In praise of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

In praise of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

“You cannot step twice into the same stream”
Heraclitus of Ephesus

Writing in the late 1960s, the authors of Teaching as a Subversive Activity worked from two assumptions: society’s survival is under threat and something may – perhaps – be done about it.  In response, they set out to challenge the foundations of the education system and invited teachers to reimagine schools to benefit students and society.

I reread the book recently for the third time in four years.  Each reading has felt different; each time, I’ve been challenged to rethink what I ‘know’ and believe about education.  The authors offer some wonderful insights, wittily and memorably expressed and well worth sharing – alongside some truly dreadful suggestions.  My appreciation of which is which has changed over time.  This post focuses on the former – ideas with a spark of genius, or of insight.  Next week, I’ll write about aspects I’d contest.

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1) Education should prepare students for contemporary society

Postman and Weingartner believed schools have a major role in ‘saving’ society.  They proposed what David Riesman called a ‘counter-cyclical’ approach: “schools should stress values that are not stressed by other major institutions in the culture.”  This could be achieved by acting as an “anti-entropic force,” providing students with Hemingway’s suggested necessity: “a built-in, shock-proof crap-detector,” which would allow a student “to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it.”

In this spirit, the authors argue that education must be relevant.  Firstly, because society faces a raft of problems, including: “…the communications revolution, which, having taken us unawares, has ignited the civil-rights problem, unleashed the electronic-bugging problem, and made visible the sex problem….  ‘progress’, a somewhat paradoxical manifestation that has also resulted in the air-pollution problem, the water-pollution problem, the garbage-disposal problem….  we must not omit alluding to the international scene: the Bomb problem, the Vietnam problem, the Red China problem…”  And yet, they believed, teachers and educationalists were blind to this.  At a conference they attended, rather than discussing poverty, Vietnam, or an “ugly history of racial crisis” the authors found discussion of which grammar to teach; “Where is the learner in this?  Where is his world?”

Secondly, they contend that students’ perception of relevance is essential to their learning: “There is no way to help a learner to be disciplined, active and thoroughly engaged unless he perceives a problem to be a problem or whatever is to-be-learned as worth learning.”  One thought experiment they propose runs: “Suppose all the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in all the schools disappeared.”  Suppose, then, that you decided to create  new curriculum consisting of questions.

These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly, from the point of view of the students….  Take a pencil and list your questions on the next page, which we have left blank for you.  Please do not be concerned about decaying our book, unless, of course, one of your questions was going to be ‘What were some of the ways of learning a living in Ancient Egypt?’  In that case, use your own paper.”

2) Teachers should listen to and understand themselves and their students

They advocate a thorough investigation by teachers into their own attitudes and beliefs: “The process, once begun, leads in many unexpected directions but most often to the question ‘Why am I a teacher, anyway?”  Moreover, they believe that teachers should spend much more time in listening to their students and seeking to understand their needs.  The authors advocate a technique they take from Carl Rogers: students engage in a discussion with “an unusual rule applied to it.  A student may say anything he wishes but only after he has restated what the previous speaker has said to that speaker’s satisfaction.  Astounding things happen to students when they go through this experience.”  In some cases students “find they have projected themselves into the frame of mind of another person….  But, of course, you ought to try it yourself first.”

3) Education needs to challenge students to think for themselves

“Mostly, [students] are required to remember…  They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions….  what students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them to say.”

4) Radical structural changes would improve schools, teachers and students

Here is a thought-provoking list of suggestions they offer:

1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks
2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
3. Transfer all elementary teachers to high school and vice versa.
4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” well to write a book on it.
5. Dissolve all “subjects”, “courses”, and “course requirements”.
6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogatives.
7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psychotherapy as part of their in-service training
10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.

 13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some other “field” other than education.
14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.
15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
16. There should be a general prohibition against the following
words and phrases: syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup test, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material and administrative necessity.”

Some of these I’ve tried, some I’d advocate wholeheartedly, and some would, I suspect, cause little but harm.  The full proposals – and highly entertaining justifications – can be seen in the pictures below (see particularly number 14):

Teaching as a Subversive Activity is a wonderful book which everyone should read.  It’s also a product of its age, and many of its prescriptions have been tried and found deeply wanting.  My next post will look at some of the issues I have with it.


The book: Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I’ve done a number of things inspired by the book:

  • I begin Year 7 by trying to show the relevance of history using the question-formulation approach explained above.
  • I’ve explained my belief in the centrality of relevance before and alluded to a unit addressing contemporary questions about Ukraine last autumn.
  • I can swear that the listening and repeating approach helped transform a Year 8 class a few years back.  But that’s another story.