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Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future Paperback – October 10, 2000


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 10, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375701273
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375701276
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #105,893 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The problem with the world today, says Neil Postman, is that we've become so caught up in hurtling towards the future that we've lost our societal "narrative," a humane cultural tradition that creates "a sense of purpose and continuity"--in other words, something to believe in. "In order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century," he asserts, "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." He finds rich source material in the Enlightenment, the salad days for philosophers such as Goethe, Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, and Jefferson, "the beginnings of much that is worthwhile about the modern world." Yet Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century is a call for cultural progress, not regression: "I am not suggesting that we become the eighteenth century," Postman notes, "only that we use it for what it is worth and all it is worth."

Chief among the values Postman cites is the development of the intellect; it plays a part in many of his recommendations, from the cultivation of a healthy skepticism towards overhyped technology to sweeping educational reforms that include replacing grammar instruction with logic and rhetoric and introducing courses on comparative religion and the history of science. He also lashes out at postmodernists who start with the premise that language "is a major factor in producing our perceptions, judgments, knowledge, and institutions" and conclude that language is therefore tenuously connected to reality at best. Enlightenment thinkers knew that language molded perception, he notes, but they also believed that "it is possible to use language to say things about the world that are true" and "to communicate ideas to oneself and to others." Postman is excessively curmudgeonly at times, as in his reference to philosopher Jean Baudrillard as "a Frenchman, of all things," or his remarks on the ancient Athenians: "I know they are the classic example of Dead White Males, but we should probably listen to them anyway." But for anybody with a stake in the culture wars, or who wants to apply the lessons of philosophy to the modern world, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century will make for provocative reading. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

"I am not suggesting that we become the eighteenth century, only that we use it for what it is worth and for all it is worth," Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death; Technopoly) argues in this penetrating, extended essay. Though other periods are rich with learning and wisdom, Postman believes the 18th-century Enlightenment is uniquely valuable and relevant to today's world. It gave us the rationalist notion of human progressAexpressed and supported by science and technologyAand the romantic critique, with its idea of inward progress and its suspicion of the machine. It gave us discursive narrative prose as the prototypical model of thought, along with more subtle, less hysterical critiques of language than postmodernists offer today. It gave us floods of new information, yet ridiculed information as an end in itself, urging a healthy respect for context and purpose. It gave us the idea of childhood as a distinct life stage linked to education and nurturance, illuminated by two contrasting visionsALocke's blank slate to be written on and Rousseau's plant to be cultivated. And it gave us representative democracy. All these were expressions of a world in which the dominant media, unlike today, was the printed word. As that environment fades, the complex tensions Postman illuminates are replaced by shallow sloganeering by those who present themselves as the embodiment of novelty and daring. Postman forcefully argues that we can use the complex legacy of the past to resist being swept into a shiny, simpleminded new dark age. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

More About the Author

Neil Postman was chairman of the department of communication arts at New York University. He passed away in 2003.

Customer Reviews

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75 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Kling on October 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book speculates about the advice we might receive about our current society from the great philosophers of The Enlightenment.
How could that possibly be interesting or relevant? When you read the book, you will find out.
It is difficult to do second-hand justice to the book, in part because the writing is so superb. Some examples of his curmudgeonly style:
"to insist that one's children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, or self-restraint in manners, language, and style is to place onself in opposition to almost every social trend."
"question-asking is the most significant intellectual tool human beings have. Is it not curious, then, that the most significant intellectual skill available to human beings is not taught in school?"
[after suggesting that students be presented with both evolution and creation science] "'If we carried your logic through,' a science professor once said to me, 'we would be teaching post-Copernican astronomy alongside Ptolemaic astronomy.' Exactly." [Postman's point being that scientists have to learn to evaluate competing theories, not to accept the conventional scientific wisdom on faith]
Postman disdains the Internet. He seems to view it as not being much different from television in its effects. Here I disagree with him. This disagreement is explained more fully in "Building a Bridge to Neil Postman," an essay that is available from me via email.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Voice of Chunk on February 1, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Postman's books have always divided readers. Some feel that his critical eye is too focused on the past and doesn't adequately and realistically weigh in today's cultural variables. Others feel that his is one of the most stable and eloquent voices of reason in a predominately subjective society. While I'll admit that Postman is oftentimes to social criticism what Wynton Marsalis is to jazz, he is first and foremost a questioner, a modern day Socrates who asks how technology both hurts and helps us. It is his empirical approach that keeps me buying his books.
To reduce Postman to a traditionalist is far too limiting. While he does champion the past and favor reason over emotion, he is also an idealist who believes that society has the power to cure what ails it, if it's only willing to take the necessary steps. "Building A Bridge To the 18th Century" is a collection of suggested steps based on 18th century utilitarian values and practices.
Above all, I like Postman's style. He is a direct, eloquent writer, a person whose ideas and insights are clearly spelled out. And despite others' charge that he is a curmudgeon, I find him humorous and open-minded.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Jerald M. Cogswell on July 28, 2001
Format: Paperback
In declaring himself an enemy of the twentieth century, Neil Postman grieves that the past century forgot the importance of precise language in public dialogue. The consequences have resulted in the most inhumane and violent period in all history. (Richard Rubinstein's book "The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future" has already reminded us of the unprecedented scale of atrocity committed in this century. Need I mention the battle of Verdun, Pol Pot, China's Communist revolution, two world wars, the atomic bomb - alas, where shall I stop?) Postman is aware of the eighteenth century's cruelties - child labor, slavery, anonymity of women, but he believes that the great thinkers of the period were almost unique in offering the kind of thought that could make the course of history more humane.
Indeed, he even posits that childhood is not a biological condition, but was an invention of the eighteenth century, for it was the civilization that actually thought that a youthful period of preparation was necessary. Regrettably, he argues, our generation has regressed by eliminating childhood. Does childhood exist if television, the Internet and the media expose the young to the same information that adults receive? In this respect, we are more like a fourteenth century civilization that bypassed the written word and granted full exposure of adult knowledge, sexuality, and activity to anyone who could speak.
Postman cautions that we tend to evaluate technology by the claims of technologists alone, forgetting to ask the ethicist, the poet, the novelist, and the artist for an evaluation. It doesn't occur to most people to question the benefit of a new technology, and who benefits, and who pays.
Read more ›
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By W. Male on December 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Postman clarifies the impact that technology (computers and television) has on us to such an extent that I was tempted to toss my computer and TV out the window half way through the book. And while Postman has not personally succumed to the siren of the computer, his head is also not buried too deeply in the sand. If anything, he wants us to transcend the age of technology in the 20th century to a new enlightenment in the 21st century. At stake is the loss of childhood which he says was defined in the 18th century as a result of an earlier technological advancement: movable type.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Mark Valentine on October 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is my third Postman book and I am still enthralled in the reading of his works. Mainly, I believe, because he writes with a particular verve that I find lacking in many of his contemporaries. His discourse covers a wide range of topics, some of them superficially, but all of them intended to support his thesis: children are losing their childhood; and meaning needs to be revived in language, education, narrative, and culture. He is iconoclastic.
Even though it is possible to read his book in a cursory manner, don't fault the easily accessible work as trite. Postman's criticism is erudite, precise and well-articulated.
I hope he doesn't stop writing. His voice needs to continue.
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