“Please Leave a Message” by Paul Graseck

Twenty-nine years ago, I asked Neil Postman to visit Woodstock Academy for one day. Well-received by the high school students in my Modern European History class, Postman’s surprising visit to the northeast corner of Connecticut, 3½ hours from his home in Queens, New York, created ripples that still wash across my mind. Some people have that effect on us; parents often do. Like waves steadily crashing onto a beach and flattening out in thin, animated patterns on the sand, only to shimmer away until the next wave, my long-deceased parents remain a stalwart, albeit intermittent, presence in my life. How is it that this author of thirty books, his most enduring one, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, washed up on Woodstock Hill and into my life forever? 

A partial answer to my question dwells in the story I have told countless times since Postman’s sojourn to Woodstock, an anecdote generated by my request for him to spend a day at Woodstock Academy but enhanced by his amusing answer. That charming response, however, will have to wait. Allow me first to introduce the town of Woodstock. 

If one imagines a nineteenth century village in rural New England, an image of a place bearing multiple similarities to Woodstock, Connecticut will form in the imagination. Currier and Ives could not have invented a bucolic community more suitable for marketing its well-established romantic aesthetic. 

The center of Woodstock is its green, around which a high school, several houses, two churches, library, inn, farm market, and cemetery form a storybook scene. Behind the clapboard homes, predominantly painted white and situated along the main street hugging the green, fields and orchards fall off into valleys surrounding this hilltop village, incorporated in 1749, a town that still contains forty farms, the most of any community in Connecticut. For eight successive generations, the Youngs have run Valleyside Farm since its land was deeded by the King of England more than two hundred years ago. It now occupies 750 acres along Child Hill Road, visible from the north side of Woodstock Academy, an educational fossil founded in 1801, and now the public school for the region. Directly across the street from the Academy at the northern end of the green is Jock and Jean McClellans’ house, built in the late 1700s for Jock’s ancestors, one of whom signed the Declaration of Independence. Jock’s lineage in this twenty-room house reaches back seven generations.

Into this antique town for one day, Neil Postman, a refined yet gritty, chain-smoking New Yorker arrived to teach a high school class and give a public lecture, the latter reminiscent of the talks given throughout New England in an earlier time in churches, meeting houses, and town-based lyceums. Men and women—intellectuals, authors, and reformers—like Lucretia Mott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abby Kelley, and William Lloyd Garrison toured nineteenth century America building an informed and cohesive culture through speaking. Perhaps Postman’s acquaintance with this specialized history of education drew him to Woodstock. Without fully ascertaining his reason for driving to Woodstock, a town situated on the southern border of Massachusetts, I nervously greeted Postman when he arrived at the Academy, his brief visit well-received and consequential. 

Beginning my career in 1972, I admired Postman’s first book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, co-authored with Charles Weingartner. Like many who grew up during the 1960’s accepting the clamor inviting young people to question authority, I considered their book a pedagogical Bible advising educators to teach their students to investigate social norms and become effective cultural critics or “crap detectors,” a phrase the authors borrowed from Ernest Hemingway who once told a journalist that “to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.” 

Having assigned my highly motivated AP Modern European History class Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Western Culture to Technology, I wondered if he might agree to come to my school and discuss his book with my class. Using the lens of inventions—tools and technologies—Technopoly told the story of European history in the modern era, beginning in the late Renaissance, passing through the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, and into the 20th Century, a period of roughly five hundred years. A slim volume, it explained that to tout only the benefit of every new tool or technology, a familiar practice, sidesteps a key omission. Inventions, he corrected, inevitably exhibit a downside, too, a corresponding cost to the society they inhabit. As writing emerged among the ancients, for example, it consigned to clay tablets, parchment, and carved stone many facts, laws, myths, and experiences, but reliance on the oral tradition slowly declined. Memory atrophied because the written word subverted the necessity to remember. In a parallel fashion, the hand-held calculator found in today’s smart phones sabotages the motivation of many 21st Century students to acquire and hone the skill of mental computation. Postman recognized that technology possessed the power to affect society for good or ill.

Dr. Postman came to Woodstock because I reached him by telephone, a 19th Century invention, and persuaded him to make the long trip from New York to Woodstock Academy. After reading Technopoly, I realized how well-suited his book served to augment my effort to teach Modern European History. Using storytelling to chronicle the application of rapid advances in technology during the modern period—including such inventions as the printing press, telescope, factory, assembly line, telephone, automobile, vaccines, pasteurization, television, computer, and Internet—Postman investigated their emergence and impact, cataloguing both advantages spawned by them and social troubles they wrought. Looking beyond immediate effects, Postman revealed how technological inventiveness transforms our way of thinking, alters our worldview.

A distinguished “University Professor” at New York University, entitled to teach courses in multiple disciplines; successful author of nearly thirty books, including his noteworthy jeremiad, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which complains that the typical televised American network news program successfully entertains its viewers yet fails miserably to deliver effectively the news; and popular cultural critic who commanded high fees for public speaking engagements, Neil Postman agreed to visit, but why? That question has rambled through my mind often over the past thirty years.

With the promise of only a small honorarium and an offer of overnight accommodations at the Inn on Woodstock Hill, I saw little likelihood that Postman would accept an invitation to visit a high school Modern European History class in northeastern Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner.” Nonetheless, I resolved to attempt to convince him to make the trip to Woodstock. With that objective, I wanted to contact him directly to present him with an array of reasons to consider an appearance at the Academy.

A couple months before Postman drove to Woodstock, I placed a call to New York University’s Department of Culture and Communication in the School of Education, hoping to contact his secretary. Succeeding in that pursuit, I shared with her why I wanted her boss, the head of the department, to attend my class. After consulting with him, she returned to her telephone and said, “Dr. Postman cannot come to the phone right now, but please call him at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday night at this number.” She then proceeded to give me Postman’s private telephone number. Astonished, I was incredulous; Postman had agreed to talk with me.

Believing I had to make a powerful pitch to persuade this celebrated public intellectual to journey to Woodstock to meet just twenty-five high school students who had read Technopoly, I began planning my spiel. Well-prepared to entice him to Woodstock, I called him at his home at precisely 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. On his end, I heard the phone ring a few times, arousing in me the hope that he had remembered his request for me to call at an appointed hour. By the sixth ring, my anticipatory exuberance began to wane. Just then, I heard the click of the phone as he picked it up. Expecting to hear his voice, I became buoyant, ready to launch into my sales pitch, but like a batter pounding a line drive down the third-base line whose exhilaration and easy double is dashed by the third baseman’s extraordinary leap for the ball, my buoyancy deflated when I heard these words: “Hello, you’ve reached the Postman residence, please leave a message.” Ugh! He wasn’t there. Disoriented, I hesitated, thinking my persuasiveness might lose its punch if consigned to a recorded message. Quickly, my mind wondered if the tape might run out in 30 seconds, much too little time to accomplish my aim. Inwardly, I inquired, “What should I do?” And then some magnetic force straightened my backbone, and I said to myself, “Oh hell, just go for it.”

Some spirit that was not I possessed me, or perhaps it really was I, morphing into pure me, the individual I am at the core of my being. Either way, words, run-on sentences, an impassioned Gettysburg Address spilled out ineloquently. While riveted on the message my voice delivered, I simultaneously remained aware in some corner of my soul that the recording machine might abruptly stop at any moment. Like a sprinter, I raced down the track, impelled by the possibility of victory, a chance to win Neil Postman’s assent. My pitch lurched forward in overdrive, maniacally: 

Dr. Postman, I am disappointed I cannot speak to you directly because I had really intended to try to convince you to come to Woodstock Academy to meet with my students, and now I am engaged in a one-way conversation. Nonetheless, I will proceed. This is perhaps my only opportunity to connect with you, and I am very hopeful that you will consider coming to Woodstock to talk to my AP Modern European History class, which is reading your book, Technopoly. A group of highly motivated superstars, you won’t be disappointed by their questions and level of engagement. Whether you had intended it or not, Technopoly provides an excellent window into the history of the modern era as it catalogues and describes many tools and technologies, especially those developed over the last 500 hundred years. It functions as a counterbalance, an engaging and peppy parallel primer, to the weighty textbook for Modern European History that the Advanced Placement program suggests we use. But to further entice you to Woodstock, permit me to continue. When I stand in my third-floor classroom, which is housed in one of the old wood frame academy buildings that used to dot the landscape of nineteenth century America, this one sporting a distinctive cupola housing a working bell, I look down at the town green, still a classic New England scene. The Academy is now the local public school, but unlike most public schools, it is old. It boasts a venerable history, perched atop Woodstock Hill since 1801. The view from my classroom has not changed much at all since then except for the telephone poles and paved roads in my line of sight. Otherwise, it is white clapboard houses, students playing games on the green, a storybook rural town with a stately white Congregational Church at the opposite end of its town green. But there are additional reasons for you to consider a visit here. To make it worth your while, we will organize an evening lecture for the locals in Woodstock and the surrounding towns, and it would be well-publicized, and you could talk about anything you’d like, perhaps your latest book. And let me add this, three U.S. presidents visited Woodstock in the late 1800s as guests of Henry Bowen at his summer retreat, Roseland Cottage, also referred to, for an obvious reason, as the Pink House. I would be happy to arrange for you a private tour of Bowen’s cottage, now a museum. Bowen played host to many celebrated guests at the Pink House, including Henry Ward Beecher, Julia Ward Howe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. If you’d like to bring your wife and make this a weekend outing in the country, we could put you up in the local inn at the south end of the green. I am sorry to say that we don’t have the kind of compensation you probably expect to receive for lectures and speeches, but we could offer you a small honorarium and accommodations at the Inn on Woodstock Hill. It would be great, simply wonderful, if you could take a day or two to visit the Academy, meet my students, and speak to local citizens in the evening. Thank you for listening to this lengthy, and I hope persuasive, invitation to come to Woodstock. I look forward to hearing from you.

As I hung up the telephone, I sensed butterflies flitting away, an anxiety so deeply buried beneath my consciousness, I barely realized those colorful, winged insects had taken up residence in my body. A satisfying chemical-like admixture quickly diffused throughout my system, as if the marriage of mood elevator and mania suppressant had perfectly commingled. Apprehending that all elements of my prepared pitch spiraled into Postman’s recording device at breakneck speed and that his machine refused to click off after thirty seconds, one minute, or even three, I reveled in my good fortune, took pleasure in a job well done, and basked in the alchemy that resulted in my feeling of equanimity. Looking forward, I accepted that the outcome of my request now fell on Postman to determine.

Perhaps five days later, I received a telephone call at home. I picked up the receiver and said, “Hello!” 

“Hello, may I speak to Paul, please?” said the caller.

“This is he.”

“Hi, this is Neil Postman, I am returning your call.” 

Instinctively attempting to delay Postman’s likely rejection of my invitation, I resisted

asking the obvious question on my mind, protecting myself from hearing him say “No” to the question I was aching to ask. Instead, I replied, “Oh, thank you.”

Postman continued, “I received your recorded message.”  Emotionally taut and hopeless, I listened. He then added, “In fact, my wife and I have been playing it at dinner parties.” After a brief pause, he resumed, “And yes, we’d love to come, and there will be no charge.”

Delighted yet stunned, I spent the next several weeks preparing for his visit. Postman and his wife, Shelley, did travel to Woodstock. In my class, he fielded questions about his book and interacted with my students as if conducting a college seminar, fostering an easy back-and-forth. When class ended, I suggested he head to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee while I taught my next class. Some of my students accompanied him there. Postman, an irresistible pied piper, a small group of students spontaneously formed, snaking its way across campus behind him. Once there, he graciously continued the seminar. Clustered around him, students were mesmerized; Socrates and his youthful disciples engaged in conversation for the next hour-and-a-half. Later, my students reported their admiration for Dr. Postman, citing his wisdom, wit, and accessibility. 

Between the end of the school day and the evening lecture, unscheduled time, I asked the Postmans if they would like to go canoeing. The urbane cultural critic and Greenwich Village professor reacted with horror and disbelief, rejecting summarily my offer with both a chuckle and faint but winsome dose of urban hauteur, as if to authenticate his true nature. He communicated almost telepathically, “I am a city boy, no Henry David Thoreau. You badly miscalculated in your role as host what we would consider entertainment.” Instead, we picked up a sandwich at the local cheese shop, after which he and Shelley relaxed at the inn. 

At the evening lecture, close to 200 people filled the school’s theater. Postman asked his audience to critique a draft of a chapter from his yet unpublished book, The End of Education. His dry reading of the draft notwithstanding, a spirited discussion followed about why America needed to create schools shaped around a transcendent narrative that offers meaning and purpose to learning. He stressed that without such a narrative, students disengage. Lacking a worthy purpose that compels student engagement, a school becomes a place of detention, not attention. 

Outside, after Postman’s presentation, I thanked him for his gift to both my students and the wider community. He modeled for our teenagers the art of “crap detection,” critical thinking the more fashionable phrase now used in education circles. And he focused community attention on the foundation necessary for a vibrant school culture. As we initiated the parting ritual, he and Shelley preparing to walk back to the inn and I, readying to drive home, recoiled from inquiring of this cultured and affable New Yorker why he accepted my invitation to come to Woodstock. While jubilant about his brief visit to the school, I puzzled over his reason for coming. His death ten years later, in 2003, denied me forever the opportunity to secure his response to my unasked question. Why he agreed to travel to out-of-the-way Woodstock and spend a day teaching in our “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut remains a mystery, an unsolved puzzle. Were it possible for him to relieve my puzzlement from beyond the veil, I’d ask him to please leave a message.

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