© Henry J. Perkinson and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Perkinson was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on March 20th, 2011
Dr. Henry J. Perkinson is a retired Professor from NYU, where he was highly influential in the formative years of the Media Ecology Program. An historian of education with a PhD from Harvard University, Dr. Perkinson was, in the words of Lance Strate, “a Professor of Education who turned to media ecology towards the end of his career” to argue that “media of communication have facilitated human progress by aiding us in the accumulation of knowledge,” and that “as new media are introduced, they provide us with new ways of encoding our culture and knowing our world, and therefore entirely new forms of knowledge.” Dr. Perkinson has written a number of important books, including The Possibilities of Error: An Approach to Education (1971), Learning from Our Mistakes: A Reinterpretation of Twentieth-Century Educational Theory (1984), Two Hundred Years of American Educational Thought (1987), Teachers Without Goals; Students Without Purposes (1993), How Things Got Better: speech, writing, printing, and cultural change (1995), No Safety in Numbers: How the Computer Quantified Everything and Made People Risk-Aversive (1996), Getting Better: Television and Moral Progress (1996), and Flight from Fallibility: how theory triumphed over experience in the West.
What attracted you to academia? Was it a conscious career choice to become a university professor?
I stumbled into academia. Originally I planned to be a high school teacher. After receiving my undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, I entered the army. When I left the army I used the G.I. Bill to go to London University. While in England I met a Rhodes scholar from Harvard who told me it was very easy to get a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I went, and got my master’s and doctor’s degrees, writing a dissertation on Giambatista Vico in Italy, where I was on an Italian Government grant. My first job was at Kent State University. After three years I went to New York University, where I taught for thirty-five years.
What were some of the most valuable experiences as a graduate student at Harvard University?
Serving on the editorial board of the Harvard Educational Review. Discussions with fellow students at the daily teas the school provided. Lectures by Crane Brinton, Louis Hartz, Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Ulich, and Israel Scheffler. Discovering the works of Karl Popper.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
University professors today are less genteel, more informal, more politicized, and more radical. Some indoctrinate their students rather than educate them.
As a teacher, what is the most effective way to command attention in the classroom?
Treat students and the subject matter seriously.
What makes a good teacher today? What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I would advise them to engage students in critical dialogue about substantive matters. In my courses I had students read six or seven texts. W would spend two class periods critically discussing each text. After the first discussion, half the students would write a critical reaction paper on the author’s argument. I would make extensive counter arguments to their criticisms, and return their papers the next class, requesting them to counter my criticisms when they turned in their critical reaction paper on the next text. The same procedure was followed with the other half of the students after the second period’s critical discussion of the text.
What memories do you preserve of the formative years of the media ecology program at NYU?
Teaching seminars with Neil Postman and Chris Nystrom, our weekly luncheon discussions, as and the Media Ecology Conferences.
Did you ever meet Marshall McLuhan? Looking back, what was so revolutionary about his work?
I once attended a conference at which McLuhan spoke; his ideas were revolutionary. My work on media is different. I argue in a series of books – including How Thing Got Better and Getting Better – that the advent of a new medium (writing, print, television, computers) brought about dramatic changes in the existing culture: political and economic institutions, social arrangements, and intellectual traditions. Each new media encodes the existing culture in a way that facilitates criticism of it; people uncover errors, mistakes, inadequacies in the culture, which, when eliminated, improve the culture.
What do you make of the fact that the NYU program is no longer exclusively associated with the media ecology tradition?
Neil Postman and Chris Nystrom were the Media Ecology Program. When they left, the program collapsed. Moreover, they had appointed faculty to the program who were not, and were not interested in becoming, media ecologists.
What are you currently reading/working on?
The impact of human fallibility on political theory.
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