How to avoid amusing yourself to death

Back in 1985, Neil Postman cautioned about a world centered around TV culture in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman viewed advertisements as the perfect embodiment of our image-centric world. In his view, advertisements don’t really inform, but rather tell a seductive story to make consumers yearn for a product. Postman cited the fact that the average person was exposed to 1 million hours of advertisements by age 40.

Postman looked around at a country that had recently elected a movie star as president in 1984. He saw everything become a form of entertainment, including politics, education and capitalism. He feared we were becoming the society that Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World, dulled and lulled to sleep by the drug of mindless consumption.

That was more than 30 years ago.

Today, the average person spends 10.7 hours per day — as my friend Joseph Simmons, SJ pointed out — in front of some sort of screen, be it a TV, computer or iPhone. Our multimedia consumption has hit an all-time high.

So what’s the solution?

Postman didn’t really have one. He thought our only hope had something to do with education, but he didn’t provide specifics.

“[Educators] have not yet got to the question, How can we use education to control television (or the computer, or word processor)?” he wrote on the last page of the book. “But our reach for solutions ought to exceed our present grasp, or what’s dreaming for?”

Even though Postman thought that placing his trust in education was “desperate,” he saw it as the only possibility. He saw the future as a “race between education and disaster.”

I don’t disagree with Postman about the importance of education. And maybe I’m naive, but I think the solution could be simple:

The focus of education has to shift from consumption to creation.

If education is the answer, it will come in the form of the antidote to mindless consumption, which is the act of creation.

When we’re creating, we’re not just listlessly taking in and storing information.

When we’re creating, we’re thinking critically rather than regurgitating.

When we’re creating, we’re making new neural connections and pathways in our brains.

When we’re creating, we’re putting the knowledge we possess to the test.

Project based learning, art and music classes, the flipped classroom or hands-on field trips are some of the ways creative learning takes shape, though possibilities are endless.

If we want to stop amusing ourselves to death, we have to stop consuming for the moment, and start creating for the future.