usually do not include literature, music and art as part of their agenda [...] But in using the ascent of humanity as a theme, we would of necessity elevate these subjects to prominence. [....] Their subject matter contains the best evidence we have of the unity and continuity of human experience and feeling. And that is why I propose that [...] we should emphasize the enduring creations of the past. The schools should stay as far from contemporary works as possible. [....] Our students have continuous access to the popular arts of their own times [....] Their knowledge of the content and form of these arts is by no means satisfactory. But their ignorance of the form and content of art of the past is cavernous. This is one good reason for emphasizing the art of the past. Another is that there is no subject better suited for freeing us from the tyranny of the present than the historical study of art. Painting is more than three times as old as writing and contains in its changing styles and themes a fifteen-thousand-year-old record of the ascent of humanity. [....] Art is much more than historical artifact [...] It must connect with those levels of feeling that are in fact not expressible in discursive language. The question arises [...] is whether it is possible for students of today to relate, through feeling, to the painting[,] music[, and] sculpture of the past. The answer is [...] only with the greatest difficulty. They [...] have an aesthetic sensibility of a different order from what is required to be inspired, let alone entertained by a Haydn symphony or a Hals painting. To oversimplify the matter, a young man who believes Madonna to have reached the highest pinnacle of musical expression lacks the sensibility to distinguish between the ascent and descent of humanity ... [T]he product of the popular arts are amply provided by the culture itself. The schools must make available the products of classical art forms precisely because they are not so available and because they demand a different order of sensibility and response. There is no excuse for students to graduate from high school without having heard the music of Mozart, Chopin, or Bach. Or for students to not have seen at least a photograph of a painting by Goya, El Greco, David. It is not to the point that many of these artists were in their own times popular artists. What is to the point is that they spoke, when they did, in a language different from our own and yet continuous with our own. These artists are relevant not only because they established the standards with which civilized people approach the arts. They are relevant because the culture tries to mute their voices and render their standards invisible.

It's encouraging, isn't it, that educators and social critics are champions of the same philosophy so many others hold dear?