Category Archives: teaching

Several “Bizarre” Proposals

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner offer a series of “proposals that attempt to change radically the nature of the existing school environment. Most of them will strike you as thoroughly impractical but only because you will have forgotten for the moment that the present system is among the most impractical imaginable, if the facilitation of learning is your aim.”

Though the book was written in 1969, many of their proposals still strike me as relevant. Some of the proposals I especially like include

4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” well to write a book on it. In this way, he will be relieved of the necessity of inflicting his knowledge on other people, particularly his students.


10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public. There would be a “smart” group (the Bluebirds), an “average” group (the Robins), and a “dumb” group (the Sandpipers). The lists would be published each year in the community paper. The I.Q. and reading scores of teachers would also be published, as well as the list of those who are “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” by virtue of what they know in relation to what their students know.

Number 10 is related to number 11:

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know. Only if a teacher passes this test should he be permitted to “teach.” This test could be used for “grouping” the teachers as in number 10 above.

(I know quite a few teachers who would struggle to pass such a test.)

My favorite three proposals, however, have got to be numbers 12, 13, and 14. Here’s number 12:

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. This proposal would simply put the teacher on a par with other professionals, e.g., doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. No one forces you to go to a particular doctor unless you are a “clinic case.” In that instance, you must take what you are given. Our present system makes a “clinic case” of every student. Bureaucrats decide who shall govern your education. In this proposal, we are restoring the American philosophy: no clients, no money; lots of clients, lots of money.

And here’s number 13:

13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education. Such an experience can be take as evidence, albeit shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life. Recommended occupations: bartender, cab driver, garment worker, waiter. One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as “teachers”) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.

As good as those last two are, proposal 14 is my absolute favorite:

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. If the teacher can get someone to say, “I love her (or him),” she should be retained. If she can get two people to say it, she should get a raise. Spouses need not be excluded from testifying.

The authors acknowledge that some people might find number 14 “facetious, if not flippant,” but they ask readers to consider “What kinds of evidence must teachers presently offer to qualify for their jobs? A list of ‘courses.’ Which of these requirements strikes you as more bizarre? From the student’s point of view, which requirement would seem more practical? Bear in mind that it is a very difficult thing for one person to learn anything significant from another. Bear in mind, too, that it is probably not possible for such learning to occur unless there is something resembling a loving relationship between ‘teacher’ and learner.”

More Pure than Most

Levin had never produced much – he’d never written a book, and he’d never been concerned about writing one. He had devoted himself to his teaching; he had written his elegant reviews and essays, three or four a year; and the very spareness of his output had finally begun to seem a mark of his intellectual delicacy, the fineness of his discriminations. Every writer writes with mixed motives, with some combination of purity and self-aggrandizement; Levin was no exception, but he was much more pure than most. He would have been reading and writing in the same way – for pleasure and self-clarification – if you had put him on a desert island. He had spent little time pushing himself forward in the world, “managing his career”; that would have been a disagreeable distraction for reading and writing and teaching, from the work he loved.

—Brian Morton, Starting Out in the Evening


No matter how good an essay or report might be, a missing staple says a lot. Unstapled work says that the writer either doesn’t know what finished work looks like or isn’t willing to take the care necessary to produce it. Unstapled work says that the writer couldn’t be bothered to use a stapler in a library or residence hall or ask a friend … Unstapled work might also indicate a failure to follow directions, as many course assignments carry a reminder to staple. Worse perhaps than the absence of a staple are turned-down upper-left corners, which seem to acknowledge that there’s something wrong, but that the writer can’t be bothered to fix the problem properly.

Michael Leddy