On the Thermostatic Function of Schools

Posted on August 8, 2013


As I mentioned in a previous post, this time of year, I like to browse back through books that were important to me as I formed my earliest approach to teaching. My approach is always changing, but I’d say I’m generally facing the same direction. The works that resonated with me as a very young teacher for the most part still resonate–albeit in different ways–and the time I spend to revisit these works is part of my “recharge” before the school year. It reminds me of the teacher I was, the teacher I wanted to become, and helps me more clearly see the teacher I am.

Like many teachers in my generation, Neil Postman has been a hugely influential intellectual figure in both my training and career. Amusing Ourselves to Death was an early influence in shaping the way I think about media, and Teaching as a Subversive Activity was an early influence on the way I think about teaching. And in college and graduate school I basically treated the indexes from his books as reading lists. (Good reading lists, by the way.) But my favorite Neil Postman book, the one I revisit more than any other, is Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979).

For me, the most durable idea in that book is one he develops immediately. And I’ll try to do this idea justice, but you really need to read the way he develops it, because he’s such a good writer.

“Too many things,” he writes, “are moving–are always moving–to be accommodated by a fixed point of view. Too many things need to be done, and then undone, by education as the conditions of living change. In a society such as ours, there is something profoundly wrong in one’s ‘holding’ an education philosophy. Unless one can get rid of it as conditions require…In holding a philosophy, one is held by it as well. There is something about a philosophy that can get one’s ankles encased in concrete so that is it quite impossible to take another position.”

You might think that this could be a great argument for “innovation” or something. The world is changing quickly, and so too must our schools. You know this line: Adapt! Innovate! Connect! Tweet! Flip your class! These are the rallying cries of the so-called 21st-Century classroom. But that’s not where he’s going. His ideal is that we seek positions that can help defend us against the assault of change.  “The school,” he writes, “stands as the only mass medium capable of putting forward the case for what is not happening in our culture.” Our culture speaks with the voice of innovation or change, and so our schools should speak with a different voice.

This idea of resistance to the dominant tendencies of the culture at large is not Postman’s to claim. As with almost everything, you can find it in Plato. More recently, you can find it in the works of David Reisman, and Paul Goodman, and even in slightly different form in Henry J. Perkinson and John Taylor Gatto. Reisman calls it “countercyclical theory,” but I like the metaphor Postman uses to describe and develop this idea: the thermostat.

 Education is best conceived of as a thermostatic activity. 

From this point of view, and stated far too grossly, education tries to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative. Or it is innovative when the rest of the society is tradition-bound. It is a matter of indifference whether the society be volatile or static. The function of education is always to offer the counterargument, the other side of the picture. The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered. It is not so much a philosophy as a metaphilosophy–a philosophy about philosophies. Its aim at all times is 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.

I imagine that this function of education will seem unsatisfactory to you if you are of a teleological turn of mind, if you believe that there is some special purpose that our culture is striving to achieve or that it ought to strive to achieve. In that case you will want education to further that end at all times, and to keep at it until the end is in view…But the thermostatic view speaks against such an outlook. It assumes that the business of a culture is to keep itself in working order, as steady and as balanced as possible. This is the ecological rather than the teleological outlook, for the ecologist never assumes that a forest, an ocean, a species, or indeed a society has purposes that must be achieved. The ecologist is not a utopian, not an ideologue, not a dogmatist, not a theologian. He is, rather, a physician, a navigator, a steersman. His politics is the politics of remediation. The only item on his agenda is to correct our imbalances.

To the critique that such a theory runs the risk of being blindly and arbitrarily oppositional to everything, Postman offers the following clarifications. First, that education cannot offer a countervailing view of everything in a society.  Second, that not everything in a culture–not every tendency or idea–requires opposition from schools, either because there is another institution opposing it, or because it’s not that big of an influence that we need worry about it. And third, that schools are not well-suited to oppose EVERYTHING. Our culture already has families, churches, an economy, a political system that each provide balancing measures. Here he reminds us that schools are a medium best suited to certain sorts of messages.

So, to sort of enumerate exactly what this view entails, here are three big questions that emerge:

  1.  What specific cultural biases, if left unchecked, will leave our youth with incompetent intellects and distorted personalities?
  2.  To what extent is formal education competent to deal with such biases?
  3.  How may education oppose, both emphatically and constructively, such biases as the school can hope to address?

This book came out in 1979 (when I was three), and the cultural landscape it describes has long vanished from sight. But the questions remain vital. Schools are, as Postman reminds us elsewhere in this book, “the symbol and the product of deadly serious cultural bargaining.” We have some serious bargaining underway at the moment–bargaining that includes Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, class size, teacher compensation, one-to-one devices, funding for arts and electives, charters schools, and many others. It’s not getting any simpler.