Teaching for survival: Subverting the status quo

I will be attending the International Communication Association conference, which takes place later this week in Montreal. I am participating in a pre-conference workshop entitled Bridging the Scholar/Activist Divide in the Field of Communication – exactly up my alley. I wrote the abstract last fall sometime, and haven’t really looked at it since then. My basic premise is that it is only the public intellectual who can bridge this stark divide. I suggest a three-prong approach: 1. Participation in civic life; public dissemination of research/ideas; 2. Critical pedagogy as process; 3. Commitment to norms-based research.

The public intellectual, to my mind, is one who not only engages in civic life, but is motivated by a sense of responsibility and a shared humanity to “be of service.” Or, as my dad would say, to be useful. For the public intellectual, this requires the free sharing of her intellect, research, thoughts and ideas, with the broader community – through public lectures, media interviews, popular and academic articles and participation in various community events – especially those organized by students.

But being a public intellectual requires more than making one’s research and public persona accessible. It requires a focus on – and revisioning of – teaching; that is teaching as an ongoing process, rather than a finite action that we take up over and over again. Students are another link academics have to the “real world”; they go back to it as soon as they leave us. Sometimes – if our lectures or classes are particularly dull, they remain in their “real life” though their bodies be sitting before us. The classroom, then, is really a portal on the world and a terrain for the change-making we want to provoke.

So I’ve been doing some reading, and I’ve been doing some thinking in advance of this workshop (I think I’m supposed to write a paper on this, but in fact it’ll prolly just be a chapter in my diss, or at least a section). Of course open access to scholarly work figures prominently in any discussion I’d have on the topic, so John Willinsky’s book, The Access Principle, will come in handy. I’m in the middle of Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do. But what’s really burning my brain right now is the 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. This is an awesome book, and it reminds me (yet again) that much of the social critique we pile upon contemporary society has already been written – in the ’60s, during the countercultural revolution, and the first half of the 20th century generally.

Postman and Weingartner’s radical assertion is that teaching should be useful; according to them, the most useful teaching is teaching for survival. The essential survival strategy in the nuclear space age (and not much has changed, except that it’s mostly gotten worse – pick your area) and thus the essential goal of teachers, is to cultivate “crap-detection.” The argument is strongly influenced by medium theory – Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the medium or container affects perspective, rather than the content transmitted by that medium. But a medium is not merely the technical form – a television, a newspaper, the Internet – but the symbolic environment of a communicative act.

Medium theory focuses on the medium characteristics itself (like in media richness theory) rather than on what it conveys or how information is received. In medium theory, a medium is not simply a newspaper, the Internet, a digital camera and so forth. Rather, it is the symbolic environment of any communicative act; it is a process. Media, apart from whatever content is transmitted, impact individuals and society. McLuhan’s thesis is that people adapt to their environment through a certain balance or ratio of the senses, and the primary medium of the age brings out a particular sense ratio, thereby affecting perception.

So it is the form of education, less than its content, that is problematic for Postman and Weingartner. It’s outcome: the “intellectual paraplegic.” They go on to tear down, plank by plank, the structure of modern education, in a very convincing demolition, calling upon the likes of McLuhan, Wiener, Dewey, and Huxley.

The renovation the authors propose is founded on the “inquiry method” whereby students direct their own learning, beginning from what they know, and working toward what they want or need to know to be independent, autonomous members of a community. The “new education” is therefore relevant – to students – and rests on the view of education as a process, not an end product or finite goal. By learning to ask questions, and learning to distinguish the important questions, students learn how to learn. And thus they are equipped not just to go out into this world, but to engage in it and – goddess forbid – change it.

Postman and Weingartner identify several concepts that derive from the old canons of education – canons originating from the ancient Greeks. These concepts include: absolute and fixed truth; certainty; isolated identity; fixed states and “things; simple causality; knowledge as “given”. Writing in the late 60s, the authors bemoan the fact that that these concepts were still being “taught”. It’s hard to say that things have changed much another 50 years later: “The schools stare fixedly into the past as we hurtle pell-mell into the future” (p. 216).

New concepts that need to be learned are those that shape technological change and derive from it: “they are characteristics of the spirit, mood, language and process of science. They are operative wherever evidence of social change…can be found” (217).

Intellectual strategies for survival in the nuclear space age are the polar opposite of what seems to comprise contemporary education: relativity, probability, contingency, uncertainty, function, structure as process, multiple causality, incongruity. I have learned, in my short time as a university instructor, that students don’t want – or like- any of these. They want to know what will be on the exam. But that is not a strategy for survival in the world; for creating what Mark Battersby calls a “competent layperson”. Given the precariousness of the future – I’m thinking here of growing environmental and geopolitical crises – it remains as important now as it was then to develop “a new kind of person, one who…is an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant, liberal personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival” (218).

Our schools – from kindergarten to undergraduate – are not doing this. That the majority of educators (and likely all of the administrators) would disagree with this is hardly damning. Indeed, as the authors point out, the most subversive intellectual instrument is the anthropological perspective, which allows a critical distancing from one’s own culture. Such a perspective, they admit, is very difficult to acquire and demands great courage; in essence, it requires freedom from the intellectual and social constraints created by societal or cultural norms. And this, as I’ve long known, is very difficult to achieve.

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