While I was browsing my bookshelf yesterday, I found my old copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969). Before becoming professors in New York City, both men had been elementary and secondary schoolteachers for many years.
I’d read the book about 15 years ago. As soon as I saw the big red apple on the cover, I was reminded of the book’s impact on me in 2000, and the many reasons why it was so influential in the 1970s, 1980s, and thereafter.
When I mentioned Subversive Activity to David, he told me he’d read it in 1975, just after he started teaching in the music education department at the University of Toronto. He said:
It made me question all the ways I was teaching my music education students way back then. Some things I remember clearly are how it emphasizes democratic teaching and learning, the reasons why teachers and students need to develop critical thinking, good “crap detectors,” and a healthy skepticism about assumptions. It was especially important because it explains “ecological classrooms,” and “mind-ing.” Am I right? I remember thinking at the time that, even though these ideas go back to Plato, Aristotle, and all the way up to Dewey and others, the way they [Postman and Weingartner] explained these “new” ideas so clearly meant a lot to many teachers, including me and my students, in the ‘70s.
As I revisited Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I arrived at Chapter 5: “What’s Worth Knowing?” Even though I’d asked myself the same question many times in the past—and even though David and I ask this question on page 1 of MM2, and many other times in our book—I knew immediately that I had to redouble my efforts to help my music education majors think carefully about and practice “minding” two questions: “What’s worth knowing?” and “What’s worth knowing musically?” These questions go right to the heart of the nature(s) and values of music education, community music, and lifelong musical participation.
Postman and Weingartner suggest that to decide whether any question should be asked and answered—by ourselves and/or our students—we should begin by asking questions of the question itself, and continue doing this before and after we teach.
For example, teachers in every subject area would be wise to ask themselves:
1. Will my questions increase learners’ passion for learning?
2. Will they increase their capacity to learn?
3. Will they boost their confidence in their ability to learn?
4. Will they motivate them to ask deeper follow-up questions that require alternative modes of inquiry?
5. Will they inspire learners to search for alternative interpretations of the material they’re learning?
6. Are my questions likely to increase students’ feelings of self-worth, persistence, and resilience?
7. Are they likely to produce different answers if/when learners ask them again at different stages of their educational development? Are they likely to develop students’ critical thinking, “crap detection” abilities, and a healthy skepticism about common sense assumptions?
8. Will students’ participation in “minding” empower them to develop thoughtful answers, and become more collaborative and creative?
These questions are extremely important to ask and think about, because to ask them is to take major steps toward achieving a central aim of all forms of education: developing students’ abilities to find meaning in the world:
There is no learning without a learner. And there is no meaning without a meaning maker. In order to survive in a world of rapid change there is nothing more worth knowing, for any of us, than the continuing process of how to make viable meanings. (Postman and Weingartner, 1969)
How can we connect these questions to music teaching and learning? If we tweak these eight questions in relation to some (but certainly not all) issues involved in teaching music in some localities, regions, and/or nations, we might ask:
1. Will this style of music and/or this type of musicing (e.g., singing, playing instruments, composing with new music technologies) increase learners’ joy in and passion for learning?
2. Will this style of music and/or musicing increase their capacity to learn how to make music and listen to music and find personal and musical meaning in the world now and in the future?
3. Will this form of musicing boost their confidence in their ability to learn how to perform, improvise, compose (etc.) more expressively?
4. Will this kind of musicing motivate them to ask important questions about how to make music more effectively and creatively, which will require alternative modes of thinking and feeling?
5. Will this type of music and musicing inspire learners to develop alternative interpretations of the music they’re performing, improvising, composing, etc?
6. Is it likely that my music teaching strategies will increase learners’ sense of self-worth?
7. Will my ways of teaching music motivate learners to continue making music after their elementary or secondary school years are over?
8. Will my ways of teaching music and musicing enable students to become more thoughtful, sensitive, collaborative, and creative music makers now and in the future?
And there’s one more very important question:
9. Will my ways of teaching music motivate my students to pursue the lifelong goal of full human flourishing, which includes happiness for themselves and others, fellowship, health and well-being, a sense of personal significance, and other “arts of personhood, which include individual and shared capacities and dispositions to act justly toward others” (MM2, p. 52).