(In)conceivable?

Imagine this …

The medical scenario may be laughable but, transferred to the context of many schools and classrooms today, quite … (in)conceivable?

The anecdote in the presentation is an extract from a classic and wonderfully dangerous book titled ‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity‘ by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, written in 1971 (!). If you haven’t read it (ever or recently) I warmly recommend it.

Of course, all analogies and metaphors have their limits (and the authors acknowledge that, see below) but in the spirit of the book, the presentation is meant to be a conversation starter and generator of important questions …

Here is how Postman & Weingartner expanded on the analogy:

Perhaps our playlet needs no further elaboration, but we want to underscore some of its points. First, had we continued the conversation between Dr Gillupsie and his young surgeons, we could easily have included a half dozen other ‘reasons’ for inflicting upon children the kinds of irrelevant curricula that comprise most of conventional schooling. For example, we could have had one doctor still practicing ‘bleeding’ his patients because he had not yet discovered that such practices do no good. Another doctor could have insisted that he has ‘cured’ his patients in spite of the fact that they have all died (‘Oh, I taught them that, but they didn’t learn it’). Still another doctor might have defended some practice by reasoning that, although his operation didn’t do much for the patient now, in later life the patient might have need for exactly this operation, and if he did, voila!, it will already have been done.

The second point we would like to make is that we have not made up these ‘reasons’. Our playlet is a parody only in the sense that it is inconceivable for doctors to have such conversations. Had we, instead, used a principal and his teachers, and if they discussed what was taught during the week, and why, our playlet would have been a documentary, and not a heavy-handed one, either. There are thousands of teachers who believe that there are certain subjects that are ‘inherently good’, that are ‘good in themselves’, that are ‘good for their own sake’. When you ask ‘Good for whom?’ or ‘Good for what purpose?’ you will be dismissed as being ‘merely practical’ and told that what they are talking about is literature qua literature, grammar qua grammar, and mathematics per se. Such people are commonly called ‘humanists’.

There are thousands of teachers who teach ‘subjects’ such as Shakespeare, or the Industrial Revolution, or Geometry because they, are inclined to enjoy talking about such matters. In fact, that is why they became teachers. It is also why their students fail to become competent learners. There are thousands of teachers who define a ‘bad’ student as any student who doesn’t respond to what has been prescribed for him. There are still thousands more who teach one thing or another under the supposition that the ‘subject’ will do something for their students which, in fact, it does not do, and never did, and, indeed, which most evidence indicates, does just the opposite. And so on.

The third point we would like to make about our analogy is that the ‘trouble’ with all these ‘reasons’ is that they leave out the (patient) learner, which is really another way of saying that they leave out reality. With full awareness of the limitations of our patient-learner metaphor, we would assert that it is insane (literally or metaphorically, take your pick) to perform a pilonidal-cyst excision unless your patient requires it to maintain his comfort and health; and it is also insane (again, take your pick as to how) for a teacher to ‘teach’ something unless his students require it for some identifiable and important purpose, which is to say, for some purpose that is related to the life of the learner. The survival of the learner’s skill and interest in learning is at stake. And we feel that, in saying this, we are not being melodramatic.

from ‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity’ by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner.

Read it – it’s a dangerous book.

2 comments

  1. Malyn

    A step ahead of me here as the post I’m ruminating over is “Why do we have to teach (learn) solving simultaneous equations?”. But because the answer requires the convergence of multiple threads, I am very much struggling to put it into coherent form.

    still wrestling,
    Malyn

  2. Malyn

    A step ahead of me here as the post I’m ruminating over is “Why do we have to teach (learn) solving simultaneous equations?”. But because the answer requires the convergence of multiple threads, I am very much struggling to put it into coherent form.

    still wrestling,
    Malyn

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>