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The English of the Future is English

Friday, 28 June, 2019

On 29 November 1968, at the 58th annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Milwaukee, the late Neil Postman gave a talk entitled “Growing Up Relevant” as the main part of a session entitled “Media Ecology: The English of the Future.” The talk was later published as a chapter in High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education (PDF), where it appeared as “The Reformed English Curriculum.” Postman’s 1968 address marked the formal introduction of the term “media ecology”, which he used as the name for a field of study he defined as “the study of media as environments.”

In Postman’s time, the internet, texting and emoji were as distant as GN-z11 so his comments on the future of English have to be seen in that light. Snippet:

“Perhaps what I meant to say at the conference was that there ought not to be such a subject as English by 1980; that English as it is commonly taught, is shallow and precious, is not very interesting to most children and, above all, has very little survival value for people who are going to live most of their lives in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond.

I will not take time here to catalog the shortcomings of English. If you have not already noticed that English is withering away, being consumed by its own irrelevance, the chances are slim that I can make you see that this is, in fact, the case. I do want to point out, however, that what happens in school should have survival value (or what’s an education for?) and that the soundest reason for having such a subject as English has always been that children need to be competent in using and understanding the dominant communication media of their own culture. When these media were largely limited to such forms as novels, poems, and essays, the content of English made some sense. My purpose here is to suggest an alternative to English for the high school of 1980 when we will be so deeply immersed in the nuclear space age.”

Given that English has become the lingua franca of a global economy, Neil Postman was spectacularly wrong on this subject, but on many others, especially media ecology, he was spectacularly prescient.

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