Teaching as a Subversive or Conserving Activity

Back in 1968, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner published a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It shook schooling to its roots; in some ways it advocated chopping off the roots. Remember its location in history. The late 1960s and early 1970s in North America were a hippie heyday: Woodstock, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” “Let it all hang out, “Have it your way,” and burn the flag.

This book blasted traditional education: lectures killed the human spirit; storing up facts was trivial; logical thinking was deadening; students’ being inactive in seats dulled minds; teachers were teaching what one could see in the rear-view mirror and not preparing students for the future…which is where they would live! The writers compared schools to prisons and factories.

Whatever celebrated self—free-from-constraint learning—was “real” education. Whatever the student wanted to learn would be the best education, with the teacher serving as a guide-on-the-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage. The future was in. Robert Kennedy, who ran for the US presidency, and was assassinated, in the same year Subversive Teaching was published, said often: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

A decade later, Postman saw the effects of the earlier book in classrooms and turned back, writing Teaching as a Conserving Activity. In the book, he makes the claim that a student who is self-absorbed does not become mature because he/she is unaware of the past or the present. He mentions the Bible: “as a man thinks of himself, so is he.” Other authors say, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” In other words, without learning about what’s out there now or in the past, the student’s education is navel-gazing.

Postman’s and Weingartner’s debate is still live. What’s the best Christian education for the future: each student guided in his/her wishes, or teachers who have seen life from many angles, who have experienced families and communities of all ages, and who are knowledgeable about broadening students’ vision from back there, to all around, and to what’s ahead? Should the future be separate curriculum for every Adam and Amara?

Certainly a balance is worthy.

I lean to conserving because students in their sinful nature serve themselves; because they need a pair of Bible glasses to see anything well; and because they need Christian teachers to help them interpret past times, present times, and glimpses of the future, given the students’ gifts and talents. Here are a few specific ways to do that:

  1. Teach the history of everything through biography. Spread students out to see beyond themselves, back into history. Euclid was a person; his math principles came out of his life. How did Pasteur get to pasteurization? How did Geronimo live? What led to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry? Connect those lives to your students’ lives, e.g., genetic engineering experiments today compared to Nazi experiments on making a super race and students’ decisions in the future. Someone once said that education is connecting all of history to one’s personal history. So biography means, also, Noah, David, Jezebel, Peter, Paul, and Mary.
  2. Interpret the present with the students. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the writers assumed every teacher lectured incessantly; the teacher avoided hands-on, inductive study. Good teachers back then had students slice to the innards of fruit, led in singing songs, gathered specimens from the pond or in saliva, and passed around war shrapnel to feel the sharp edges. Now teachers guide students to see beyond themselves and the surface of things: exploring, arranging observations in their minds, and making conclusions. When students see the experiences of child immigrants, it pushes them outside themselves.
  3. Imagine the future and students’ places in it. Postman and Weingartner wanted to start here. This is, instead, the place to conclude. Good teachers connect history to the present, to students’ lives, and to where God may employ them in the future. These teachers read their students’ faces, questions, journals, actions, and choices for projects. Then they address each one during the school year with this: “I notice that you really like to work with other kids,” or “In our life science labs, you fire up for anything we do with animals.”

The overarching goal for all Christian school teachers, administrators, and boards is to have students learn the true story of the world and themselves from God’s creation, to who he is, to who we are, and, finally, what each person’s place is in this story. At the end of schooling, each student should know expressible answers to the important questions: Where did I come from? Who am I? and Where am I going?

– Dan Vander Ark


Filed under Christian worldview, Trends in education

2 Responses to Teaching as a Subversive or Conserving Activity

  1. Phillip Nash

    Excellent comparison of the two books and a salutary lesson us all to beware of going from one extreme to another. I like so much of what is current in educational thinking but I also know that those who are doing it were trained in what they now often criticise as ineffective!

    Of course we want to move forward as we learn more about ourselves and how God has made us to be learners but we must also learn to discern what is true for the whole of human history for truth itself never wears out.

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