As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
If I were to ask you to outline your narrative for living, how would you respond? Social critic Neil Postman puts it another way in his book The End of Education. Which ‘god’ do you serve?
In Western culture, Postman argues that we serve a number of gods, and not just spiritual ones. Powerful narratives are apparent in our education system, explained through books, repeated on television sets and movie screens. These narratives give meaning to your world and your labours, and in the process they form your personal identity.
The God of Technology
“Mary is creating her own app at school,” says the proud mother to her friend. “And little Charlie is playing maths games on his computer. He plays them all night,” boasts her friend. They both smile in the knowledge that little Mary and Charlie are seamlessly converting to technology.
Technology worship is widespread today. A blip in the power supply or a wifi outage and community outrage ensues. Technology apostles wail at their providers in fury. “How dare you separate us from our god!” When connectivity is lost, customary rituals – posting, tweeting, uploading, updating, following, downloading, watching – cannot be performed.
Technology gives meaning, order, and organisation to the lives of technology disciples. “No other god can be permitted to impede, slow down, frustrate, or, least of all, oppose the sovereignty of technology,” writes Postman.
The technology god promises many things: efficiency, convenience, and even prosperity for the favoured few. School-teachers are some of its fiercest advocates – ditching pens and paints, brushes, books, and poetic meanderings around the school-yard, for more screen time. “Just think what little Mary and Charlie can learn with today’s technology,” they exclaim. “They can download podcasts on quantum mechanics or the migratory behaviour of seabirds.”
Speak ill of the technology god and its zealots will brand you a ‘luddite’. Query the use of technology in schools, the amount of screen time children are exposed to, or even the purpose of technology itself and you’ll be labelled ‘backwards’, or ‘behind the times’.
“At some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology,” writes Postman, “in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this be not a form of religious belief, what is?”
The God of Consumerism
As you sit on the tarmac ready for take off, the man beside you unfolds a piece of paper and lays it nonchalantly on his lap. You look down and notice a catalogue; and there in front of you is exactly the sofa you’ve been looking for!
Consumerism is a demanding god. It beseeches substantial time and energy from its followers. Time to read the infinite number of consumer textbooks – magazines, catalogues, and newspapers – and to listen to and watch the myriad programs on television and radio.
Apostles to the consumer god must know ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ in the fashion world, the ‘trending’ consumer items of the ‘celebrities’, the ‘power’ entrepreneurs and business people (the high priests and priestesses of the consumer religion), the blockbuster movies on offer, the top 10 ‘must-read’ books, and the 100 places to visit before you die. They must have a good grasp of the television guide, the latest fad diets, the ultimate cleaning tips for a sparkling home, the vitamins to take, and the latest advice in food.
Adherents to the consumer god worship by buying, updating, cleaning, packing away, rewiring, fixing, repairing, and replacing their consumer items. Sharing information on products and discussing the different product options with friends and family helps bond consumers together. “How do you like my sunglasses?” “We’ve just upgraded our mobile plan”. “Michael just switched mortgage providers!”
The consumer doctrine preaches that you are what you buy: you are what you wear, the car you drive, the house you live in, the boat you moor. You are the furniture in your home, the holidays you take, the size of your garage. Sinful are those who possess outdated technology; those who rent, stay home on holidays, or wear vintage clothes.
The consumer religion gives people a system of behaviour and worldview, a sense of identity, and community life.
The God of Economic Utility
“Who are you?” asked a teacher of her kindergarten students. The students were told to write down who they were. Some wrote their own name, while others wrote ‘policeman’ or ‘fireman’. It’s a question often asked: “What do you do?” In other words, how do you earn your keep?
Schoolchildren quickly learn to see themselves as economic creatures, writes Postman. “Our sense of worth and purpose is to be found in our capacity to secure material benefits.” This is the doctrine of economic utility, in part derived from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. “According to this god, you are what you do for a living.”
The god of economic utility is preached in schools and is viewed as the primary training ground for future employment. Children go to school to get good grades, and hopefully, advance into a specialised field such as law, medicine, teaching, engineering, or computer science.
Children do not attend school to study other things – like how be an ethical person, how to understand what makes for a meaningful life, or how to be a radical thinker. Such topics do not fit into the economic agenda, and are, therefore, viewed as a complete waste of valuable time.
The doctrine of economic utility preaches that goodness is productivity and efficiency and evil is inefficiency and sloth, remarks Postman. We do not live in a culture or community but an ‘economy’ that produces measurable output, labelled ‘economic activity’. An economy that is viewed as doing poorly is one that has a high number of unproductive people, rather than one that makes the bulk of its populace ‘neurotic’ or ‘sad’; that transforms beautiful sun-filled hills into shopping malls and car parks.
“Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful,” writes Postman, “and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity. At the very least, it diminishes the idea of what a good learner is.”
What is Your Narrative?
A narrative gives meaning to our lives. It gives purpose, clarity and a point to our labours. According to Postman, everyone needs a narrative to live by – without a narrative we can feel lost and confused. It can be a worthwhile exercise to write down, detail and describe your personal narrative. If you follow the major social narratives outlined on the previous pages – the god of technology, consumerism, or economic utility – think about how these doctrines guide your day-to-day life. Discover, recognise or invent your own narrative – it’s up to you.