Is teaching a subversive activity? Yes, beautifully subversive.

A friend recently tweeted “is teaching necessarily a subversive activity?” @stephen_hurley. I took it as a personal challenge even though it was directed generally (I do that sometimes). But I haven’t had the time to work out my response. I’ll try that now….

If one interprets his tweet, obviously inspired by Niel Postman, to mean: does teaching suppress individuality and subvert it so it can be replaced by a construct forged by society / for society. Does it in affect break us down and make us conform to societal norms. To a certain degree it does and must; however, this is desirable up to a point.

To say education subverts, in this sense, is a pessimistic and hyperbolic way to describe it (rather, it is hopefully pessimistic and hyperbolic – I can imagine some education systems that do it to such a degree that they justifiably deserve the comment) at least in the Canadian context. We might call it socializing, civilizing, empowering, or humanizing. The words we use frame a context; they can be positive or negative – joyfully married vs. uncomfortable by themselves, well dressed vs. a stiff, casual and comfortable vs. a slob. Does education cause conformity – yes…should it? Again the answer is, “Yes”

Education is our primary socializing and acculturating platform. It is through teaching/education/learning that children learn to suppress some of their instincts and develop their intellect and abilities to function within a society. While we might not be as described at the beginning of Leviathan or in the Lord of the Flies, we can hardly hold, that if we are just left alone to develop as we see fit, to be indulged and encourage our individuality without restraint, that we will all become beautiful, self-realized artists and poets – if only schools don’t get in our way. Through schools, students learn the unnatural discipline of culture and of participating in a society in appropriate, even beautiful, ways. This replaces some of their natural inclinations; this subverts their individuality; and this is a good thing. When have we ever used a blanket statement to say culture is a bad thing? Culture is one of our greatest inventions and it unifies us in beautiful, pragmatic ways; however, it is hardly our instinctual understanding of the world and our natural predisposition. Culture and socialization must be acquired – it must be taught. This comes at the expense of some of our individuality.

Another way to interpret this tweet/quote is: does teaching plant the seed of resistance to authority, whether it be political, commercial or social? Does it subvert authority? Well, hopefully it gives the tools to resist abuse of authority. Skills like critical thinking, empathy, courage, social responsibility – the hallmarks of our culture should be the hallmarks of our education system. They protect us from excesses in power as much as unify us in culture. An educated literate population is harder to suppress. A critical culture is harder to commercially exploit (e.g. advertising). An empathic population is harder to bully and less likely to succumb to the authority of peer pressure. In this case, education is a subversive activity; it subverts not the individual, but authority. This is desirable because it serves as a mechanism to protect personal autonomy not replace it.

Education in one sense is subversive to the individual but is desirable to a certain point. When within that range, another term, with a positive connotation is more appropriate. In the other sense, let subversion rein; let us become empathic, critical, educated individuals ready to resist exploitation from any source.

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  1. #1 by Stephen Hurley on August 25, 2011 - 9:16 am

    Thanks for tackling this question Patrick. I have to admit that, as I read through the first part of your entry, I was saying to myself, “I guess my tweet was a little misleading” because you took the idea of subversion in a direction that I didn’t anticipate. When I asked whether teaching was a subversive activity, I was referring to your second take on the question—the one related to the idea of educating for critical thought and action.

    To me, to act in a subversive way means to work to challenge, if not dismantle, an established authority. I think that a great deal of traditional education or, more accurately, traditional schooling, does what you describe: it socializes children into a way of thinking, and a way of seeing the world. In this sense, teachers and the act of school-based teaching participates in that undertaking. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Your comments about the importance of being disciplined within a particular culture are right on, me thinks!

    But, I’m struggling in my own mind with the role of the school (and, therefore, teachers) in teaching children how to critically step outside that way of thinking and adopt other perspectives, and other ways of being in the world.

    And perhaps a more important question is whether schools can be expected to do both. I realize that there are many inside and outside the profession that are quite happy being part of the institution, and who leverage the elements of school that are meant to bring our children into line (literally and figuratively).

    But there is a whole movement that sees their role as something different. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the tension between the two approaches.

    I’ll stop now and say that I would appreciate maintaining this thread of conversation with you and with others. Can the act of teaching be subjugative and subversive at the same time?

    • #2 by Patrick Tucker on August 25, 2011 - 10:20 am

      Thanks for the response Stephen. As always it was affirming and challenging. I’m going to step back for a while and think some more. Initially, I think that education can do both…maybe separately or to different degrees at different times, but over the course of 14 years it should be able to accommodate those 2 aims with varying degrees of success. The question of is it necessarily subversive is still haunting me. Surely we can imagine or recall governments or authorities influencing education to such a degree that it serves to support their control rather then suppress it.

      I worry about tech. companies doing the same thing. I think of Apple Distinguished Educators, Google Certified Teachers, Health textbooks made by fastfood companies, teachers on twitter advocating a brand (e.g. Ipads) rather then a device or medium (e.g. tablets)…as education scrambles to incorporate ever changing technology, how much will education be able to teach students to think critically about their tech. tools/toys?

      How much do we?

  2. #3 by PocketsofHope on August 25, 2011 - 7:12 pm

    As always your entries cause me to think and reflect about my own practice and thinking as an educator. I agree with the notion that educators can facilitate the construction of critical thinking in students…it does presuppose that the teacher is engaged in critical thinking as much as a way of life as a pedagogical disposition. This all leads me to some foundational writing done years ago by the likes of Henry Giroux, who asks, what is teacher education all about? Is it about producing technicians or about something greater…something almost elusive. The more the “initiatives” that our institutions (read MOE and boards) push for best practices, the greater the push for producing technicians becomes. Sitting hear thinking about putting together an inquiry that relates to the contemporary realities, I feel this dark cloud of a curriculum lingering over head- a curriculum that in many ways is comprehensive but seems to be missing one thing- life. It then begs the question, are those educators who are engaged in critical perspectives somehow undermined by being part of a system that seems determined to reproduce the status quo. How do the pockets of reflective practice come together to create a systemic shift?

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