In dispraise of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

In many ways, Teaching as a Subversive Activity made me a significantly better teacher.  In retrospect though, an insufficiently critical reading, early in my career, led me astray.  This post considers some progressive promises I was seduced by and have since recanted.  I’ll outline three problematic claims:

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Problematic Claim #1 – Everything is changing; everything must change

The authors contend that the ‘communications revolution,’ the ‘change revolution’ and ‘burgeoning bureaucracy’ mean that for graduates of American schools: “The best that can be said of you is that you are a walking encyclopaedia of outdated information.”  In consequence everything from previous ages should be jettisoned: “You need a new kind of education.”

Is everything changing?  I’m currently reading Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century; the opening paragraph highlights that while “The ubiquity of wickedness and the vanity of toil” are unchanged in millennia “the place of humankind in nature is not what it was.”  The last century was “unusual for the intensity of change and the centrality of human effort in provoking it.”  Likewise, a recent article from John Lanchester, entitled ‘The Robots are Coming’ reviews a book arguing we are on “the verge of a new industrial revolution, one which will have as much impact on the world as the first one” (it also offers some reassurance).

But there are excellent counter-arguments to be made.  For example, it has been argued (to my regret, I forget by whom) that the telegraph was a far more radical form of communications revolution than the internet.  Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate makes a compelling case for continuities in human experience:

History and culture, then, can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics, and evolution.

I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.

We certainly face new crises – some analogous to those of the Sixties, some of our own making.  But to argue the content and structure of schooling should be rebuilt from the first steps seems an over-reaction.  Perhaps Machiavelli put it best:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions and thus they must necessarily have the same results.”

Problematic Claim #2 – Relevance and questioning trumps knowledge

The authors contend that teachers are out of touch with their students and their wishes.  There is probably a grain of truth in this now, as there was then.  Their solution is starting – indeed, basing everything in questions formulated by students.  They contend that students must be motivated before they can learn.  The idea that relevance is only a function of immediate knowledge.  In the process, the authors take an axe to “the kind of irrelevant curricula that comprise most of conventional schooling.”  They take these ideas to their furthest conclusions in their proposals for ‘City Schools’ (schools serving “urban disadvantaged children”).  They propose that these schools should focus on a range of ‘processes’ designed on problems of immediate importance and relevance – community projects, including “rat extermination,” ‘athletic services’ and a range of services geared immediate daily problems, including repair services for household appliances and equipment.”

In this light, the exemplary dialogue they offer, shown below is interesting:

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In another dialogue, to the teacher’s question – “What does ‘civil rights’ mean?”  The first student reply is “Doesn’t it depend on who is defining it?  I don’t think Stokely Carmichael and Thurmond would see it in the same way.”

These lessons demonstrate a deeply critical interrogation of the world.  But they overlook what made them possible.  Students come to class with an extensive vocabulary (‘lexicographers’!) marshalled in complex sentences, and an excellent knowledge of current affairs.  The authors themselves cite authorities including Shakespeare, Einstein, AN Whitehead, Hobbes, Locke, Orwell and Plato.  Postman and Weingartner are steeped in, formed by, and reliant on, the knowledge they decry as irrelevant.  The idea that students from the most deprived background should be exterminating rats while (presumably) their luckier peers are understanding the world has been dealt with particularly compellingly by Michael Fordham.

Problematic Claim #3 – Structure is worthless

The authors are no fan of existing educational structures – they advocate running courses in which all students are told initially they will get an A and are then encouraged to learn, accepting that “There are always a few who will view the situation as an opportunity ‘goof off?’  So what?”

It’s worth reconsidering the transcript above for a moment here.  Where are the interruptions?  Not a single dialogue (there are a number of pages of them) contains a single reminder to listen or to take turns.  There are many classroom discussions being held like this in Britain today, but they are not usually the ones filled by disaffected students demanding changes.  Students whose lives already lack structure are the ones most likely to ‘goof off’ if they find that the teacher has removed all structure in their lessons.

An overstatement

Late in the book, there is a partial retraction:

Before making our final suggestion, we want to say a word of assurance about the revolution we are urging.  There is nothing in what we have said in this book that precludes the idea, at one time or another, of any of the conventional methods and materials of learning.  For certain specific purposes, a lecture,a  film, a textbook, a packaged unit, even a punishment, may be entirely justified” (emphasis original).

On reexamining the book to write this post, I wondered whether I was over-stating what they advocated.  But I overlooked this caveat entirely until this reading.  I’d suggest that any teacher could benefit from considering the challenges the authors make.  But I regret following some of their proposed solutions too closely.


Michelle, at the Philosophy Club, has written three interesting posts about this book, considering and critiquing different facets.

Michael Fordham has written powerfully on the poverty of ‘useful’ knowledge