On Subversion – Blogging Postman and Weingartner

Subversion: obsolete :  a cause of overthrow or destruction

So, I have a whole bunch of other things I ought to be working on, but I’m going to commit to a low-stakes (as in I am writing in a hurry and not overthinking as I typically do….which is the reason I publish so infrequently) blog-along of my re-read of Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner’s prescient writing – a refresher if you will. My daughter asked me yesterday for recommended reading on pedagogy of resistance and disobedience. She aspires to be an educator herself. She is at the very beginning. Of course this was the first title I thought of. I hope after as many years in her career as have past since this book was written, she will have seen more change than we have. Maybe she can help make some things Postman & Weingartner suggest actually come true.

Postman Weingartner

Cover of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Intro & Chapter 1 – Crap Detection

In the Introduction, dated 1968, the authors write a bit about what they call “insoluble problems” and whether anything can be done to solve them. The first striking quote for me occurs as they chronicle a lengthy list of those problems. They write this one on p. xii:

Still another problem concerns misinformation – commonly referred to as ‘the credibility gap’ or ‘news management.’ The misinformation problem takes a variety of forms, such as lies, clichés’, and rumors, an implicates almost everybody, including the President of the United States.

Were they looking into a crystal ball? Richard Nixon was elected in 1968. To whom were they referring at this point? Could this sentence be more relevant today?

They refer a bit further in the into to school being something we “inflict”. That is, something to be suffered, something unwelcome and imposed. What do you think? Does that still seem relevant?

They go on to explain that one constant – change that is accelerating and ubiquitous –

is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact.


And finally from the intro – They talk about the few men [I sincerely hope they meant women too]

…working as educators striving to deal with qualitative problems in quantitative terms, and, in doing so, miss the point.

All. The. Time.

On to Chapter 1. Crap Detecting

We believe that the schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political, and cultural criticism.

Amen. Is that happening? Could we have landed in the place we find ourselves today if this had actually been happening in schools?

This one made me smile and think of the important work of folks like Donna Lanclos as Postman & Weingartner school us on importance of “the anthropological perspective“.

This perspective allows one to be a part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

Have we entirely lost the empathy born of that perspective? They explain more about this and why they believe it is important, then proceed with 3 particular problems they offer as particularly needing attention as schools remake themselves into “training centers for ‘subversion’.”

  1. Media change – Boy, they didn’t see that coming did they? How VERY MUCH media would continue to change after their writing. They talk in this section about how the addition of something – especially  a technology – creates a totally new environment requiring a whole new set of responses. They note that we have “…more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.” And on censorship they write:

    What we get is an entirely new politics, including the possibility that a major requirement for the holding of political office be prior success as a show-business personality.

  2. The second problem they suggest in need of subversive schools has to do with change and the knowledge explosion“. The lament the state many of us recall from our own educational experiences of becoming well-schooled on already outdated information. This problem is particularly wicked as they note the critical need for individual thought and action rather than blind acceptance of policy without question or dialogue.
  3. The third problem they write in this chapter in need of subversion and crap detection has to do with what they term “burgeoning bureaucracy”

    …bureaucracies are the repositories of conventional assumptions and standard practices.

Sound familiar?

The chapter closes with descriptions of teachers who believe they are in the “information dissemination” business or the “transmission of our cultural heritage” business. Neither of these get at the “future shock” they go on to describe. That is, the realization that the world you were educated for actually no longer exists (if it ever did).

I’m excited to dig into this again…and make my way through recording my own personal nuggets. If you land here and feel so moved, share your own thinking about education, and subversion, and dissent, and pedagogies of resistance.