Postman’s “thermostatic” view of education

amusing ourselves to deathThe attempt to put together coherent thoughts while sleep deprived with babe in arms continues.

While reading Neil Postman’s 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activitiy, I could not help but notice how different in substance it was from his later work – especially Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, and The End of Education, which seem to advocate traditional forms of learning, especially reading books and so-called “linear thinking,” as a bulwark to cultural nihilism.

Here is a brief summary by Gary Chapin at The Partially Examined Life that highlights Postman’s “thermostatic” view of education – a kind of conservative stance that seeks to moderate the extremes of the Enlightenment’s contradictions:

On the one hand, he revels in the urge of the Enlightenment to construct and discover knowledge via free, clear thinking and promiscuous inquisition. On the other hand, he is appalled by the way in which free, clear thinking and promiscuous inquisition have led to a society that abandons the mechanics – linear argument, typographic culture – which undergird the Enlightenment urge!

This questioning and furthering of the Enlightenment ideals at the same time is reminiscent of the Frankfurt school and their critique of the culture industry. The corrosiveness of instrumental technological reason has led to the alienation of modern man, but we must think our way out by critiquing both the tradition and current expression of this alienation. Jurgen Habermas’  embrace of rational discourse for democratic purposes mirrors (for lack of a more obscure metaphor) Postman’s anxiety about the loss of pedagogical techniques that cultivate “linear thought”.

It’s been my experience however, that the more seductive rhetoric of Postman’s writing, especially in his critique of “linear thinking” and traditional curriculum in favour of “inquiry”, outlives the more substantive engagement with the history of Enlightenment thinking in his later work. Postman is a disciple and popularizer of McLuhan. The ambiguity of McLuhan’s prophecy – that we cannot escape the effects of modern technology – has been lionized by 21st educationists and produced as evidence by the common teacher that we cannot escape technological progress and must live with, indeed embrace, any and all consequences.

Postman’s conservative “thermostatic view” of education – that all extremes of society should be balanced by a questioning curriculum – is certainly not the current modus operandi:

Schools, he says, should be correctives to society’s normative urges. “Where … a culture is stressing autonomy and aggressive individuality, education should stress cooperation and social cohesion. Where a culture is stressing conformity, education should stress individuality.”

Perhaps the failure to reach the Golden Mean has to do with a false analogy. Postman takes a naturalist “ecological” view of education:

“from an ecological view, nothing is good in itself”

What then is the purpose of education? His book The End of Education argues strongly for the development of human excellences, which seems to imply a teleology absent from an ecological view. Can Postman’s account of education as a useful “thermostatic” counter to cultural extremes survive the skepticism of ends in a pseudo-Darwinian ecology?

Bla, bla bla bla…   Time to go read some actual books.


2 thoughts on “Postman’s “thermostatic” view of education

  1. Thank you for engaging with my essay. I’m not as sanguine as you about which of Postman’s threads will outlive the other, but as a person who has devoted his career to advocating for inguiry-driven, constuctivist systems in schools, I have my hopes. I can imagine a time, though, when the pendulum swings again, and “Teaching is a Conserving Activity” becomes the book du jour. My sense, though is that, as you say, both of these threads exist in Postman’s heroes (McLuhan, Korzybski), and exist unresolved. Read his other masterpiece (he has a lot of them), “Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk,” and tell me where that falls in this discussion. Again, thanks, Gary Chapin

    1. andrew

      hi Gary,
      I guess here in Canada “inquiry” has made the rounds again in the professional development circuit. I don’t think most teachers use it, but it looks good on a resume. The ideas behind it are certainly deeply rooted in institutions but tend to express themselves as embracing the avante garde technological techniques. As for the “traditional” approaches Postman advocates, I’m thinking less the traditional schooling techniques of rote learning and textbooks, and more so the liberal arts tradition of learning languages, logic, and reading whole books. In this sense, schools are nowhere near Postman’s Enlightenment “traditions”, which are now more accessible but remain the province of private schools and homeschoolers.

      As a method, I see constructivist learning is a great scaffold to independent learning and thinking, as long as it introduces students to fundamental alternatives.

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