Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Over the break between my Fall II 2018 and Spring I 2019 terms in my doctoral program, I have been reading Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Postman’s writings were heavily featured in Timeless Learning, a book on rethinking schools as maker-spaces I read between my Fall 1 and Fall 2 2018 terms. Many of the concepts raised by Postman and Weingartner have also arisen in conversations with colleagues and progressive educators. This post will serve mostly as a summary of major points from the book with a little reflection throughout.


Drs. Postman and Weingartner wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity in 1969, yet I still found the book applying to education today. Both are excellent story tellers—using narrative, deductive reasoning, and logic to reinforce their arguments. Because of this, my summaries of their work will not do the arguments their full justice. I highly recommend reading this book to get the full value from it!

It is the thesis of this book that change—constant, accelerating, ubiquitous—is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact. We maintain, further, that the abilities and attitudes required to deal adequately with change are those of the highest priority and that it is not beyond our ingenuity to design school environments which can help young people to master concepts necessary to survival in a rapidly changing world (pp. xiii-xiv).

We believe that the schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political, and cultural criticism (p. 2).

Here is a breakdown of the chapters and their contents:

  1. Crap Detecting: Using the writings of several different authors, Postman and Weingartner show how in a world where the pace of change is rapidly accelerating, crap detection is a vital skill.

  2. The Medium Is the Message, Of Course: Based off the work of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, this concept frames the rest of the book for how we do learning.

  3. The Inquiry Method: The inquiry method is how the authors believe we produce knowledge. What does the learning process look like? What makes a good learner? What makes a good learning environment?

  4. Pursuing Relevance: The authors look discuss the relevance of curricula from the 1960s and earlier (spoiler: not much has changed in 2018 in terms of content).

  5. What’s Worth Knowing?: Thought experiment based on building a “curriculum” based solely on questions.

  6. Meaning Making: How do humans make meaning of the world?

  7. Languaging: Language is how we know and define the world around us. What implications does this have for our learning?

  8. New Teachers: How do we prepare new teachers for the new education?

  9. City Schools: What does the new education look like in city schools?

  10. New Languages: The Media: How do we deal with language (media) rapidly changing around us?

  11. Two Alternatives: Examples of the new education already in place in the US Virgin Islands and through integrating games into the learning environment.

  12. So What Do You Do Now?: As a current teacher, what can you do to implement the new education?

  13. Strategies for Survival: Tying back to the first chapter, how do people survive in a world of constant, rapid change?

The problem that Postman and Weingartner set forth is that our world is changing. While change is not a new concept, the pace at which change is occurring is rapidly increasing. Because of this increase in the rate of change, the knowledge that was once important is quickly becoming less and less so. Their answer is what they call the new education, helping students learn how to learn and make meaning of the world around them.


Throughout the book is the premise that language is how humans understand and make meaning of the world around them. In Chapter 1, the authors discuss the idea of truth:

[O]ne’s perception of what is “true” or real is shaped by the symbols and symbol-manipulating institutions of his tribe (p. 4)

Chapter 2 looks at Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “the medium is the message.” Postman and Weingartner describe it this way:

From this perspective, one is invited to see that the most important impressions made on a human nervous system come from the character and structure of the environment within which the nervous system functions; that the environment itself conveys the critical and dominant messages by controlling the perceptions and attitudes of those who participate in it… “Message” here means the perceptions you are allowed to build, the attitudes you are enticed to assume, the sensitivities you are encouraged to develop—almost all of the things you learn to see and feel and value. You learn them because your environment is organized in such a way that it permits or encourages or insists that you learn them… (p. 17)

What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom’s message (as McLuhan would say) (p. 19).

They also describe two components of a classroom: content (“what” gets taught/learned) and method (“how” it is taught/learned). According to Postman and Weingartner,

“The medium is the message” implies that the invention of a dichotomy between content and method is both naïve and dangerous. It implies that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs (p. 19).

They further develop this idea in Chapters 6 and 7 with the work of Adelbert Ames, Jr:

Beginning in 1938, Ames created a series of “demonstrations” designed to study the nature of perception. His “laboratory” included oddly shaped rooms, chairs, windows and other objects which seemed to “distort” reality when perceived by ordinary people (p. 89).

Dewey believed that Ames had provided empirical evidence for the “transactional psychology” he and Arthur Bentley had formulated in Knowing and the Known… The sense of “transactional psychology” is that what human beings are and what they make their environment into is a product of a mutually simultaneous, highly complex, and continuing “bargaining” process between what is inside their skins and outside (p. 89).

  1. We do not get our perceptions from the “things” around us. Our perceptions come from us… It does mean that whatever is “out there” can never be knwon except as it is filtered through a human nervous system.

  2. What we perceive is largely a function of our previous experiences, our assumptions, and our purposes (i.e., needs). In other words, the perceiver decides what an object is, where it is, and why it is according to his purpose and the assumptions that he makes at any given time.

  3. We are unlikely to alter our perceptions until and unless we are frustrated in our attempts to do something based on them.

  4. Since our perceptions come from us and our past experience, it is obvious that each individual will perceive what is “out there” in a unique way (p. 90).

  5. Perception is, to a much greater extent than previously imagined, a function of the linguistic categories available to the perceiver.

  6. The meaning of a perception is how it causes us to act (p. 91).

To summarize, we create meaning through experience, and we define this meaning using language. From the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, we get the hypothesis of linguistic relativity which:

… is a restatement of the proposition that the “medium is the message,” since it maintains that the medium (in this case, one’s language) not only structures what one will see and believe, but is, in fact, inseparable from what one sees and believes (p. 101).

What we call “knowledge” is language. What we call a subject is its language. A “discipline” is a way of knowing, and whatever is known is inseperable from the symbols (mostly words) in which the knowing is codified (p. 102).

And because of this…

Language should be studied as the major factor in producing our perceptions, our judgments, our knowledge, and our institutions (p. 103).

The meaningful study of languge, in other words, must be about the relationship of language to reality, wheter the “subject” is history, politics, biology, religion, war, or anything else. In this way, the student can begin to develop standards by which he can judge the value of perceptions—his own or anyone else’s (pp. 103-104).

Postman and Weingartner go on to discuss how this relates to Alfred Korzybski’s work on the science of general semantics. They draw out these concepts for using language in their new education:

  • Questions are instruments of perception.

  • The nature of a question (its form and assumptions) determines the nature of its answer.

  • Definitions and metaphors are instruments for thinking and have no authority beyond the context in which they are used.

  • Observing is a function of the symbol systems the observer has available to him. The more limited the symbol systems, in number and kind, the less one is able to “see.”

  • A symbol system is, in effect, a point of view. The more ways of talking one is capable of, the more choices one can make and solutions one can invent.

  • Meaning is in people. Without people, there are no meanings.

  • The more meanings one has in his experience, the more new meanings he can generate or acquire.

  • The level of abstraction at which one uses language in any context is an index of the extent to which one is “in touch” with reality. The higher the level, the less is the contact with reality.

  • Facts are statements about the world as perceived by human beings. They are, therefore, as tentative as all human judgments.

  • The rules for judging the reliability and value of human perception are, themselves, language systems and have applicability only within a given context (pp. 121-122).

Several times in the book, Postman and Weingartner warn of the dangers of language and media. In Chapter 2, they point out that the mass media are the only communicators with a voice (pp. 6-9). This is becoming less true in our digital age of social media, but that leads right to their take in Chapter 10 on the future of media:

The way to be liberated from the constraining effects of any medium is to develop a perspective on it—how it works and what it does. Being illiterate in the processes of any medium (language) leaves one at the mercy of those who control it.

The new media—these new languages—then are among the most important “subjects” to be studied in the interests of survival. But they must be studied in a new way if they are to be understood, they must be studied as mediators of perception. Indeed for any “subject” or “discipline” to be understood it must be studied this way (p. 166).

The Inquiry Method

Going back to Chapter 2 where “the medium is the message,” Postman and Weingartner put forth this premise:

Knowledge is produced in response to questions. And new knowledge results from the asking of questions; quite often new questions about old questions. Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn, and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know (p. 23).

Postman and Weingarten’s descriptions of the inquiry method are a bit messy, but this is because, they argue, learning is messy. To define the inquiry method, they first begin describing the environment neccessary for the inquiry method. They describe the learning process, good learners, and the learning environment in great detail. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases:

If the learning process must be visualized, perhaps it is most authentically represented in a Jackson Pollack canvas—a canvas whose colors increase in intensity as intellectual power grows (for learning is exponentially cumulative).

From all of this, you must conclude that there is no logic to the learning process. There is. But it is best described as a ”psycho-logic,” whose rules, sequences, spirals, and splotches are established by living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, above all, languaging nervous systems. Bear in mind that the purpose of the inquiry method is to help learners increase their competence as learners. It hopes to accomplish this by having students do what effective learners do (emphasis mine). Thus, the only reasonable kind of logic structure that can be applied in this environment is that which is modeled after the behavior of good learners. Good learners, like everyone else, are living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, and languaging nervous systems, but they are good learners precisely because they believe and do certain things that less effective learners believe and do. (p. 31)

Good learners...

  1. have confidence in their ability to learn... they have a profound faith that they are capable of solving problems, and if they fail at one problem, they are not incapacitated in confronting another.

  2. tend to enjoy solving problems.

  3. seem to know what is relevant to their survival and what is not.

  4. prefer to rely on their own judgment.

  5. are usually not fearful of being wrong... can change their minds.

  6. are emphatically not fast answerers.

  7. are flexible... seem to understand that “answers” are relative, that everything depends on the system within which you are working. What is “true” in one system may not be “true” in another. That is why, when asked a question, good learners frequently begin their answer with the words “It depends.”

  8. have a high degree of respect for facts (which they understand are tentative) and are skillful in making distinctions between statements of fact and other kinds of statements.

  9. are highly skilled in all the language behaviors that comprise what we call “inquiry.”

    • know how to ask meaningful questions.

    • persistent in examining their own assumptions.

    • use definitions and metaphors as instruments for their thinking and are rarely trapped by their own language.

    • are apt to be cautious and precise in making generalizations.

    • engage continually in verifying what they believe.

    • are careful observers and seem to recognize that language tends to obscure differences and control perceptions.

  10. do not need to have an absolute, final, irrevocable resolution to every problem. The sentence “I don’t know,” does not depress them, and they certainly prefer it to the various forms of semantic nonsense that pass for “answers” to questions that do not as yet have any solution—or may never have one (pp. 31-33)

Components of a Learning Environment

  • There can be no significant innovation in education that does not have at its center the attitudes of teachers, and its an illusion to think otherwise.

  • The teacher rarely tells students what he thinks they ought to know.

  • His basic mode of discourse with students is questioning.

  • Generally, he does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question.

  • He encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction. And generally he avoids acting as a mediator or judge of the quality of ideas expressed… The inquiry teacher is interested in students’ developing their own criteria or standards for judging the quality, precision, and relevance of ideas.

  • He rarely summarizes the positions taken by students on the learnings that occur.

  • His lessons develop from the responses of students and not from a previously determined “logical” structure… In short, the “content” of his lessons are the responses of his students. Since he is concerned with the processes of thought rather than the end results of thought (The Answer!), he does not feel compelled to “cover ground” (there’s the traveler again), or to insure that his students embrace a particular doctrine, or to exclude a student’s idea because it is not germane. (Not germane to what? Obviously, it is germane to the student’s thinking about the problem.) He is engaged in exploring the way students think, now what they should think (before the Christmas holidays).

  • Generally, each of his lessons pose a problem for students… clarify a problem, make observations relevant to the solution of the problem, and make generalizations based on their observations. His goal is to engage students in those activities which produce knowledge: defining, questioning, observing, classifying, generalizing, verifying, applying.

  • He measures his success in terms of behavioral changes in students: 

    • the frequency with which they ask questions; 

    • the increase in the relevance and cogency of their questions; 

    • the frequency and conviction of their challenges to assertions made by other students, teachers, or textbooks; 

    • the relevance and clarity of the standards on which they base their challnges; 

    • their willingness to suspend judgments when they have insufficient data; 

    • their willingness to modify or otherwise change their position when data warrant such change; 

    • the increase in their skill of observing, classifying, generalizing, etc.;

    • the increase in their tolerance for diverse answers; 

    • their ability to apply generalizations, attitudes, and information to novel situations. (pp. 33-36)

Chapter 5 attempts to answer the question, “what is worth knowing?” by proposing a thought experiment similar to Timeless Learning’s zero-based thinking:

Imagine all syllabi, curricula, textbooks, standardized tests, etc. were lost. What would you do? Suppose that you decide to have the entire “curriculum” consist of questions—worth seeking answers to from your and your students’ point of view, that help students develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and future (paraphrase, p. 59).

After three full pages of questions from their thought experiment (and a blank page to write your own), Postman and Weingarten provide standards for evaluating questions:

  • Will your questions increase the learners will as well as his capacity to learn?

  • Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?

  • Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn?

  • In order to get answers, will the learner be required to make inquiries? (Ask further questions, clarify terms, make observations, classify data, etc.?)

  • Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry)?

  • Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the uniqueness of the learner?

  • Would the questions produce different answers if asked at different stages of the learner’s development?

  • Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?

If the answers to these questions about your list of questions are all “yes,” then you are to be congratulated for insisting upon extremely high standards in education… We usually think of a curriculum as having high standards if “it” covers ground, requires much and difficult reading, demands many papers, and if the students for whom it is intended do not easily get “good” grades. (p. 66)

The point is that any curriculum that does not provide for needs as viewed from this perspective—“what does the organism will require in order to thrive?”—is not, by our definition, concerned with “fundamentals” … Part of the process of learning how to learn is the rephrasing, refining, and dividing of a “worth knowing” question into a series of “answerable worth-knowing questions” (p. 68)

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. Question asking has to deal with problems that are perceived as useful and realistic by the learners. (p. 81)

Implications of the New Education

Chapter 8 looks at the implications of Postman and Weingarten’s new education for new teachers. One of their primary sources is Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person:

In reviewing his experience as a teacher of teachers, Rogers concludes:

  1. “My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach.”

  2. “It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior.”

  3. “I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior."

  4. “I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.”

  5. “Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.”

  6. “As a consequence of the above, I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.” (p. 145)

Rogers’ defines significant learning as a set of behaviors:

  • The person comes to see himself differently.

  • He accepts himself and his feelings more fully.

  • He becomes more self-confident and self-directing.

  • He becomes more the person he would like to be.

  • He becomes more flexible, less rigid, in his perceptions.

  • He adopts more realistic goals for himself.

  • He behaves in a more mature fashion.

  • He becomes more open to the evidence, both of what is going on outside of himself and what is going on inside of himself. (pp. 145-146)

They also reference an article by Goodwin Watson for Teachers College Record entitled, “What Do We Know About Learning?” from 1960-1961 that I can not find available online. Watson lists:

  1. Behavior which is rewarded—from the learner’s point of view—is more likely to recur.

  2. Sheer reptition without reward is a poor way to learn.

  3. Threat and punishment have variable effects upon learning, but they can and do commonly produce avoidance behavior—in which the reward is the diminution of punishment possibilities. Punishment, it can be seen, is not the “opposite” of reward. Indeed, much of the activity the school uses as “punishment” is perceived by students as reward, and so rather than to telminate the behavior being “punished” the school in fact reinforces it.

  4. How “ready” we are to learn something new is contingent upon the confluence of diverse—and changing—factors, some of which Ames identified in his perception demonstration. Others include:

    1. adequate existing experience to permit the new to be learned (we can learn only in relation to what we already know);

    2. adequate significance and relevance for the learner to engage in learning activity (we learn only what is appropriate to our purposes);

    3. freedom from discouragement, the expectation of failure, or threats to physical, emotional, or intellectual well-being.

  5. Whatever is to be learned will remain unlearnable if we believe that we cannot learn it or if we perceive it as irrelevant or if the learning situation is perceived as threatening.

  6. Novelty (per 4 and 5 above) is generally rewarding.

  7. We learn best that which we participate in selecting and planning ourselves.

  8. Genuine participation (as compared with feigned participation intended to avoid punishement) intensifies motivation, flexibility, and rate of learning.

  9. An autocratic atmosphere (produced by a dominating teacher who controls direction via intricate punishments) produces in learners apathetic conformity, various—and frequently devious—kinds of defiance, scapegoating (venting hostility generated by the repressive atmosphere on colleagues), or escape (psychologically or physically). An autocratic atmosphere also produces increasing dependence upon the authority, with consequent obsequiousness, anxiety, shyness, and acquiesnce.

  10. “Closed,” authoritarian environments (such as are characteristic of most conventional schools and classrooms) condemn most learners to continuing criticism, sarcasm, discouragement, and failure so that self-confidence, aspiration (for anything but escape), and a healthy self-concept are destroyed. Whitehead called this kind of a process “soul murder.” Learners condemned to such relentless failure learn only that they cannot learn, and their anger and distress in the face of this is frequently vented against the system and the society that has inflicted this inhuman punishment on them.

  11. The best time to learn anything is when whatever is to be learned is immediately useful to us.

  12. An “open,” nonauthoritarian atmosphere can, then, be seen as conducive to learner initiative and creativity, encouraging the learning of attitudes of self-confidence, originality, self-reliance, enterprise, and independence. All of which is equivalent to learning how to learn (as cited on pp. 148-150).

Chapter 12 literally looks to answer the question, “So What Do You Do Now?” as a teacher in an ordinary school looking to implement the new education. Here is a summary of the points Postman and Weingartner make:

  1. Answer these 3 questions:

    • What am I going to have my students do today?

    • What is it good for?

    • How do I know? (p. 193)

  2. Avoid telling your students any answers… Instead, confront your students with some sort of problem which might interest them. Then, allow them to work through without your advice or counsel. (p. 194)

  3. Try listening to your students… Imagine, for example, that you are not their teacher but a psychiatrist (or some such person) who is not primarily trying to teach but who is trying to understand. Any questions you ask or remarks you make would, therefore, not be designed to construct or judge. They would be attempts to clarify what someone has said (pp. 194-195).

  4. Announce to the class that for the next two days, you will not permit them to make any utterances that are not in the form of questions. Then, present the class with some problem. Tell them that their task is to compile a list of questions, the answers to which might help in solving the problem… Later, you can have them examine their questions in an effort to determine if there are certain criteria by which the quality of the question can be evaluated. (For example: Does the question contain unwarranted assumptions? Does it leave important terms undefined? Does it suggest some procedure for obtaining an answer?) (pp. 196-197)

  5. The next time you grade your students, write down your reasons for whatever grade you assigned to a student. Then, imagine that you are the student. Study of the reasons that your teacher gave to explain your grade. Ask yourself if you can accept these reasons and reflect on what you think of the teacher who would offer them… Each time you give a student, grade your own perception of that student. The following questions might be useful:

    1. To what extent does my own background block me from understanding the behavior of this student?

    2. Are my own values greatly different from those of the student?

    3. To what extent have I made an effort to understand how things look from this student’s point of view?

    4. To what extent am I rewarding or penalizing the student for his acceptance or rejection of my interests?

    5. To what extent am I rewarding a student for merely saying what I wanted to hear, whether or not he believes or understands what he is saying? (pp. 197-198)

    6. Thought experiment: suppose you could convince yourself that your students are the smartest children in the school. What do you imagine would happen? What would you do differently if you acted as if your students were capable of great achievements? And if you acted differently, what are the chances that many of your students would begin to act as if they were great achievers? (p. 201)

    7. Experiment: Tell your students that all of them will get A's for the term and, of course, make good on your promise. Once students accept the situation, they can begin to concentrate on learning, not their grades. The next step is to help the students discover what kind of knowledge they think is worth knowing and help them decide what procedures can most profitably be used to find out what they want to know (pp. 201-202).

    8. Include in all of your class discussions and examinations some questions that deal with the future (pp. 203-204).

    9. In what ways are media affecting our society? No matter what “subject” you are teaching, media are relevant. 

    10. There is nothing in what we have said in this book that precludes the use, at one time or another, of any of the conventional methods and materials of learning. For certain specific purposes, a lecture, a film, a textbook, a packaged unit, even a punishment, maybe entirely justified. What we are asking for is a methodological and psychological shift in emphasis in the roles of teacher and student, a fundamental change in the nature of the classroom environment (p. 205).

    11. Ask yourself how are you came to know whatever things you feel are worth knowing (pp. 205-206).

Summary and Conclusion

The biggest takeaways for me are:

  • The world is changing rapidly, and the rate of that change is increasing more and more.

  • In order to function in this rapidly changing world, we need to learn how to learn, determining quickly what is crap and what is relevant.

  • The best way to learn is by seeking answers to relevant and meaningful questions. (This point is at odds with what I have been seeing and reading about cognitive load theory, but that is a post for another time.)

  • The current paradigm of school does not accomplish the previous two bullet points.

As I said in my introduction, Postman and Weingartner are excellent story tellers, and they use that ability to reinforce their premises throughout the book. If you are curious, I highly encourage you to read through it. Their thoughts on education are still relevant and pertinent, fifty years after they published the book.


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.