The Not School discussion of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

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In the first week of the “Not School” group devoted to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, it’s clear that a tension runs through the book that – with only a little bit of investigation – can be seen running through Postman’s entire career. It's a function of what he called the "thermostatic view."

"In the thermostatic view ...  you do not ‘hold' philosophies. You deploy them."

On the one hand, Postman is a visionary rhetorician and communications progressive. His ideas are firmly based in Marshall McLuhan and Alfred Korzybski but he synthesizes these and others into the coherent system encapsulated as Media Ecology. On the other hand, Postman is also kind of a conservative crank. He isn’t watching the shift in media from a typographic culture to an image culture with the disinterested fascination of an anthropologist. He’s watching it with the dread of an extremely perceptive and articulate prophet, lamenting the end of typographic days. 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 shift from progressive ideal to conservative did not develop as Postman grayed.  This isn’t a case of the young idealist growing up and suddenly noticing the kids on his lawn. The tension was seen as early as 1979, in Postman’s second education masterwork, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Postman’s first education masterwork was Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Frisson, anyone?

In Teaching is a Subversive Activity, Postman issued his jeremiad (“the survival of our society is threatened”) in favor of radical implementation of constructivist pedagogy in the youth oriented culture of the late 1960s. It’s the adults and adult society who are the problem, educational structures, the locus of expertise, and the utter enslavement of students within the system. The hierarchical elitism of the educational system is neither healthy nor justified nor even helpful.

Teaching is a Conserving Activity is also a jeremiad. Society is still threatened, but this time by the very revolutionaries Postman inspired before. In the prior book, Postman argued that students should be allowed to study what fascinates them. They should have agency in decisions made around their education. In Conserving he argues that a student's natural fascination (and inclined to explore on their own) is exactly what they should not be studying in school. Why does school need to mirror the puerile fascinations of “culture?” The energies of school should be spent teaching knowledge and skills that students wouldn't come to naturally through their own interests. In Subversive, Postman rails against the oppressive elitism of educational structures over the students. In Conserving, he argues that elitism is a natural and inevitable – and desirable – quality of the educational project. By definition, educators are saying, “You, student, could stand to be improved, and I’m the one to do it.”

Schools should not, in other words, be responsive, welcoming, or servile in the face of change, but should be bulwarks against it. Schools should be the high point from which to watch the flood. “Progress is not the school’s most important product,” he writes, “Without a counterargument to the overwhelming thesis of change, we can easily be swept away – in fact, are being swept away.”

Is this shift hypocrisy? It doesn’t seem so. After this shift to Conserving, the The Enlightenment continues to run through Postman’s oeuvre as the era sine qua non, but the tension between emulating the Enlightenment and deifying it remains live even in his last book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. It is a tension to be negotiated, not solved.

Postman argues, in Conserving, that the tension is inherent in the conversation of the philosophy of education. The tension, he writes, is the frame through which education philosophy should be viewed over time. He is arguing for the supremacy of context (“from an ecological view, nothing is good in itself”). 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.”

He refers to this as the thermostatic conception of education, and one wonders how it might apply if expanded beyond education to philosophy as a whole. The role of thermostats is to “trigger opposing forces.”  If it’s too hot, a thermostat will trigger cooling. If it’s too cold, a thermostat will trigger heat. “The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered. It is not so much a philosophy as it is a metaphilosophy – a philosophy about philosophies. Its aim is at all times to make visible the prevailing biases of a culture and then, by employing whatever philosophies of education are available, to oppose them. In the thermostatic view of education, you do not ‘hold' philosophies. You deploy them.”

Thanks to the Amusing Ourselves to Death "Not School" group for sparking these thoughts. You folks are fantastic! (New people can still join up!)

Gary Chapin


  1. Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

    Every time I’m trying to describe Postman’s work to someone unfamiliar, I struggle with the conservative/progressive dichotomy. Both currents are certainly there among the rest, but each feels a bit inappropriate as the salient description. Insofar as a blog can go, I think you really nailed it. McLuhan used to say that the electric age loathed ambiguity. A conservative/progressive or left/right mindset is an incredibly limiting way of thinking about anything. We might contrast the thermostatic view with the light switch view, in which every problem requires one of two answers. Postman’s later work addresses the way that new forms of media change the possibilities for even asking the questions.

    In keeping with your point about the supremacy of context, I always thought one of his best suggestions was that all teachers become history teachers. Teaching all subjects from a historical perspective emphasizes the way our relationships to knowledge and truth change over time, which can give the student a creative angle from which to approach the rigid layers of bulk memorization that comprise much of education today.

    Again, great post.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      Thanks! Postman’s thermostatic view reflects to me a reasonable general principal for how to employ philosophy (and as he describe sit it’s similar to “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable”). But it does have the whiff of the post hoc about it. Consider an educational system that was thoroughly steeped in both Enlightenment content AND Enlightenment methods and values. Would Postman object. I’m pretty sure not. It’s all part of that tension … which, as I say, can’t be solved, but can be negotiated.


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