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Connections: A Subversive Activity

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A quarter of a century ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote an extraordinary little book entitled Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Its premise is that if society is to survive, schools must develop in the young not only an awareness of democratic freedom but also "a will to exercise it and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively.'' This is necessary so that society can "change and modify itself to meet unforeseen threats, problems, and opportunities'' and thus be an "ever-renewing society.'' Schools not only fail to do this, the authors insist, but they also reinforce the status quo, ultimately imperiling society.

As an analysis of what is wrong with the nation's system of public education, the book is as insightful and relevant in 1994 as it was in 1969--which is really the bad news, for it means schools haven't changed much in the past 25 years. The better news is that ever so gradually the tide of school reform may be carrying some of the radical ideas that Postman and Weingartner expressed into the mainstream.

One of the most passionate and articulate spokesmen for such ideas is Bill Ayers, the subject of the story beginning on page 24. When Postman and Weingartner were publishing their boatrocking manifesto amid the social and political turbulence of 1969, Ayers was well on his way to becoming an extreme example of their theory. He was exercising his right to protest by challenging the authority of the United States government, first as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, then of the revolutionary Weathermen.

Time has mellowed Ayers somewhat, but it has not dissipated his intensity nor blunted his determination to change the system. Now, though, he pours his intellectual energy into the act of preparing new teachers for the front lines. "Fundamental to teaching is the belief that you can change the world,'' Ayers says, and he wonders why anyone who doesn't believe in personal and collective transformation would go into teaching.

Ayers believes that most teachers begin as idealists, only to have their idealism seep slowly away under the weight of the system. They learn that teaching is a series of behaviors rather than rigorous intellectual work. They're patronized rather than challenged, subjected to the dictates of administrators and textbook publishers. To avoid becoming "cogs in a machine,'' teachers must challenge the system. Impersonal, bureaucratic, power-driven systems thwart good teaching, Ayers argues, because ultimately teaching is a matter of love.

Half a world away, in the frigid climes of Moscow, Russian teacher Svetlana Nikolaevna Gerasina--the subject of our cover story--shares and practices that belief. To be a good teacher, she says simply, "you have to love children.'' And the best rewards for good teaching "are the respect and love of our students.''

After more than 70 years of totalitarian rule, Russia is struggling mightily as it moves to establish a democracy, and almost everything seems to be in chaos except the schools. As one educator says, "Today, the school is the only structure that hasn't come apart.'' Like their American counterparts, Russian schools have shown an amazing ability to bend with pressure and resist structural change. In terms of pedagogy and curriculum, it seems that Gerasina's school and classroom are much like those in America. But Gerasina does address one important change: "There was a time when we didn't talk about a lot of things.... Now, we simply feel more free, that is, we can talk in class. I don't know how well we understand democracy, but now we can freely discuss in classes events that go on in our country. Before, of course, we couldn't do this.''

Even under totalitarian rule, Russian schools were probably better than the schools of Jersey City, N.J., which were so crippled by corruption, nepotism, and neglect that a former New Jersey governor accused them of "child abuse.'' The system was so morally and academically bankrupt that the state took control of the district in 1989. (See story on page 30.)

The arguments of Postman, Weingartner, and Ayers are painfully relevant in Jersey City. How could teachers not have challenged the system or walked out in protest against it? Some undoubtedly felt they could not abandon their students and did the best they could. But others, for whatever reason, went along with the status quo or, worse, bought into it.

Did they not know that there are times when subversion is a moral requirement?--Ronald A. Wolk

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