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Teaching as a Subversive Activity

One way to reverse the trend of the corporatization of our schools, the "yield returns" mentality, is to re-imagine a new future in the "subversive" classroom.
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I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue ~ Barry Goldwater

Recently I was talking with a friend, sharing with him that someone I know had been let go from her university faculty position. She was dismissed because she took a stand against a policy that she thought was inimical to the growth of her students and the mission of her work. And, she enlisted her students in the cause.

My friend took the position that the employer had the right to make sure that the teacher was not inciting her students to revolt. The termination, therefore, was justified.

It was at that moment that I realized how few people - even intelligent, thoughtful ones, like my friend - see classrooms as incubators for revolution - or at the very least, laboratories for change. This is particularly true today as schools are seen as "college and career ready" factories, hardly the place for questioning the establishment.

Driven by the test-crazed juggernaut unleashed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top federal mandates, and emboldened by the poor showing the US has on international test scores, policy makers everywhere are demanding a numbers-driven accountability for teachers and their schools. It is worth noting that in its publication, Human Capital, the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which oversees PISA testing - the most well-known international testing benchmark - suggests that "individual capabilities" are a kind of capital, - an asset just like "a spinning wheel or a flour mill" which can "yield returns." 1

If you were educated to be a teacher in the 60's - as I was - you were groomed to see "teaching as a subversive activity" after the leading education prep book of the time by the same name, authored by Charles Weingartner and Neil Postman.2 Their approach to schooling, known as inquiry education, emphasized student questions more than teacher answers. Teaching was characterized as a tool for questioning the status quo, as a means to talk truth to power and as a salvo against the all too often stultifying effects of the establishment. This unique pedagogy was encouraged as an antidote to dull, lifeless and unimaginative teaching. In addition, my cohort of aspiring educators read other works from the pantheon of revolutionary thinkers, including Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age, Herb Kohl's 36 Children, and A.S. Neill's Summerhill. Each offered a manifesto for teachers to change the world, first by questioning the prevailing paradigm. Today, I am afraid the clarion call encouraged of educators is not so much "change the world," as "preserve the corporation."

One way to reverse the trend of the corporatization of our schools, the "yield returns" mentality, is to re-imagine a new future in the "subversive" classroom. Two scholars weigh in on this notion:

Denny Taylor, a Literary Studies scholar, in a post based on her work, suggests:

If we are serious about preparing our children for an uncertain future, in which they will be confronted by many perils, then we must stop the corporate education revolution immediately and recreate the public school system based on democratic principles, ensuring equality and opportunity for all children to participate in projects and activities that will ensure their active engagement in re-visioning and re-imagining human life on Earth.3

And . . . Maxine Greene, who died recently at 96, assailed the establishment view of defining education as teachers who stand and deliver a prescribed curriculum. Maxine, the Dean of Columbia Teachers College, spent her life as a human bulwark against the machine, committing to what she called, "wide-awakeness" in all of us, especially teachers:

I'm not the kind of person who wants to impose an authority on people. I suppose I'll never stop trying to wake people up to ask questions and have passion about how they look at the world.4

Educators can be at the vanguard of these changes or they can be the tool of the status quo. Those who believe the latter would declare, perhaps as my friend would, that teachers need to be good soldiers.

Good teachers are not good soldiers.

In fact, the best teachers are the ones who regularly and forcefully challenge orders from on high. They fight back, or at the very least, tell their commanders that the battles being won today - increased standardized testing, a move to abolish tenure, narrowing of the curriculum, a focus on competition - are Pyrrhic victories at best.

Corporations may be people to some, but schools will never be businesses to those who understand the complexity of childhood. As David Kirp points out in a recent New York Times piece:

It's impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they are going to make it in school . . . The business model hasn't worked in reforming schools - there is simply no substitute for the personal element.5

Sadly, in schools today, the fascinating, albeit messy, work of enlivening the hearts and minds of the next generation is being overshadowed by the austere, petty, numbers-driven auditing that has become standard practice. This misbegotten approach is questioned, often and loudly, by brave educators who risk their livelihoods in the name of providing an environment that honors young people as developing human beings with a stake in shaping their own future. These are people who refuse to be quiet in the face of a politics that is sucking the life out of what used to be sacred ground. As Henry Giroux avers:

" . . . politics is being emptied of any substance as citizens are reduced to obedient recipients of power by both the dominant media and by a number of politicians at the highest level of government."6

Dr. King said there comes a time when you have to stop being a thermometer and become a thermostat that transforms the mores of society. It's time to take charge of the thermostat in our schools.

It's time to get subversive.

So with a tip of the hat to Weingartner and Postman for getting some of us started many years ago, and with gratitude to colleagues everywhere who have the guts to be subversive as necessary in the name of children and the teaching and learning process, let's all stand up together for what is right and fight the good fight.

With the unlikely duo of Barry Goldwater and Maxine Greene as our guides, I suggest we use extreme measures to awaken each other to the possibilities.

1.Keeley, Brian: Human capital. How what you know shapes your life. OECD Insights 2007:pp.27-30
2.Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Dell
3.Taylor, Denny (July 16, 2014) retrieved from
4.Paufler, N. & Amrein-Beardsley, A. (June 3,2014). In Memoriam: Teachers College's Maxine Green from Inside the Academy. Teachers College Record. Retrieved from
5.Kirp, D. (2014, August 17). Teaching is Not a Business. New York Times Sunday Review, p. 4.
6.Giroux, H.(2011) Zombie politics and culture in the age of casino capitalism. New York: Peter Lang: p.96