Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is a classic that stood the test of time. Published back in 1985, the book successfully predicted much about how new communications technologies would reshape society. So the other day, I grew childishly excited when I discovered that Postman was also an education theorist who wrote several books on education and our school system.
Unfortunately, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman's first foray into education, published in 1969, ended up being quite the disappointment. The book starts out OK, with some reasonable critique of the current system. However, the critique drags on and on, with no or limited suggestions for how to do better. Worse still, the tone that seeps from the pages is one of an ivory-tower intellectual, sneering at the teachers who do the hard work without any reasonable ideas for how to make things better. This is particularly surprising, given that Postman actually was a teacher earlier in his life.
The insanity climaxes about two thirds through the book, when the authors finally reveal their 16 suggestions for how to improve the system (as listed below). Disappointingly, their suggestions are mostly the kind of radical soundbite that sound controversial and lofty in theory, and somewhat entertaining at a dinner party debate, but don't stand up to even a brief consideration of whether they might actually work in practice. Some of their suggestions are OK, many are just bad, and a few are just outright insane.
Postman kept writing about education for the rest of his career, going all the way to 1995. Here's hoping that the next few books are better. Teaching as a Subversive Activity gets an F.
The authors' 16 suggestions for how to improve education:
1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of textbooks.
2. Have "English" teachers "teach" Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
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.
5. Dissolve all "subjects", "courses", and especially "course requirements."
6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogatives.
7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answer to.
8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psycho-therapy as part of their in-service training.
10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
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.
13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some "field" other than education.
14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.
15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantages, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.