Institutions and Frozen Thought

The Anti-Education Era

Institutions and Frozen Thought - James Paul Gee

(Gee, 2013)

Gee, James Paul. The Anti-Education ERA: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Adrian Aleixandre


Gee discusses the advantages and disadvantages of humanity’s development and use of institutions to solve complex problems by using the concept of ‘frozen thought’ as a way of describing processes that may no longer apply to a given problem, but are carried out nonetheless.


  • Frozen Thought
    • An idea or process that, at one point, solved a real problem, but may no longer be well suited or relevant, but are persisted.
  • Institution
    • A set of rules, regulations and processes that are created to organize a large amount of people towards a common goal.
  • Knowledge Community
    • An un-officially organized group of people, typically through internet communication, who produce information typically produced by a traditional organization.

Arguments and Their Evidence

Gee argues that institutions are one of humanity’s greatest inventions because of their ability to align large groups of people towards a common goal, and simultaneously terrible because of their tendency to make people extremely stupid. Institutions ease the mental load of those inside of them because they “freeze” some of the necessary decisions into established procedures. This is a boon as it allows for faster progress, but also a curse because the procedure may no longer be helpful for the institution's purpose. Gee references the United State court system as an example of an institution that most people take no notice it; it’s natural to most for the courts to operate as they do, despite there being no real reason why this particular set of procedures was selected.

Gee argues that institutions, in recent years, are having a run for their money by amateur, organically organized groups, particularly internet communities. These knowledge communities organize with no power system but produce comparable results as a traditional institution. Gee gives an example of a knowledge community who shares information about feline medicine as a comparable quality to veterinarians and medical researchers. The key difference, according to Gee, is knowledge community's ability to more quickly unfreeze their knowledge when it becomes irrelevant.

Outside Works Mentioned


Further Reading

Stack Exchange: An example of an institutionalized knowledge community that strikes a balance between procedure and


“Institutions are ‘frozen thought.’ They exist in part to “think for us.” In any complex set of tasks involving lots of people, there are a great many things to think about, make decisions about, plan for, and reflect on. Institutions take some of these things and “freeze” them into set procedures that we do not need to think about and make decisions about. These procedures lower the cognitive load for people in the institution” (Gee, 2013).


I’ve always been frustrated with most institutions. My brain tends to want everything to make sense and I have little patience for following rules on the principle that they are rules. The university system has some glaring problems, one of which that affects me in my education, and that Gee also mentions is that (some) university professors are rewarded more for producing research than teaching students well. From my perspective, I view universities as a means for efficient knowledge transfer, but the more I am here, I realize that I have found much higher bandwidth channels for communication long before I got to college, mostly digital means. I would estimate that over 50% of my class and study time is wasted on things that I either already knew or don’t see a reasonable reason why they are being covered. This just might be that I’m young and dumb, but that doesn’t alleviate the responsibility of the institution to communicate to me the reasons why I am being taught what I am being taught.