Posts Tagged ‘Neil Postman’

Blast from the Past – Schools

4 October 2019

Approximately 45 years ago, when I was 20, I wrote a letter to NPR about my views on the importance of improving schools. NPR (National Public Radio) was known for its interest in such topics and debates, and was always presenting little stories about education.

I also included a rather lengthy excerpt from Neil Postman’s book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, co-written with Charles Weingartner. Postman was the major theorist behind this book. He advocated a student-centered approach to education and, in this book at least, was critical of teachers for not working harder to make this happen. For all that, the book took a somewhat lighthearted approach to the whole subject, which appealed to me.

Though my own school experience was not at all negative, I realized that I wasn’t learning in school everything I needed to know. That problem was later solved when I discovered Hubbard’s work. But that does not solve the problem for everyone else going to school.

The Letter

Dear NPR people,

Whenever children are mentioned on “All Things Considered” I listen. I listen because I have a question I’m trying to find an answer to: How can we raise our children to help them survive, and thrive, in the world of the future?

Pollution, overpopulation and war could make life in the future intolerable. They could bring all social and cultural growth to a halt. Will our children be able to prevent that from happening? I am worried for them, and that is why I look for new ways to raise them that will give them a better chance.

My own particular interest is schooling. For the past 15 years, school has been a dominant part of my life. I have always been an inquisitive person, and I liked to work out problems on my own. School gave me this opportunity, and I spent long hours trying to solve every problem, dilemma, or difficult concept the teachers put before me. It was not until I got older, and the reality of making it in the world “outside” started to loom over the horizon, that I began to feel uncomfortable in school.

In junior high many questions that were becoming important to me, questions about people and society and the way they worked, were not being discussed in school. In high school I began to realize that many of my courses would not be useful to me outside of the classroom. By my senior year I was totally opposed to schools. I joined an “alternative school” and worked exclusively on problems and projects of my own choosing. Up to then, everyone around me has assumed I would go to a four-year college. But I had decided against that some time before, and chose instead a two-year electronics program at the local community college.

I have been at Washtenaw Community College for a year now. The quality of education there gave me an unusually strong incentive to look for new approaches to schooling. That inquiry led me to a book entitled Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to share some of it with you, so I am including an excerpt from it that includes 16 proposals for initiating change in our schools. I am also including “Think Sheet on Learning” that I wrote for a presentation in a political science class last year. It was also inspired by this book.

The authors of the book are Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. In 1969, when they wrote the book, Neil was working at New York University and Harlem Preparatory School, and Charles was at Queens College. I hope that you will have them on your show someday.

Dr. Farsin touched on the subject of schooling, and most of what he sees happening in schools I also see. His conclusion is that obligatory schooling should be abolished. My conclusion, and that of Postman and Weingartner, is that the schools should be changed to allow much more freedom and much more learning. I guess abolishing public schools as an institution never entered our minds. The idea sounds good to me, but I can’t speak for Neil or Charles.

I must say that NPR has shown an unusual amount of interest in children and their future, and I am very thankful for that.

The Excerpt

16 Proposals to Initiate Change in Our Schools

Postman and Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1969, pp 137-140.

1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.
Since with two or three exceptions all texts are not only boring but based on the assumption that knowledge exists prior to, independent of, and altogether outside of the learner, they are either worthless or harmful. If it is impossible to function without textbooks, provide every student with a notebook full of blank pages, and have him compose his own text.

2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
One of the largest obstacles to the establishment of a sound learning environment is the desire of teachers to get something they think they know into the heads of people who don’t know it. An English teacher teaching Math would hardly be in a position to fulfill this desire. Even more important, he would be forced to perceive the “subject” as a learner, not a teacher.
If this suggestion is impractical, try numbers 3 and 4.

3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice-versa.

4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” well to write a book on it.
In this way, he will be relieved of the necessity of inflicting his knowledge on other people, particularly his students.

5. Dissolve all “subjects,” “courses,” and especially “course requirements.”
This proposal, all by itself, would wreck every existing educational bureaucracy. The result would be to deprive teachers of the excuses presently given for their failures and to free them to concentrate on their learners.

6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogatives.
Every sentence above the limit would be subject to a 25-cent fine. The students can do the counting and the collecting.

7. Prohibit teachers from asking questions they already know the answers to.
The proposal would not only force teachers to perceive learning from the learner’s perspective, it would help them learn how to ask questions that produce knowledge.

8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
This would remove from the hands of teachers their major weapons of coercion and would eliminate two of the major obstacles to their students’ learning anything significant.

9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psychotherapy as part of their in-service training.
This need not be psychoanalysis; some form of group therapy or psychological counseling will do. Its purpose: to give teachers an opportunity to gain insight into themselves, particularly into the reasons they are teachers.

10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
There would be a “smart” group (the Bluebirds), an “average” group (the Robins), and a “dumb” group (the Sandpipers). The lists would be published each year in the community paper. The I.Q. and reading scores of teachers would also be published, as well as the list of those who are “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” by virtue of what they know in relation to what their students know.

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
Only if a teacher passes this test should he be permitted to “teach.” This test could be used for “grouping” the teachers as in number 10 above.

12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.
This proposal would simply put the teacher on a par with other professionals, e.g., doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. No one forces you to go to a particular doctor unless you are a “clinical case.” In that instance, you must take what you are given. Our present system makes a “clinical case” of every student. Bureaucrats decide who shall govern your education. In this proposal, we are restoring the American philosophy: no clients, no money; lots of clients, lots of money.

13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education.
Such an experience can be taken as evidence, albeit shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life. Recommended occupations: bartender, cab driver, garment worker, waiter. One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as “teachers”) and they have not had much contact with the way things are outside of school rooms.

14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.
If the teacher can get someone to say, “I love her (or him),” she should be retained. If she can get two people to say it, she should get a raise. Spouses need not be excluded from testifying.

15. Require that all graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
Graffiti that concern teachers and administrators should be chiseled into the stone at the front entrance of the school.

16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.

A look back

We can detect a plentiful amount of tongue-in-cheek in the above “proposals.” But of course the authors were trying to make the point that schools seemed to exist for reasons other than a child’s desire to grow up and take his or her place in the world based on a decent understanding of it and of himself or herself.

I could see that. Many other students and parents didn’t seem to be bothered by this too much. If anyone was a bit upset about the scene, from my own personal experience it seemed to be the teachers. They knew they were failing society in some way, even if society didn’t seem to care that much.

We know now that the first and most basic answer is Hubbard’s Study Technology. That gives students the tools they need to learn by observation, with true understanding, including an ability to act on that understanding and produce results in their areas of expertise.

This has become a critical issue now. If we do not produce enough people in this society that can learn by observation rather than run on orders like little robots, we will lose our freedoms to those who think machines and slaves to operate them are more important than people.