Subversive Suggestions

June 24, 2010

I inherited from my dad a bookshelf of books on teaching, many of which were written in the sixties and seventies and feel as anachronistically radical as, say, the Declaration of Independence (…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it[!!!]).

I’m reading How to Survive in Your Native Land now, but I just discovered this little list of suggestions from another that graces my bookshelf, called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It’s a list of things that will never happen (some rightly, because they would be terrible suggestions from a practical viewpoint). Why? Because they’re all about shaking up institutional behavior, and putting people into situations where they have no choreographed, bureaucratically-administered response.

It’s like when Kasparov played Deep Blue. To have a chance, he had to get it out of it’s pre-programmed library of openings as quickly as possible. Throw a couple of monkey wrenches in the machine, and people have to start acting like people again, instead of teachers, students, administrators, or whatever other role they’re supposed to fill. So we can safely predict that the institution will resist; a bureaucracy never accepts changes that threaten itself, and is hostile to change in general.

I like some of these suggestions a lot (11 could be quite interesting; 13 is probably a great idea, and I think they’ve adopted it here); others are deeply problematic (like 6. And 10, practically speaking). Consider the list for yourself, and, as a thought experiment, imagine what a school that subscribed to these rules (or better, the philosophy behind them), would look like. Would you want to go there? Would you predict disaster? There are private and charter schools that have adopted some of these suggestions.

Institutionalizing these suggestions, most likely, would be catastrophic. But holding the ideas in your mind makes space for the questions: what are we trying to do with these schools in the first place? and: is there any other way they could be?


By Postman & Weingartner

  1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks
  2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
  3. Transfer all elementary teachers to high school and vice versa.
  4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” well to write a book on it.
  5. Dissolve all “subjects”, “courses”, and “course requirements”.
  6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogatives.
  7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
  8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
  9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psychotherapy as part of their in-service training
  10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
  11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
  12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.
  13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some other “field” other than education.
  14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.
  15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
  16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases:
    Teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.
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