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Book Report: Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman

I thought many people would enjoy reading my summary of Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman. I got this book from Jared and must say it’s one of my favorite books of all-time. I included a lot of details because there was so much juicy stuff from this. If you make it all the way through I promise you it’ll be worth it.


Take aways:

Problems with schools. Change revolution, the degree of change is happening very rapidly and when we figure something out it becomes irrelevant. Secondly, burgeoning bureaucracy, are naturally highly resistant to change. An essential mindlessness about them which accelerates entropy rather than impede it.
Why do people look at education like a vaccine. You take a subject, you had it and then once you’ve had it you are immune and need not take it again.
– It’s great that the highest form of intellectual achievement is the recall of random facts. This is shown by the popularity of quiz shoes. As a student who gets one in right that is how we are preparing the youth.
Have you ever heard of a student taking notes on the remarks of another student? Probably not. Because the organization of the classroom makes it clear that what students say is not the “content” of the instruction. Therefore, it will not be included on tests. Therefore, they can ignore it.
– Have you ever heard of a student saying, “Whose facts are those?” Where does “knowledge” come from. It isn’t just there in a book, waiting for someone to come along and ‘learn’ it.
– The point is, once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.
– How teachers can be: telling the students what he thinks they ought to know. Why not teach relevant information that students request? (One counterpoint I wonder is how are the students to know what they will need/want to know in the future. I think this is the role of a teacher). Teachers should encourage student-student interactions, he doesn’t accept a single statement as an answer to a question, he encourages exploration and the inquiry method of asking questions to learn. (This makes 1000% sense to me, I learned for tests while now I learn for curiosity to relevant things and what I really want to know and absorb.) The teacher recognizes that summarizing the learnings is the act of closure whereas learning should not be a terminal event. Measures the success of students not on tests but by the success in terms of behavioral changes in students (frequency of questions, relevance of their questions).
Subjects should be interchanged cause you deal with English in Math and history in science and so forth.
– Here are some students reacting to re-taking a test after teachers found out the answers were shared before the test.
Raymond Rodriguez, “It’s not fair. I didn’t know anything about cheating but I passed. Why should I have put myself on the line again?” and Domingo Maldonado said “as far as I’m concerned. They can’t ask you anything you haven’t covered in class. I’ll probably do better the second time.” Think about this. If you really learned information should any of this really matter. You know it, absorbed it, questioned it, etc…
Why is the “new English” focused on grammar. Why with all the language problems we focus on that. The teachers fear normal human activity as teaching grammar makes it easy for them and a respectable “out.”
Standards are dumb, not too high or low but “Is it appropriate to your goals?”
– How are schools to decide which “subjects” to include. The learnings should be explored through questions which leads to relationships among subjects instead of so separated. Why so ABCED-minded way of doing things? We do not “get” meanings from our environment, we assign meanings. We take things so easily top down, why? We are taught through the perception of the teacher not from the learner who is really supposed to be “learning.”
– The real thing to think about is “What’s Worth-Knowing Questions Curriculum.” (I think you need to learn from the past to not repeat the same mistakes but you need to think of what you want in the future to ask the right questions or explore in the past).
– Why are we going to books that some subjective person wrote to gain this knowledge. Why aren’t more schooling created through newspapers, internet now, interviews, personal discovery, etc…There is no learning without a learner.
– Perception vs. reality of how we perceive the information we intake. Looking at education it seems we are very transactional and not discrete events. We do NOT get our perceptions from ‘things’ around us, but our perceptions come from us.
– Whatever we say something is, it is not but because of having said it, we will perceive it as such. This becomes our reality and how if affects the language in which we learn. For example, the British government changed the calendar and made Sept 2 to now be Sept 14, some people asked what happened to the 11 days. It’s the projection and/or perception of how we asses our reality. A good way to look at this is that we are imprisoned so to speak, in a house of language.
History and how we learn it is subjective. It’s oral. The question then becomes how best to inquire about the history of the past.
– They suggest not looking at everything to think of things as closed but explore the problems out there. This prepares children with the ever-changing environment we live in. Not learning the specific facts but preparing them to inquire and figure out new relevant things.
-“All scientists examine their instruments to test for experimental error – but traditional philosophers never did examine their instrument, Language” – W. Labarre, The Human Animal
– “Every language is a special way of looking at the world and interpreting experience… One sees and hears what the grammatical system of one’s language has made on sensitive to, has trained one to look for in experience. This bias is insidious because everyone is so unconscious of his native language as a system.” – C. Kluckhorn, Mirror for Man.
– In order for a perception to change one must be frustrated in one’s actions or change one’s purpose.
Changes for new teachers:

  1. Five-year moratorium on use of all textbooks, since they are boring and based on the assumption of knowledge and outside of the learner.
  2. English teachers teach math, put the teacher as a learner with the students.
  3. Transfer elementary teachers to high school.
  4. Require a teacher who knows their subject to write a book on it
  5. Remove tests/grades as this is the weapons of coercion and eliminates a major obstacle for students to learn.
  6. Classify teachers publicly
  7. Require teachers to take a test prepared by the students on what the students know.
  8. Teacher’s pay should be based on how many kids want to go to next month’s class
  9. All teachers need to take 1 year off to work in some other “field.”

– Successful in terms of conventional school terms is no good. These are now the intellectual paraplegics. All during these 16 years of schooling, they learned not to think, not to ask questions, not to figure things out for themselves. They learned to become totally dependent on teacher authority, and they learned it with dedication. This needs to change. So that people can make viable meanings in order to make, in turn, viable choices and decisions of their own, on their own.
– How did the structure of knowledge or learning come to be. No evidence to prove one hour classes, 15 weeks a semester, books are the best way, etc.. There is mass evidence to confute them.
– They suggest removing all administrators. democracy of letting the students make a lot of the changes is inefficient but still better than the totalitarian system schools are now. be accountable to the constituents of the school
Print, changed the very form of civilization. The book, isolates the reader and his responses, tended to separate him from the powerful oral influences of the past.
– So what now? Ask What am I going to have my students do today? What’s it good for? How do I know?
– Try looking at your students as smart. If you can let go of the assumption that what you constitutes the only ingredients of “smartness.”
Games are a good way or let the students determine the information they want to know. This can be productive in getting students engaged in the learning process. And interaction with the students on a real response not just grading papers. Also the teacher asked people to answer questions and those answers were actually a poem. Make it fun.

Bottom Line:

If you are interested in changing education then you must buy this book. Teaching as a Subversive Activity, highlights the problems, talks about the history and provides actionable ways to make it better. I love this book.

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7 responses to “Book Report: Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman”

Leonardo M Smith
April 3, 2018 at 4:51 am

Do you believe that ” illiteracy of the future will not be whether you can read/ write but whether you can learn, Unlearn and Re-learn.”

April 21, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Have you read Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death?

You will not be disappointed.

April 17, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Yo, thanks for the summary and recommendation. Just ordered it from Amazon.

Nicole Price
April 16, 2008 at 11:32 pm

As a parent i am always agonizing whether a good education is being given to my child, which not only teaches her stuff but teaches her to think. Your post has raised some very valid points and made me think.

Raffy Banks
April 16, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Part of the problem is that the educational system in this country is not setup for change. Everyone may know and believe in what needs to be done, but it is a feudal system with several layers of ignorance.

Brit is right: “but it would require tossing some holy grails—merit-based pay, testing, etc.—out the window.” (Stanley Bronstein)
April 16, 2008 at 6:59 am

I’ll sum it up in one sentence:

Are teachers teaching their students how to think for themselves?

Unfortunately, the answer is all too often, no.

Stanley F. Bronstein
Mr Achievement
Attorney, CPA, Author & Professional Motivational Speaker

April 15, 2008 at 8:50 pm

You’ve highlighted many points that were the very issues that tormented me during my public education. I knew by middle school that the odds of me ever being challenged in a traditional classroom were nil, so I devoured every book I could get my hands on, creating my own curriculum.

While I see the value of having a public education system, I think our opportunity to change schools and education is hindered by it being a public commodity. The players involved—school districts, teacher unions, parents, federal government, and students—aren’t necessarily working towards the same goals. If the parties actually focused on the things you’ve discussed in your review, I think true reform might be possible, but it would require tossing some holy grails—merit-based pay, testing, etc.—out the window. Thank you for sharing.

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