Subversive Teaching

2 min read
Holy shit screen shot from Austin Kleon

A 9x9x25 post from Peg French last week triggered a memory of one of the first books on teaching practice that I ever read; Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.

I came across this book not as a student of education, but as a student of media criticism. My introduction to Postman in the mid-90’s wasn’t the Postman as radical educator, but Postman as media critic.

In 1996-97 ish (dates are a bit hazy) I was taking a media studies course with Marshall Soules at Vancouver Island University (then Malaspina College). It was notable as it was one of the first web-based courses I had ever taken, and one of the first web-based courses offered by VIU/Malaspina. It was in this class I was introduce to a number of media theorists, including Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death sat side by side with Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and McLuhan’s Understanding Media as key works in critical media studies at the time.

It was Amusing that led me to Teaching as a Subversive Activity a few years later as I was beginning to shift my career and pay more attention to teaching than to media & media criticism.

There are still a few things I remember vividly reading that book. It was the first time I heard the term Crap Detecting, a term coined by Hemingway and also used often by Howard Rheingold. Postman’s position was that school’s should have, at their core, the development of people who are expert crap detectors. By crap detector, Postman meant people who are both immersed in their society and culture, but who are capable of taking an anthropological stance and view their own culture from a distance in order to be able to recognize the problems (aka the crap) that are deeply embedded within society. As someone who grew up with a view that education was primarily about getting a good job, this was, indeed, a radical and subversive perspective to me.

Another concept that the book first introduced to me was the idea that the teacher should not be the centre of the classroom. Postman & Weingartners perspective was that a good teacher;

encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction. And generally he avoids acting as a mediator or judge of the quality of ideas expressed.

This was another radical perspective for me as someone who grew up with teacher as authority and holder of all knowledge.

Thanks Peg, for a reminder of this important work. It has to have been at least 20 years since I last read it. Might be time to pick up the 1969 classic and give it a reread.


frenchpeg October 23, 2018

Clint: Yes, so many gems in Postman and everything underscored today – in education and in media. Amusing Ourselves to Death was a critical read along with McLuhan and Chomsky when I lectured in Media Studies, but I confess to difficulty with McLuhan’s temps – hot, cold,…. But the real eye opener came when I worked as CHUM Television’s Media Literacy Librarian for a spell. I was more guinea pig for ‘amusing experiments’ in a cage built of television screens. Difficult, but necessary to step back – and in that stepping back, I am with you, likely time to re-visit reads!

Clint Lalonde October 23, 2018

When were you at CHUM? Was that in the Moses days? Wow, that would have been quite the gig.

I, too, struggle with McLuhan’s hot/cool mediums. Struggled with understanding the distinctions until I got to the point that maybe McLuhan’s pint was that the struggle to understand was the point. At least, that is how I justified to myself not understanding the distinctions. The other media theorists I remember struggling with were Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. But Harold Innes left a big impression.

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