Teaching as a Subversive Activity Redux (Part 1)

Teaching as a subversive activity

I’ve been reading Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s 1969 manifesto calling for a revolution in education. Over the past half-century, many of its radical proposals have found acceptance in mainstream schooling. Almost every primary school in Australia now endorses student-centred learning, for example. Growing in popularity, too, are democratic classrooms where students can express themselves freely (although it’s less clear that students have “an awareness of this freedom … a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively,” in line with Postman and Weingartner’s ideal).

Another phenomenon on the rise is ‘personalised learning’, based on a recognition that individuals learn in importantly different ways – or, as Postman and Weingartner put it, “that each individual will perceive what is ‘out there’ in a unique way.” No doubt the authors would be heartened by this trend, as well as by the recent emphasis on independent learning and self-responsibility which is helping to realise their vision of “vigorous, self-directed learners.”

In light of my recent reflections on intellectual virtues, I was especially interested in Postman and Weingartner’s view of what makes a good learner. Here, in the authors’ own words, are some thoughts I’d like to share (enlarged view):

effective learners infographic

While certain ideas in Teaching as a Subversive Activity are outmoded, others remain fresh and relevant today. There’s intuitive appeal in the notion that good learners are those who have confidence in their learning ability; who take pleasure in problem-solving; who are flexible, deliberative, careful, persistent, and questioning; who prefer to rely on their own judgement; and who recognise their limitations. Postman and Weingartner also emphasise that good learners can get by without absolute, definitive solutions to every problem, preferring to admit ignorance rather than fabricate “the various forms of semantic nonsense that pass for answers to questions that do not as yet have any solution.”

Most appealing of all, perhaps, is their idea that good learners are not afraid of being wrong: “they can change their minds. Changing the character of their minds is what good learners are most interested in doing.”

Now, there’s an idea worth revisiting.

Go to Part 2 →


The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.


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2 responses to “Teaching as a Subversive Activity Redux (Part 1)

  1. Thank you for this short reflective revisit of Postman and Weingartner’s work. It is a refreshing reminder that what we do around philosophy with children mirrors educational objectives and what learning looks and feels like at its core. These notions are persistent across generations, and I hope we can figure out a way to meaningfully empliment them more broadly. I see p4c as a helpful tool towards this aim!

  2. Hi Ariel,

    Thanks very much for your comment. Of course I share your hopes, and I’m convinced that the practice of philosophical enquiry has a lot to contribute to education at all age levels.

    I was sorry to learn today that the journal ‘Thinking’ is calling for final papers – making it yet another in a series of Philosophy for Children journals to fold. I hope philosophy teachers and grassroots activists won’t be discouraged by the waning academic interest. There may be no impact; after all, the past flourishing of theoretical research seems to have done relatively little to promote uptake of philosophy in schools.

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