Step 49: Respond to Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Teaching as a Subversive Activity on Goodreads

I first heard of Neil Postman while taking a psychology class in grad school, when we read an excerpt from his Amusing Ourselves to Death. I don’t remember anything form that excerpt at all, but somehow came away with the image of Postman as someone who has thought deeply about technology and its impact on society and education. Keeping in mind that Teaching as a Subversive Activity was written in 1969, I first thought that the book would be a Seinfeld is Unfunny version of the now-popular idea that education should be relevant and applicable to the student. Although the book emphasizes that education should follow the interests of the students (and not adhere to any fixed content that the teachers believe “must” be taught), that is where the similarity ends.

Instead, the focus of the book is much broader – it’s about getting students to question everything, and along the way understand the inadequacies of language to communicate exactly what we mean. Postman in fact argues that “there can never be any other kind of subject matter” outside of “the responses of the learners to the questions they confront”. In one example, the students spent two weeks discussion what education means, why teachers are correct, whether correctness depends on context, and what separates the “language of science” from others. This implicitly demolishes any disciplinary boundaries, while keeping the medium of language in the spotlight. To quote:

If one accepts the rather obvious fact that language is almost always produced by human beings for human purposes to share human meanings… then the study of language is inseparable from the study of human situations… In studying about how language works, one has available all the possible forms of human discourse to examine.

I will be honest: this is one of those crazy ideas that feed my guilty pleasure, and reminds me of my own view about the computer science patterns as materialized in libraries (unrolled linked lists) and traffic lights (semaphores). One could take the first sentence in the quotation above, substitute “information” for “language”, then apply it as is to computer science as the study of the organization and processing of information. I am fond of these types of broad framings that have the potential to enrich students’ worldviews, and I wonder why I don’t emphasize this more (if at all) especially at the beginning of the semester. For cognitive science, both semesters this year we started by challenging students to bring up topics that we cannot relate to the discipline (broadly construed); while this is different from driving home the pervasiveness of cognitive science, it is at least a step in that direction. For computer science though, I’m not sure I can even explain to students what I mean by “information”, so any such anchoring is more difficult.

Postman suggests that this “inquiry method” (one much more inquisitive than what I’ve previously called by the same name) can be applied from kindergarten to graduate school. I noted by that sentence, “I worry that the answer here is that any class in a traditional curriculum is fucked.” That is, as long as my job is to pigeonhole students into one of A, A-, B+… at the end of the semester, I don’t know how to incorporate this kind of broad education into the classroom. At best, you can assign a grade based on the number of “good” questions that the student generates over the semester, but that seems contrived, and besides, how would that work in the context of a “computer science” course? Some suggestions that Postman leaves at the end of the book have become popular in less radical proposals, such as refusing to give student answers, or to become aware of our own biases in teaching.

Perhaps, despite how such a method of teaching can (or should) be applied everywhere, the best place for it remains an English course, where students are evaluated by their communication of ideas, where the exact content of those ideas may not matter (except that the content must exist). On reflection, it’s interesting that we leave these sort of “critical thinking” skills to be taught in English. It’s not that they are not used in other classes, but we very rarely address it as such, and yet they are of course essential to writing. I have wanted to teach in Oxy’s Core writing program since I first heard about it, but the lack of computer science faculty means that my teaching obligations remain within the disciplines. Still, I think a first-year course on writing would be a great place try the inquiry method and see what comes out.

Step 49: Respond to Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity

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