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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

Perspectives / Provocative Questions

      "Please be advised that page 61 of this book has been left blank deliberately." Thus reads the first line of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), a book that had an impact on many educators in the 1970s. The purpose of the blank page (as explained on p. 60) was to provide the reader space to list questions about "What's worth teaching?" and "What's worth knowing?"
      Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner invited educators to consider what they would do if the entire curriculum disappeared. What if you had to develop the questions that would help your students internalize the concepts that they would need to survive in the changing world? Anyone who came up with How did the ancient Egyptians earn their living? or other such questions that had factual answers was told to use his or her own paper. The authors were looking for deep relevance on the order of What does meaning mean? and What is the difference between good and evil?
      Some of us on the faculty of my high school took the lesser question—What do you want to learn?—to the students, and born from the brainstorming was a series of minicourses. I taught Women in Literature and Language as a Medium, which combined semantics, grammar, journalism, and the psychology of communication. Those were creative days, and everything we did seemed new. But, as I look back, I see that, fortunately, the old curriculum did not disappear. We reinvented the reading lists, but most of us were so rooted in our traditional educations that we did not produce radical changes. Our aim was to refresh our teaching and motivate more students to enjoy learning while continuing to meet all requirements for college.
      This month as we reexamine the question—What should we teach?—the irreverent tone of Teaching as a Subversive Activity seems humorous but hardly shocking, and its message, although still relevant, simplistic. The teaching context has become more complex. In many schools, multicultural and women's literature are part of the mainstream, but in other classrooms, the works of minority authors are either not present or over-represented. Technology and the sciences have introduced an explosion of new ideas and skills to learn, but most students are not enrolled in higher-level courses, whether by choice or lack of opportunity (see Holloway, p. 84). The question of whose history or literature to teach is not being posed so much by individual educators as it is by committees who, with the advice of citizens and policymakers, have created—and revised—comprehensive, if verbose, standards of learning for all students. For all the richness of content, the achievement gaps remain wide.
      Meanwhile, the emphasis on testing and accountability is shaping decisions about content. Some say the emphasis on answers will diminish the individual's quest for meaning; others hope that the new accountability will demand more meaningful content for more students.
      Authors in this issue voice thoughtful perspectives. Robert Moses (p. 6) explains why algebra is a gateway subject that students must master to compete in the technological workplace. With his philosophy of "each one teach one," he connects algebra and citizenship: the understanding of algebra is an empowerment for the student and a responsibility to share with others. An endorser of traditional content, Moses uses innovative teaching strategies that make mathematics meaningful to students.
      George D. Nelson, director of Project 2061, presents a framework for thinking about science and math that applies to almost every other subject, too. "Before we can think about the what and the who of the curriculum, we need to think about the why," he says.
      Will the knowledge or skill significantly enhance long-term employment or educational prospects? . . . Will the content help citizens participate intelligently in making social and political decisions? . . . Does the content have pervasive cultural or historical significance? . . . Does the content help individuals ponder the enduring questions of what it means to be human? (Nelson, p. 13)
      The questions are worthy of the blank page in Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Turn our pages for the discussion.
      End Notes

      1 Postman, N., & C. Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delta.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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