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Subversive Teaching

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Before I became a teacher, I read a lot of what were then considered radical books on education. One was called Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Postman and Weingartner. Not long ago I reviewed the principles of subversive teaching (listed below), and was struck by how deeply my teaching had been affected by them: I have faithfully adhered to them throughout my teaching career.

Good teaching is subversive because, among other things, it challenges students to think, to question things as they are, to envision and consider possibilities. To be "subversive", we must encourage students to think beyond the conventional wisdom of popular culture.

The book's authors predicted that much in American education would be changing. In some respects, it has; in others, it is depressingly the same as when I sat in school gritting my teeth to endure the tedium and abysmal teaching.

Principles of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Postman & Weingartner)

1. The teacher rarely tells students what he thinks.

2. Generally, he does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question.

3. He encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction, generally avoids acting as a mediator or judging the quality of ideas expressed.

4. He rarely summarizes the positions taken by students on the learnings that occur. He recognizes that the act of summary or "closure" tends to have the effect of ending further thought.

5. Generally, each of his lessons pose a problem for students.

6. His lessons develop from the responses of students and not from a previously determined "logical" structure. (Postman & Weingartner, 1969, p. 33-36)

Teaching as a Subversive Activity
by Thor May

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.