This is the third in the end-of-year series that have focussed on aspects of politics. This one uses Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s brilliant 1969 paperback Teaching as a Subversive Activity
as the framework for this piece. I found this book facilitated more insights into the purposes of education that most of the formal texts on education. I was disappointed when I lost my copy some years ago, but delighted recently when I found a PDF version
published online by Oregon State University.
The title of the first chapter was ‘Crap Detecting’, which although written in the context of the educational process, has significant implications for the political process. This piece gathers together parts of this chapter, in italics, which I annotate with comments, in bold, that relate Postman and Weingartner’s words to contemporary politics. Any bolding of the original text is mine.
The ‘Crap Detecting’ chapter begins: “'In 1492, Columbus discovered America....' Starting from this disputed fact, each one of us will describe the history of this country in a somewhat different way. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that most of us would include something about what is called the 'democratic process', and how Americans have valued it, or at least have said they valued it. Therein lies a problem: one of the tenets of a democratic society is that men be allowed to think and express themselves freely on any subject, even to the point of speaking out against the idea of a democratic society. To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of this freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively. This is necessary so that the society may continue to change and modify itself to meet unforeseen threats, problems and opportunities. Thus, we can achieve what John Gardner calls an, 'ever-renewing society'.
"So goes the theory." While facts are important, the most important role of schools must be to inculcate the ability to reason, to challenge ‘conventional wisdom’, to exercise freedom of thought and action. The strong emphasis the Government is giving to education as the foundation for a strong economy, a just society, and a vibrant democracy, is not just laudable, it is essential. "In practice, we mostly get a different story. In our society as in others, we find that there are influential men at the head of important institutions who cannot afford to be found wrong, who find change inconvenient, perhaps intolerable, and who have financial or political interests they must conserve at any cost. Such men are, therefore, threatened in many respects by the theory of the democratic process and the concept of an ever-renewing society. Moreover, we find that their are obscure men who do not head important institutions who are similarly threatened because they have identified themselves with certain ideas and institutions which they wish to keep free from either criticism or change." This is what Stiglitz says in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality. Postman and Weingartner were saying it over four decades ago, in 1969. Moreover, we see contemporaneously how some have become so wedded to certain ideas, such as global warming being a hoax, that they are threatened by anything that contradicts their beliefs. Just last week we saw them cherry-pick parts of the latest IPCC report to support their beliefs. "Such men as these would much prefer that the schools do little or nothing to encourage youth to question, doubt, or challenge any part of the society in which they live, especially those parts which are most vulnerable. 'After all,' say the practical men, 'they are our schools, and they ought to promote our interests, and that is part of the democratic process, too’. True enough; and then we have a serious point of conflict. Whose schools are they, anyway, and whose interests should they be designed to serve? We realize that these are questions about which any self-respecting professor of education could write several books each one beginning with a reminder that the problem is not black or white, either/or, yes or no. But you will not expect us to be either professorial or prudent. We are, after all, trying to suggest strategies for survival as they may be developed in our schools, and the situation requires emphatic responses. 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. No. That is not emphatic enough. Try this: in the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.' "It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap'. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'."Here is the nub of the problem we as a nation need to resolve now. Although it has always been so in Australian politics, how many would disagree that these last two years have been beset with an unprecedented avalanche of political crap, whether it is about global warming and the effect of a price on carbon, about the economy, about the Government’s stewardship of it especially through the GFC, about the HIP and the BER, about the best way forward in health and education? And almost all of it has come from the Coalition and its leadership, and faithfully echoed by the much of mainstream media. If ever we needed ‘a built-in, shockproof crap detector’, we have needed it since 2010. All but the rusted-on have installed a crap detector, and as a sad result, many are turning away from political discourse. It is in our schools that crap detecting needs to be taught and learned.
Back to Postman and Weingartner: "There are many ways of describing this function of the schools, and many men who have. David Riesman, for example, calls this the 'counter-cyclical' approach to education, meaning that schools should stress values that are not stressed by other major institutions in the culture. Norbert Wiener insisted that the schools now must function as 'anti-entropic feedback systems', 'entropy' being the word used to denote a general and unmistakable tendency of all systems - natural and man-made - in the universe to 'run down', to reduce to chaos and uselessness. This is a process that cannot be reversed but that can be slowed down and partly controlled. One way to control it is through 'maintenance'. This is Eric Hoffer's dream, and he believes that the quality of maintenance is one of the best indices of the quality of life in a culture. But Wiener uses a different metaphor to get at the same idea. He says that in order for them to be an anti-entropic force, we must have adequate feedback. In other words, we must have instruments to tell us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by 'crap detecting'. It is also what John Gardner means by the 'ever-renewing society', and what Kenneth Boulding means by 'social self-consciousness'. We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most 'subversive' intellectual instrument - the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rivals its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.
"We need hardly say that achieving such a perspective is extremely difficult, requiring, among other things, considerable courage. We are, after all, talking about achieving a high degree of freedom from the intellectual and social constraints of one's tribe. For example, it is generally assumed that people of other tribes have been victimized by indoctrination from which our tribe has remained free. Our own outlook seems 'natural' to us, and we wonder that other men can perversely persist in believing nonsense. Yet, it is undoubtedly true that, for most people, the acceptance of a particular doctrine is largely attributable to the accident of birth. They might be said to be 'ideologically inter-changeable', which means that they would have accepted any set of doctrines that happened to be valued by the tribe to which they were born. Each of us whether from the American tribe, Russian tribe, or Hopi tribe, is born into a symbolic environment as well as a physical one. We become accustomed very early to a 'natural' way of talking, and being talked to, about 'truth'. Quite arbitrarily, one's perception of what is 'true' or real is shaped by the symbols and symbol-manipulating institutions of his tribe. Most men, in time, learn to respond with favour and obedience to a set of verbal abstractions which they feel provides them with an ideological identity. One word for this, of course, is 'prejudice'. None of us is free of it, but it is the sign of a competent 'crap detector' that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up. In our own society, if one grows up in a language environment which includes and approve such a concept as 'white supremacy', one can quite 'morally' engage in the process of murdering civil-rights workers. Similarly, if one is living in a language environment where the term 'black power' crystallizes an ideological identity, one can engage, again quite 'morally', in acts of violence against any non-black persons or their property. An insensitivity to the unconscious effects of our 'natural' metaphors condemns us to highly constricted perceptions of how things are and, therefore, to highly limited alternative modes of behaviour.
"Those who are sensitive to the verbally built-in biases of their 'natural' environment seem 'subversive' to those who are not. There is probably nothing more dangerous to the prejudices of the latter than a man in the process of discovering that the language of his group is limited, misleading, or one-sided. Such a man is dangerous because he is not easily enlisted on the side of one ideology or another, because he sees beyond the words to the processes which give an ideology its reality. In his ‘May Man Prevail?’ Erich Fromm gives us an example of a man (himself) in the process of doing just that:
"The Russians believe that they represent socialism because they talk in terms of Marxist ideology, and they do not recognize how similar their system is to the most developed form of capitalism. We in the West believe that we represent the system of individualism, private initiative, and humanistic ethics, because we hold on to our ideology, and we do not see that our institutions have, in fact, in many ways become more and more similar to the hated system of communism.
"Religious indoctrination is still another example of this point. As Alan Watts has noted: 'irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness - an act of trust in the unknown' And so 'crap detecting' require a perspective on what Watts calls 'the standard-brand religions'. That perspective can also be applied to knowledge. If you substitute the phrase 'set of facts' for the word 'religion' in the quotation above, the statement is equally important and accurate.
"The need for this kind of perspective has always been urgent but never so urgent as now. We will not take you again through that painful catalogue of twentieth-century problems we cited in our introduction There are, however, three particular problems
[summarized below] which force us to conclude that the schools must consciously remake themselves into training centers for 'subversion'. In one sense, they are all one problem but for purposes of focus may be distinguished from each other.
"The first goes under the name of the 'communications revolution’ or media change…Very few of us have contemplated more rigorously what is happening through media change than Jacques Ellul who has sounded some chilling alarms. Without mass media, Ellul insists, there can be no effective propaganda. With them, there is almost nothing but. 'Only through concentration of a large number of media in a few hands can one attain a true orchestration, a continuity, and an application of scientific methods of influencing individuals.' That such concentration is occurring daily, Ellul says, is an established fact, and its results may well be an almost total homogenization of thought among those the media reach…
"Still another way of saying this is that, while there has been a tremendous increase in media there has been, at the same time, a decrease in available and viable 'democratic' channels of communication because the mass media are entirely one-way communication…No one can reach many people unless he has access to the mass media." Remember, these words were written over forty years ago. Today we know how prescient they were. And we now know that the only way we can counter the mass media, the Fourth Estate, is via the burgeoning Fifth Estate. "We come then to a second problem which makes necessary a 'subversive' role for the schools. This one may appropriately be called the 'change revolution'. In order to illustrate what this means, we will use the media again and the metaphor of a clock face.
[Remember, Postman and Weingartner wrote their book over forty years ago.] Imagine a clock face with sixty minutes on it. Let the clock stand for the time men have had access to writing systems. Our clock would thus represent something like three thousand years, and each minute on our clock fifty years. On this scale, there were no significant media changes until about nine minutes ago. At that time, the printing press came into use in Western culture. About three minutes ago, the telegraph, photograph, and locomotive arrived. Two minutes ago: the telephone, rotary press, motion pictures, automobile, aeroplane and radio. One minute ago, the talking picture. Television has appeared in the last ten seconds, the computer in the last five, and communications satellites in the last second. The laser beam - perhaps the most potent medium of communication of all - appeared only a fraction of a second ago…"
[And social media just a few microseconds ago.] "All of which brings us to the third problem: the 'burgeoning bureaucracy'. We are brought there because bureaucracies, in spite of their seeming indispensability, are by their nature highly resistant to change. The motto of most bureaucracies is, ‘Carry on, regardless'. There is an essential mindlessness about them which causes them, in most circumstances, to accelerate entropy rather than to impede it. Bureaucracies rarely ask themselves Why?, but only How?... "
Postman and Weingartner conclude their chapter on ‘Crap Detecting’ thus: "What is the necessary business of the schools? To create eager consumers? To transmit the dead ideas, values, metaphors, and information of three minutes ago? To create smoothly functioning bureaucrats? These aims are truly subversive since they undermine our chances of surviving as a viable, democratic society. And they do their work in the name of convention and standard practice. We would like to see the schools go into the anti-entropy business. Now, that is subversive, too. But the purpose is to subvert attitude, beliefs and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness." During these last two years of unremitting political crap, we all have needed Hemingway’s built-in, shockproof, industrial-strength crap detector.
PM Gillard admonished journalists with: ‘Don’t write crap’, but they carried on doing so nevertheless. We have had crap dealt out about climate change, the economy, the competence of the Government, the integrity of our PM, and as recently as last week we had Justice Rares deliver a harsh judgement about the attempt of James Ashby and his co-conspirators to bring a sexual harassment case against the Speaker of the House with the intent of bringing him down and the Government with him. Although he didn’t use the word, Rares could have aptly described the Ashby case as ‘crap’. So, he threw it out, presumably onto the growing political ‘crap heap’. Then last week we had Tony Abbott heap more crap on the crap heap as he used weasel words to camouflage his involvement, and that of Mal Brough. He’s still at it, walking away from questions about Brough as recently as yesterday at the presser he called to gloat over the now-doubtful budget surplus.
The lesson for schools is that as the crap mushrooms, we need urgently to help our young to learn how to analyze, integrate, and synthesize information, concepts, and understandings into a meaningful whole, all the time looking for and detecting crap with their inbuilt crap detector, and consigning it to a place where it can do no harm. The health of our democracy depends on it.
What do you think?