(Paper, Delivered at the National Convention for the Teachers of English [NCTE], November 28, 1969, Washington, D.C.) “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman
With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. And I almost will. Almost, because I want to make two brief comments about the title. For those of you who do now know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Mr. Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” I am sure he was right; as I am also sure that his reply is equally applicable to at least two dozen other questions, among which is the question, “What is the one thing you need in order to survive a professional conference?” If any of you requires further information on the origins of the word “crap,” may I refer you to the December 1st issue of Newsweek Magazine, p. 63, in which there is a full page story devoted to Thomas Crapper, the father of the modern toilet.
As for the word in the first part of my title, it has no such illustrious beginning. So far as I can find out it was spread, if not originated, by Gypsies about a hundred years ago, and may be having its most glorious moment at this convention--for, as you can well imagine, this is the first time it has appeared in print in an official program produced by and for the English teachers of our nation. I trust that lexicographers of all persuasions will take not of that fact, since in that way, I might, at long last, make some contribution to the subject of linguistics.
Now, to the point. As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit. I think almost all serious people understand that about 90% of all that goes on in school is practically useless, so what I am saying would not require the displacement of anything that is especially worthwhile. Even if it did, I would still be able to argue that helping kids to activate their crap-detectors should take precedence over any other legitimate educational aim. I won’t attempt such arguments here because of the lack of time. Instead, I will ask only that you agree that every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure, and that if we can help them to recognize this fact, they might turn away from it and toward language that might do them some earthly good.
Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.
Now, there are so many varieties of bullshit and, again time is so limited, that I couldn’t hope to mention but a few, and elaborate on even fewer. I will, therefore, select those varieties that have some transcendent significance. Now, that last sentence is a perfectly good example of bullshit, since I have no idea what the words “transcendent significance” might mean and neither do you. I needed something to end that sentence with and since I did not have any clear criteria by which to select my examples, I figured this was the place for some big-time words. Thus, we have our first variety of bullshit--what some people call, pomposity. The title or theme of this conference--Dreams and Realities--is another good example of pomposity. In the first place, I find it very difficult to believe that any...