No. 13: Teaching as a Subversive Activity
I came to this book with high expectations. I was first introduced to Postman through a series of posts at Don’t Eat the Fruit called “Five Things We the Church Need to Know About Technology”, and shortly there after read The End of Education, which was one of the first books I read on the subject, and one of the best. I immediately felt those expectations would be well-met when I read the title of the first chapter: “Crap Detecting”.
The phrase was borrowed from Ernest Hemingway, and is described as “an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today’s world.”
One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of “crap”. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions, and even outright lies. (3)
The task of the schools, according to the authors is to produce students who can tell the difference: “experts at ‘crap detecting.'”
Writing in the era of Marshal McLuhan’s popularity, Postman and Weingartner latch on to the phrase “the medium is the message”. Simply put, the way information is conveyed has a message in itself, sometimes more potent than the information conveyed. The authors point out that traditional methods of teaching (generally meaning lecture) communicate that (a) passive acceptance is better than active engagement, (b) simple recall is the “highest form of intellectual achievement, and (c) “one’s own ideas and those of one’s classmates are inconsequential,” among other things. These are not ideas we want students picking up in the classroom.
The Inquiry Method is just what it sounds like, but the authors stress that it is not the Socratic Method. Inquiry is meant to be an entirely new method for encouraging students to engage in learning, find their way to relevant questions and answers (sooner or later), and teach them that knowledge is not just something stored in textbooks and teachers, but which can be discovered by anyone. As the authors say, “whatever we think we “know” about astronomy, sociology, chemistry, biology, linguistics, etc., was discovered or invented by someone who was more or less an expert in using inductive methods of inquiry.”
The value is mainly for the upper grades, as the examples given in the book demonstrate. If these students are to be prepared for the world when they finish high school, they need to be confident in their ability to seek and find what they’re looking for. The author’s expectations seem to be a bit high – they want to develop in (all) children and teens attitudes and skills that many adults seem incapable of attaining – but there is a very real and valuable shift in worldview that occurs when the questions and responses of students are regarded by the teacher.
There is a growing amount of research into the role of language in the creation of worldviews. Basically, we can only think with the language we possess, so we can only think in the terms and categories created by the language. For example, English differentiates between wolves, foxes, and coyotes, but sometimes a dog is a dog, despite the fact that a Yorkie and a Mastiff seem to be more different than the three wild canines above. But those are the categories we have, so that’s how we think.
In addition, the language we use to talk about something doesn’t simply describe, it ascribes. When we look at a Husky and call it a dog, rather than a wolf, we have not only added the Husky to our category of dogs, but we’ve assumed our understanding of dogs applies to the Husky. The authors call this languaging.
A major educational implication is that each subject consists not simply of a body of knowledge and a method of inquiry, but of its own language. I believe the authors take this implication too far, arguing that there isn’t actually a subject, just a language:
We are in a position to understand that almost all of what we customarily call “knowledge” is language. Which means the key to understanding a “subject” is to understand its language. In fact…it is more accurate to say that what we call a subject is its language. (102)
I believe that there is a body of knowledge that, separated from its name and the particular terms used to describe it, would still clearly exist as the relationships of numbers to each other. You would need to eliminate much more than the particular language of mathematics to eliminate the “subject”.
There was no shortage of adventures in blowing past the point, like the above. One of those adventures is the decision to employ scare quotes when discussing nearly all points of traditional education: “subjects”, “content”, “teaching” (for crying out loud!), and plenty of others.
Another is the assertion that there is no knowledge that exists outside the learner. In a way this is true: we each apprehend and understand things slightly differently, even when resulting from the same set of stimuli. So when we read about the acceleration of gravity, we perceive slightly different things. But the acceleration is still real and constant (on Earth, at least). The authors, however, assert that, because the learner will “build [information] into his own scheme of things”, that there is nothing to “‘get…inside’ the heads of students,” and “there is nothing that the learner can say that is ‘irrelevant.'”
This approach may lead to the total absence of a future in physical sciences, as few will be able to divine the acceleration of gravity, and if they do, they’ll assume it only exists in their own heads, and other scientists need their own way of perceiving the pull (if you could call it a “pull”) of gravity.
And it shouldn’t need to be said that there are things a student can say that are irrelevant. Maybe the authors are assuming that the student is attempting to stay on topic, which is an important factor. But the only reason given against saying a student comment is “beside the point” is that it might make the student “feel inadequate, that he cannot quite understand what the lesson is about.” I think that making a student aware that he doesn’t quite get it is a kind thing to do. Otherwise you end up with the most confident, but least competent students in the industrialized world.
The New Education and its Educationists
Another weak section is one on how “the new education” will look, and what is needed from its teachers. The suggestions:
- Declare a five-year moratorium on textbooks. This is a continuation on the idea that there is no knowledge “prior to, independent of, [or] altogether outside of the learner,” thus rendering textbooks “worthless or harmful.” This could be tricky to navigate, considering the implied definition of “knowledge.” But it’s pretty clear that “information” exists independent of the learner, right? If not, what exactly is in those books? or this one?
- Have teachers teach subjects they aren’t familiar with. Here the authors deride teachers for wanting “to get something they think they know into the heads of people who don’t know it.” The definition of “knowledge” has just gotten stranger: Math teachers, after passing many college math courses, only think they know math. And how, I wonder, is an English teacher supposed to “perceive the ‘subject’ as a learner’, or at all, without textbooks?
- “Transfer all elementary school teachers to high school and vice-versa”. This would be fine, I think, except for the fact that there probably aren’t many third grade teachers with a strong enough handle on physics or trig to be of any academic use in a high school classroom.
- “Require every teacher who thinks he knows his ‘subject’ [have the scare quotes gotten annoying yet?] to write a book on it.” I actually proposed the same thing (a scholarly article, actually) as part of a professional development plan last year. Of course, the authors suggest it so he won’t “inflict his knowledge on other people.”
- Eliminate “subjects”, “courses”, and “course requirements.” The authors suggest that this would free teachers to focus on their learners. It would be difficult to focus on anything else…there are no textbooks, no subjects, and no courses. There is also no point to showing up.
- There are several suggestions that embody the silliness of some student-centered teaching, like having teachers take tests prepared by students on what the students know, or making every class an elective, and only paying the teachers if students want to come to the next month of class. The first is harmless, the second doesn’t make any sense. I’d just bring an XBOX to class. 30 minute lesson, 60 minutes of Big Team Slayer on High Ground, FTW.
- Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades. No comment.
All of these recommendations are predicated on one idea: “it is a very difficult thing for one person to learn anything significant from another.” This may be true, depending on what you consider significant. If your “significant” learning is only those things that affect behavior (presumably with early results), then the concept of education outside of the family is a total waste. All such “significant” learning happens at home, in the community, or at church.
Perhaps the authors mean something like that. Their idea for a new type of city school is one that’s not really a school at all. Students in crumbling communities would be sent out to solve the communities problems from building maintenance and public upkeep to recreation and sanitation. While it might be nice for the community in the long term (i.e. the next generation), it would mean the loss of academic training for a generation of students. I have mixed feelings about the idea, but it could have some great potential for the next generation of students in those communities.
In a Word: Disappointed
Overall, I was unnerved by the disdain for academic training, particularly specialization, and the animosity toward the concept of subjects. There is also more than a hint of Romanticism in the idea that educators trained in a subject are doing damage to students’ ability to learn, as if those students, unencumbered, would become the Postmans and Weingartners of their generations.
Due to the reality that one teacher simply cannot connect with all of their students (150+ a year for an urban high school teacher), and the varied backgrounds and living situations of those students, the only thing a teacher can do effectively and confidently is, as Fish wrote, expose students to bodies of knowledge and inquiry that they hadn’t been aware of, and the skills to navigate them.
The cultural commentary found in Teaching as a Subversive Activity is valuable, combining some important research in cognitive sciences with insight into the culture of the school and local community. Perhaps the most valuable lesson to learn is that we must constantly examine our ways of thinking and our methods of teaching, and refuse to do things a particular way simply because that’s the way we do them.
But from the midpoint this book was a let down. That wouldn’t bother me, as it was published 41 years ago and is clearly a product of its time, but the book is still recommended by a large number of people. The valuable portions of this book are true and important, and are said elsewhere, unattached from the type of overreaching found here.
However, for those who believe the purpose of education or the school system is to create “whole persons” who are “personally empowered”, and “foster a love of learning” while dealing with all of the local and non-local social issues that may arise, you will love this book. If you feel that the imposition of “subjects” on students by teachers is the problem, and the solution is to have no structure except inquiry, you’ll love it, too.
If, on the other hand, you believe that the massive amounts of money being poured into public schooling ($51 billion in Texas last year) should be used to teach your kids something you can’t teach them yourself, you just might loathe it. Be advised.