Thursday, May 19, 2011

Supporting Subversive Education

  • from Neil Postman's book "Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

    This is written almost 40 years ago by Neil Postman;

    "This book is based on two assumptions of ours. One, it seems to us, is indisputable; the other, highly questionable. We refer to the beliefs that (a) in general, the survival of our society is threatened by an increasing number of unprecedented and, to date, insoluble problems; and (b) that something can be done to improve the situation. If you do not know which of these is indisputable and which questionable, you have just finished reading this book (quote).

    If you do, we do not need to document in great detail assumption (a). We do want, however, to remind you of some of the problems we currently face and then to explain briefly why we have not outgrown the hope that many of them can be minimized if not eliminated through a new approach to education.
    One can begin almost anywhere in compiling a list of problems that, taken together and left unresolved, mean disaster for us and our children. For example, the number one health problem in the United States is mental illness: there are more Americans suffering from mental illness than from all other forms of illness combined. It is advancing rapidly on many fronts, from delinquency among affluent adolescents to frauds perpetrated by some of our richest corporations. Another is the suicide problem. Are you aware that suicide is the second most common cause of death among adolescents? Or how about the problem of "damaged" children? The most common cause of infant mortality in the United States is parental beating. Still another problem concerns misinformation - commonly referred to as the "the credibility gap" or "news management." The misinformation problem takes a variety of forms, such as lies, cliches, and rumors, and implicates almost everybody, including the President of the United States.

    Many of these problems are related to, or at least seriously affected by, the communication revolution, which, having taken us unawares, has ignited the civil-rights problem, unleashed the electronic-bugging problem, and made visible the sex problem, to say nothing of the drug problem. Then we have the problems stemming from the population explosion, which include the birth-control problem, the abortion problem, the housing problem, the parking problem, and the food and water-supply problem.

    You may have noticed that almost all of these problems are related to "progress," a somewhat paradoxical manifestation that has also resulted in the air-pollution problem, the water-pollution problem, the garbage-disposal problem, the radio-activity problem, the megalopolis problem, the who-am-I problem, and the what-does-it-all-mean problem.

    Stay one more paragraph, for we must not omit alluding to the international scene: the Bomb problem, the Vietnam problem, the Red China Problem, the Cuban problem, the Middle East problem, the foreign-aid problem, the national-defense problem, and a mountain of others mostly thought of as stemming from the conspiracy problem.

    Now, there is one problem under which all of the foregoing may be subsumed. It is the "What, if anything, can we do about these problems?" problem, and that is exactly what this book is about.....

    It is the thesis of this book that change - constant, accelerating, ubiquitous - is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact. We maintain, further, that the abilities and attitudes required to deal adequately with change are those of the highest priority and that it is not beyond our ingenuity to design school environments which can help young people to master concepts necessary to survival in a rapidly changing world. The institution we call "school" is what it is because we made it that way. If it is irrelevant, as Marshall McLuhan says; if it shields children from reality, as Norbert Wiener says; if it educates for obsolescence, as John Gardner says; if it does not develop intelligence, as Jerome Bruner says; if it is based on fear, as John Holt says; if it avoids the promotion of significant learnings, as Carl Rogers says; if it induces alienation, as Paul Goodman says; if it punishes creativity and independence, as Edgard Friedenberg says; if, in short, it is not doing what needs to be done, it can be changed; it must be changed. It can be changed, we believe, because there are so many wise men who, in one way or another, have offered us clear, intelligent, and new ideas to use, ans as long as these ideas and the alternatives they suggest are available, there is no reason to abandon hope....

    All of these men have several things in common. They are almost all "romantics," which is to say they believe that the human situation is improvable through intelligent innovation. They are all courageous and imaginative thinkers, which means they are beyond the constricting intimidation of conventional assumptions. They all have tried to deal with contemporary problems, which means they can tell the difference between an irrelevant, dead idea and relevant, viable one. And finally, most of them are not usually thought of as educators. This last is extremely important, since it reveals another critical assumption of ours: namely, that within the "Educational Establishment" there are insufficient daring and vigorous ideas on which to build a new approach to education. One must look to men whose books would rarely by used, or even thought of, in education courses, and would not be listed under the subject "Education" in libraries.
    Subversive Orthodoxy...