Subversive Teaching

One book that was an early influence on my teaching was Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.

I guess something about helping kids develop their “crap detectors” to cope with an increasingly complex world just connected with my strange little mind.

Although Postman later did an almost complete reversal with Teaching as a Conserving Activity, the concepts from the first book had already taken root.

All of this came to mind when I ran across a short essay by another writer (while looking for something else, of course), also called Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

A teacher’s role is to induce new knowledge into the knowledge systems of other beings. A desperate task, universally unwelcome to the owners of those working systems, no matter that they willfully put themselves in harms way by enrolling for a “course” in this or that. Until the moment of having to learn new knowledge, it doesn’t occur to them that a threat to old knowledge is being posed. They bite, swallow a mouthful of the new stuff, and gag. It’s foreign matter.

So what makes for a great teacher? Subversion. There’s no doubt about it. Qualifications, references, classroom years … none of it matters in the end, not in the business of real teaching. The poseurs are legion. They instruct others in curriculums, they dole out mouthfuls of information with threats and gold stars, they get people to pass exams. But mostly they don’t succeed in teaching new knowledge systems.

A teacher is that rare individual who coaxes the existing knowledge systems of his students out of hiding, drags every last tentacle of the monster from the depths into broad daylight, hoses off the slime, wrestles it to the ground when it puts up a fight, and finally gives it a heart transplant. That’s subversion. That’s teaching.

Wow. How far do you suppose someone would get putting that on a job application in the spot labeled “teaching philosophy”?

teaching, subversive, activity

2 Comments Subversive Teaching

  1. Dr. Alan Taylor

    It was on my desk on my first day of teaching (UK). My manager wrote a yellow sticker on the cover that said “Some Chance!”. It has remained with me eversince, now informing my current MA programme in US media & film in Berlin. Time to update my ragged copy…

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