Thirty years ago, one of my closest college friends, I will call him “Steve,” presented me with a small, pre-read, paperback book to commemorate my graduation from college and my future as a history teacher. Steve may not have realized how impactful this gift was then and is now. I devoured Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Postman and Weingartner, 1969), while I was student teaching at Minneapolis South High School. I will admit that over the years, the book faded from my memory, and I recently picked up a copy and reread it. I finished re-reading the book on the campus of New York University, where Neil Postman taught, learned, thought, and wrote.
The cover of Postman and Weingartner’s classic work states boldly, “A no-holds-barred assault on outdated teaching methods — with dramatic and practical proposal on how education be made relevant to today’s world.” Little did they know! They were writing at a time of great social upheaval and critique. The “today’s world” that they were referring to was the “nuclear age,” and, not surprisingly, the “outdated teaching methods” have not changed. As a historian, and an individual who was not yet in school when Postman and Weingartner published this book, it is fascinating, frustrating, and inspiring to read the three large movements which inspired their call to action. The first is a communications revolution, the second is change revolution, and the third is the expanding bureaucracy. Keep in mind, that they saw those as obstacles to educational reform in 1969. They state early on that one of the largest obstacles to reform is that systems and bureaucracies are increasingly resistant to change.
“The enthusiasm that community leaders display for an educational innovation is in inverse proportion to its significant to the learning process” (p. 57).
Postman and Weingartner (P&W) call for a new education based on inquiry, language, and student directed learning. Most educators would read that sentence and say, “Of course! We have made great strides in all of those areas.” However, if we examine the policy and practices of public education over the last 50 years, we have done little more than increase bureaucracy, reduce inquiry, and ignore student voice. A few quick examples, which I hope you will research and reflect about: The “standards” and “new standards” movement are the antithesis of P&W’s recommendations. Reform movements, standardized testing, and legislative mandates over the last three decades have placed more and more pressure on teachers to “teach to the text/test/standard.” P&W would have been huge proponents of the often heard slogan, “teach students, not subjects.” In fact, their recommendations include throwing away textbooks, dismantling content-based subjects, and removing grading and punitive disciplinary systems from schools. These should not be revolutionary ideas; however, systems, especially educational systems that are designed to segregate students and maintain inequitable outcomes will always subvert revolutionary ideas into technical programs that have little lasting change for the lived experiences of students.
The authors method is fairly basic, but their conclusions are a little more radical, because they ask the reader to answer some basic questions honestly. What is the purpose of schooling? Why are you a teacher? What is essential to learn? How do we build relationships with students rather than imparting content? Some of their recommendations are amusing, which probably is why no one has tried to implement them; however, if we want to actually change outcomes for students, we must not continue practices, policies, and procedures that have created and reinforced inequitable outcomes.
Despite the fact that P&W’s book remains an accurate and “no-holds-barred assault” on everything wrong with public education, re-reading it at this point in my career and at this point in history has reignited my idealism, optimism, and energy for pushing for revolutionary change in the education of our students, teachers, leaders, and society.
Postman, N., and Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delta Books