Teaching as a Subversive Activityby Charles Weingartner, Neil Postman
Length: To read (218 pages)
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How do you change the thinking of a culture with enormous speed? That is the question that Postman and Weingartner sought to answer in their 1969 work “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” The authors’ concern was that the changes they hoped to see in our culture had little chance of occurring due to a model of public education they viewed to be long outdated and ultimately useless. To solve this problem, the authors sought to present an updated vision of public education that could successfully subvert those outdated assumptions and practices they feared were crippling society.
Who should read this?
The question that must come to mind, of course, is what does the problem of the public education system of 1969 have to do with ministry in 2018 (or any other year, for that matter)? Although some of the critiques offered by the authors may strike the reader as outdated an unhelpful in ministry, their overall work is helpful to anyone who endeavors to teach in any field. As such, pastors, Sunday School teachers, and just about anyone serving in a ministry context can find this book to be a helpful challenge in thinking seriously through our own strategies of communicating truth.
“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” offers a number of critiques of public institution that are worth considering. Foundational to many of their critiques is a skill they believe is neglected by far too many teachers: the skill of asking questions. As the authors themselves claim,
“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.”
With that foundational claim, the authors present a new model of teaching they call the “inquiry method.” To get a full appreciation of what this method looks like on a practical level, it is helpful to read through the various examples the authors provide in their work. To summarize it (in, perhaps, an overly simplistic manner), this method is one that seeks to redesign the structure of the classroom by placing the focus primarily on the students, discouraging the teacher from speaking in any form resembling a lecture, and stressing that the process of learning is more than just memorizing a list of pre-determined facts. The primary tool used for all of this is, of course, the question.
As the authors flesh out this idea they address a number of thought provoking issues that still remain relevant today. They address the importance of remembering that the goal of every teacher must be ultimately to help a student succeed in the real world (as opposed to just passing a test).
They also address issues related to the practice of interpretation and how each advancement made in technology will inevitably impact that process for students. In the words of the authors, teachers must remember that every student is an active “meaning maker” who will not immediately understand a variety of concepts in the way the teacher might assume. In our own culture today, that process of interpretation is at the heart of the language of “my truth” and “your truth.” As maddening as that discussion might be to many of us, it does provide a helpful reminder that language is not necessarily as straightforward as we assume.
Ultimately perhaps the most helpful and encouraging aspect of Postman and Weingartner’s work is the optimistic manner in which they speak of students. Those students, they continually claim, are eager to learn if we simply seek to engage in thought provoking and practically helpful manners. If we simply remember that and consider the potential any given student possesses we might demonstrate a greater willingness to shift in our approaches to teaching when that shift is necessary.
Again, these suggestions were initially not intended to be used by anyone serving in a church context. Yet throughout their critiques as well as through their discussions on the nature of language and the practice of interpretation there are helpful things for us who teach in that context (whether as pastors, Sunday School teachers, etc) to consider.
Although we might be quick to ignore the suggestions made in a book like this due to its intended audiences, there are certain strengths of their works that are helpful.
The foundational concern shown by the authors in teaching in a manner that produces genuinely good learners rather than students who can parrot back certain facts is a concern that must be held by anyone in a ministerial context. While it can be tempting to find satisfaction in hearing a professing believer successfully quote a Bible verse or answer a few theological questions, we must remember that the process of making disciples cannot be reduced to memorizing a list of facts. It must address issues of the heart and it must help the disciple grow in their own ability to truly study the Word and understand how it applies in everyday life.
Furthermore, the authors’ discussion on the role of technology in teaching remains relevant today even in the Church. As they discuss, that technology changes the way people communicate and it is foolish to ignore that fact in any classroom setting. While we must avoid becoming slaves to every new tech trend, we must strive to understand how those trends are impacting those under our teaching and how certain concepts must be clearly defined in a biblical manner. Just consider, for instance, the way that social media has reshaped friendship and how that has impacted the assumptions many believers have about friendships when they walk into our churches every week.
Finally, the overall optimistic manner in which the authors speak of students is especially helpful for us to remember in the church context. So often it is easy to become overly cynical on the spiritual state of so many. But as these authors helps us to remember, most students are eager to learn if we simply seek to engage in a thought provoking and helpful manner. If those teaching in a public school setting have reason to be optimistic regarding the potential of their students (and they do), how much more should it be true for those of us helping teaching the children of God? As believers, then, we would be wise to consider this encouragement of these authors.
Due to the intended audience as well as the spiritual viewpoints of the authors it is inevitable that certain critiques and suggestions might not be particularly helpful. Those who find themselves behind a pulpit or even before a Sunday School Class each week, for instance, would probably be wise to teach a bit more than these authors encourage. Although asking questions can be a helpful tool in helping students better understand questions, clear preaching of God’s Word is still the most powerful tool we are given.
In a similar manner, the authors’ dismissal of memorizing dates, facts, etc is perhaps a bit simplistic. In any teaching format, there are key events and truths that must be understood and that are helpful when trying to interpret various narratives. When teaching through the Old Testament, for instance, we would be wise to help our people remember key names as well as key events for the sake of helping bring clarity to the text. Although we must be careful to never reduce teaching or discipleship to a game of Bible Trivia, we must also be careful to never reduce either discipline to an ongoing discussion in which learning key theological concepts and even truths from Church History are neglected.
Ultimately, despite its subject and intended audience falling outside of the Church, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is a helpful look at what it means to teach and how teachers ought to define success. While we would have a different vision of that ultimate success from the authors, we are wise to regularly step back as teachers, seriously consider the methods we are employing in teaching, and strive to carry out the privilege of teaching the people of God in a way that edifies, encourages, and prepares them to carry out their calling in the real world.
- “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.”
- “Suppose you could convince yourself that your students are the smartest children in the school; or, if that seems unrealistic, that they have the greatest potential of any class in the school…What do you imagine would happen? What would you do differently if you acted as if your students were capable of great achievements?” (page 201)