Postman – Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I’m working through Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman. I hadn’t read it before, and am seriously kicking myself for that. Some quick notes and quotes from the first couple of chapters. Keep in mind that this book was written in 1968, published in 1969, and reads as though it was crafted in 2008.

3 problems that require schools to remake themselves into training centers for subversion:

Communications Revolution or Media Change:

  • “A lot of things have happened in this century, and most of them plug into walls.”
  • “A change in an environment is rarely only additive or linear… What you have is a totally new environment requiring a whole new repertoire of survival strategies.”
  • “When you plug something into a wall, someone is getting plugged into  you. Which means you need new patterns of defense, perception, understanding, evaluation. You need a new kind of education.”
  • “As the number of messages increases, the amount of information carried decreases. We have more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.”

Change Revolution:

  • “Change isn’t new – what’s new is the degree of change… Change changed.”
  • “Change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has continuously to work out a set of values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally. And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.”
  • “The trouble is that most teachers have the idea that they are in some other sort of business. Some believe, for example, that they are in the ‘information dissemination’ business.”
  • “While (students) have to live with TV, film, the LP record, communication satellites, and the laser beam, their teachers are still talking as if the only medium on the scene is Gutenberg’s printing press.”
  • “While (students) have to understand psychology and psychedelics, anthropology and anthropomorphism, birth control and biochemistry, their teachers are teaching ‘subjects’ that mostly don’t exist anymore.”
  • “While (students) need to find new roles for themselves as social, political, and religious organisms, their teachers are acting almost entirely as shills for corporate interests, shaping them up to be functionaries in one bureaucracy or another.”

Future Shock:

  • “Future shock occurs when you are confronted by the fact that the world you were educated to believe in doesn’t exist.”
  • “We just may not survive another generation of inadvertent entropy helpers.”

I’ll have lots more notes as I work through the book – not sure I’ll post everything here though, as I may just distill it down into more concise posts…

7 thoughts on “Postman – Teaching as a Subversive Activity

  1. I haven’t read this… sounds fascinating, and remarkable given the direction his later work would take.

    His 1992 book Technopoly has some devastating critiques of educational technology, though it seems to have a one-way, push-button ode of ICT in mind.

    I wish he was still alive. Andrew Keen ain’t Neil Postman.

  2. I read this book probably in 1970 as a young college student. At the time, I was too young to really appreciate it, I think. I definitely have to give it another shot. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I think I’m only now just reaching a point where I’m able to truly appreciate the gravity and impact of what Postman (and others) were describing. I was _definitely_ too young in my undergrad days. I’m thinking the decade-long hiatus was actually a very smart move in retrospect 😉

  4. I got this book in my teens. I thought it was interesting, but I was more disappointed that Postman was not the radical I\’d hoped for. (Yes, he was a radical, just not the one I wanted at the time.) It\’s still on the shelf, and I need to revisit it.

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