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.