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Building Bridges or Burning Them?: Revisiting Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century

Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century was released in 1999. Over three-quarters of my life ago (I should add for transparency’s sake), and nearly as significant an era in the lifespan of the Internet. At fifteen year’s remove, Postman’s dire warnings about the digital era can seem quaint. He frets at length about television commercials, regularly invokes Bill Gates, and barely mentions mobile technology.
 
Yet even setting his technology-related prognostications aside, Postman often eschews deep, substantive argument in favor of entertaining and provoking his audience. His prescriptions, organized into chapters with themes like “Progress,” “Democracy” and “Education”, tend to be overly broad. He cites Enlightenment thinkers seemingly at random, relying on their intellectual cachet to legitimize opinions only loosely inspired by Enlightenment ideals. Above all, his petulant refusal to engage seriously with post-modernism can make it hard to take him seriously.
 
Particularly in the early chapters of Building a Bridge, Postman’s observations range widely and lack depth. As early as the second chapter, he stuffs two page-long paragraphs full of quotes from Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine, Diderot, and Locke (Postman 22-23). Quintessential Enlightenment thinkers these surely are. And Postman, aside from citing them as paragons of rationality, rightly notes that their faith in Reason interacted in a variety of ways with religion and tradition. But in terms of sustaining a focused argument about what these men in particular can contribute to twenty-first century thought? Postman falls woefully short. One walks away only with the general sense that such men believed in the power of reason, and that Postman believes in it too. In invoking categories as vague as “Reason”, “Progress”, and “Information”, Postman arrives at commensurately insipid conclusions.
 
In fact, Postman’s work connects only tenuously to the eighteenth century, which he defines primarily by invoking the canon and railing against post-modernism. “The eighteenth century,” he proclaims over the course of a single paragraph, “is the century of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Pestalozzi, and Adam Smith… Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin... Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn… Schiller, Swift, Defoe, Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, and William Blake” (17-18). In name-checking a chunk of the canon, Postman does not merely generalize. Rather, he verges on tautology. The eighteenth-century is great, Postman’s list tacitly declares, because the reading public associates these figures with greatness. And because the accidents and prejudices of history have attached such names to greatness, their century must have been great indeed. True, Postman hints at why he adores some these thinkers. But by invoking them all at once, Postman implies that their renown alone justifies his adoration.
 
More seriously, Postman refuses to engage with postmodernism, which he sets up instead as a symbol of all that has gone wrong since the Enlightenment. Glib wisecracks are all well and good -- he quips in his introduction that postmodernism is a “devilish spell” and a “mental illness” degrading the “mental condition of… intellectual elite[s]” (8). The book, after all, seems intended more to entertain than to inform (even at the risk of alienating readers who struggle with bona fide mental illness or have solid reasons to distrust the canon).  But in suggesting upfront that that the eighteenth century is better than postmodernism, Postman obscures continuities between the two worldviews. In fact, his take on Enlightenment views of language shares more with postmodernism than his introduction would imply (69-70, 72). By foregrounding his scorn for postmodernism, though, he shuts off discussion of how one might go about integrating the two approaches. He comes off, in short, as a cranky reactionary.
 
Even excluding the parts where Postman discusses digital technology, therefore, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century offers up more snappy one-liners and grand ideals than it does particular diagnoses or prescriptions for the modern age. It is a book aimed not at contemporary thinkers -- Postman seems to despair of engaging with them -- but at a contemporary public. And this public, Postman’s tone implies, is one that even today’s digital humanists would be remiss to ignore. In invoking broad ideals and erstwhile greats, Postman speaks directly to citizens who feel alienated by new modes of thought. In fretting about digitization’s impact on education, the family, and the church, he gives voice to those who feel cast adrift into an ever-swelling deluge of new ways of life (see 113-115, 125, 128-129, and 170-171 for some telling examples.)
 
Today, Postman’s concerns seem less pressing. Online communities, to take one example, provide safe havens for those with alternative sexualities or gender identities -- people who might have been marginalized or silenced otherwise. The offline world, in turn, creeps slowly toward greater acceptance of non-traditional family structures -- structures that vary widely yet buttress relationships every bit as profound as those forged by traditional institutions. To the marginalized, adrift, and alienated alike, new technologies have something to offer.
 
But even in 2014, digital humanists would do well to acknowledge that Postman’s audience still exists. To acknowledge, too, that such concerns are valid. And to propose possible solutions speaking their language rather than the argot of post-modern, digitized Academia.
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