The End of Education: a review

By Pashew M. Nuri:The End of Education

No one can deny the fact that, as long as education involves dealing with human beings, there will be problems; in a way I sometimes define educators as problem solvers, as they are constantly dealing with problems within the bounds of school buildings. The End of Education might answer some questions about the school problems which the author, Neil Postman, sees as two dimensional. One is the engineering side: that is the means by which young people acquire an education. The other is the metaphysical side: that is the underlying purpose or mission or end of education. Postman believes that the primary focus today is mostly on the engineering aspect of education, while very little attention is paid to the metaphysics of schooling. He says, “without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better.” (p – x-xi).

To give that meaning and reason to education is to answer the why rather than the what and how of the process, and he thinks that is because if the teachers, parents and the children do not have a purpose, if they do not believe in anything or they do not have a god to serve, then the schools become houses of detention rather that attention. So it is significant to have a shared or common narrative that we can live by, because “public education”, Postman says, “depends absolutely on the existence of shared narratives and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness” (p- 17). He continues: “What makes public schools public, is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods” as “public education does not serve a public. It create a public” and this is solely inspired by a reason, a shared narrative that all are in service to. I think this idea interests E.D Hirsch a lot as he too argues for a culturally literate community through having students focused on their own culture, yet that of Postman is not specified as he argues for an education with purpose, a purpose that is meaningful and future-promising for the human being.

The “End” could have two meanings according to the context of this book: one which literally leads to an end, a point of no return and the other is the purpose and the meaning for whatever we do in this worldly life, and Postman is talking about a purpose or a meaning for education. He says that either meaning could apply for the future of schooling. He claims that education is absent and that is the reason for him to write the book: “I return to the subject [of education] now, not because the education world has suffered from my absence, but because I have [suffered from the absence of education]” (p – ix). For him education, or more specifically schooling, is about making a life, not making a living.

Postman throughout the book describes some current gods, that are being served, as false gods. The gods of economic utility, technology, consumerism, and multiculturalism: he says that these gods are not capable of providing a high-quality education and maintaining a life worth living. In serving these false gods the chance of a better life is minimal. While the educators are master minds, they are not like those in the past because, he says, “There was a time when educators became famous for providing reasons for learning; now they become famous for inventing a method” (p- 26).

As an alternative to those currently false gods being served in our education system, he presents some narratives that he thinks they could serve us better. “Spaceship Earth” (that humans are responsible for and stewards of the planet); “The American Experiment” (the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous argument); “The Fallen Angel” (history and the advancement of knowledge as a series of making mistake and correction); “The Laws of Diversity” (difference contributes to increased vitality and excellence, and, ultimately, to a sense of unity); and “The Word Weavers/The World Makers” (the understanding that the world is created through language, through definitions, questions, and metaphors).

His overall intention in this is to stress the promotion of the purpose for what we do in education instead of the engineering aspects of it like the assessment, evaluation, curriculum, management and all the other engineering issues, but rather to focus more on the metaphysical aspect. For him the why question, the reason that we live for, makes it easier for us to find the how to live. As Friedrich Nietzsche remarks: “He who has a why can bear with almost any how”. What he means is, if we know what we are schooling our kids for, the methodology of how to do it will become much easier: teachers will know why they teach, principals will understand their role, parents will be able to see what they are dreaming of and the kids themselves will better understand their role for society and humanity in general.

This does not mean that teachers, parents, and kids should think of one thing or believe in the same thing. In  the  Western  world,  back in  the  thirteenth  century  and  for  five  hundred  years  thereafter,  this why question, the reason, was  sufficient  justification  for  the  founding  of  institutions  of  learning.  Even  today,  there  are  some  schools  in  the  West,  and  most  in  the  Islamic  world,  whose central  purpose  is  to  serve  and  celebrate  the  glory  of  God, to serve one purpose and this eliminates the school problems and crises.  There  may  be  some  disputes  over  what  subjects  best  promote  piety,  obedience,  and  faith;  there  may  be  students  who  are  skeptical,  even  teachers who  are  nonbelievers.  But  at  the  core  of  such  schools,  there  is  a  transcendent,  spiritual  idea  that gives  purpose  and clarity  to learning. Even the skeptics and nonbelievers know why they are there, what they are supposed to be learning, and why they are resistant to it (p- 4).

This central purpose is not a worldly or insufficient one, but rather a purpose that elevates the centrality of ‘Why do we live?’and ‘Where will we go?’ When those purposes and meanings may not be found by the students themselves, that is why we have teachers. This contrasts with some of the negative understandings of democracy in education today, which assume that kids are able to control and determine their own future. This would mean that students are born with the answers to the mind-shaking questions of life and the world, although this is clearly not the case. If they know the answers, then what is the purpose of having education anyway? There is a school called The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts that claims to have a democratic view of education where children are free to do or choose anything they want to do in the school period; there were students playing cards and others playing music while only a few were visiting the library and reading. A reporter asked one of the students, ‘What are you going to do today?’ The kid replied, ‘I don’t know’. All of this is because twenty-first century kids are capable of controlling their destiny and their future, according to one of the staff members. How is a kid able to choose his/her own destiny when he/she does not know what he/she will do or learn for the rest of the day at school? Now, this idea might be able to find some room in Postman’s book, although it is also a false god to be served or, in other words, this is not a god to be served.

Finally, the implications of those narratives in the schools may be hard for the education system to digest but I am content that having a core value, or a central purpose which all live by and strive to achieve is indispensable. We all know that education is the only starting and turning point for individuals on the face of this earth, but when education leads to triviality it results in human self-distraction. The word education is always a positive word but this changes when it comes to schooling, I think, because of all our differences and diversity. However, when we embrace each other to live towards a core end, we shall not have a bad end, but a happy one.


Postman, N. (1995). The End Of Education: Redefining the Value Of School. New York: Knopf.

Pashew M. Nuri is a BA holder in Teaching and Fulbright Candidate. This article first appeared on his blog:

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