18 Subversive Learning- by P.K. Rangachari

P.K. Rangachari

The following conversation took place in our studios a few weeks ago. The President of the Student Union (PSU) was talking to Dr. Agni, one of the more senior members of the Faculty. The University had been in turmoil, with students vociferous in their complaints about the Faculty. They felt strongly that the University was selling itself as a business and the proliferation of CEOs, Vice-Presidents, and Presidents ignored student concerns. They felt that a move to more student-centred learning was essential. Copies of the decades-old Postman and Weingartner book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, were being circulated. Due to a technical glitch, the early part was not recorded, so the conversation starts abruptly in mid-sentence.

Agni:  Students are not passive listeners in the classroom. They are often actively disengaged. The internet is a boon! Surfing from their seats is simple. The poor teacher drones on, PowerPoint is powerless, nothing registers as students think other thoughts. They are still in control, despite the teacher’s best efforts. Subversion in practice!

PSU: So, you think that student-centred learning is nothing new?

Agni: That too is a buzzword and I am not sure what it means in the end. There are three parties to the educational enterprise, at least in the modern university—the teachers, students and society—they don’t necessarily see education the same way. So, tensions emerge. Centering learning towards one group or the other disturbs the equilibrium and leads to dissonance.

PSU: But aren’t students the central item in a university. Shouldn’t their rights be paramount?

Agni: Agreed. Universities exist because students enter them, so they are central to any university, the raison d’être, as it were. Why they do that is the crucial issue and so it is not so clear cut. By the way, the language of rights makes me very uneasy. Though often couched in the language of justice, there is always the faintest whiff of smug self-indulgence. If I had my way, I would expunge that word and replace it with privileges since that evokes responsibilities. Instead of my saying that I have a right to this, that, or the other, I should say I am privileged to have these facilities, so how can I function effectively to fulfil my obligations. Teachers should tell themselves that since they are privileged to teach the next generation, how can they best serve their students. In some ways this is similar to the issues facing physicians dealing with patients. We can think about student care as we would patient care, where the elements often considered are beneficence, autonomy, and justice.

Agni: Beneficence implies that you do all you can for the benefit of the student or, as the Hippocratic dictum would have it, “do no harm”. Autonomy is respecting the student’s capacities to decide for themselves, and justice implies treating all students equally.

PSU: Put that way, it seems obvious, so why is that difficult?

Agni: Beneficence looks self-evident, but how it plays out in specific circumstances poses problems. Students enroll in courses that have specific objectives. If it becomes evident early on that the material is well beyond a particular student’s capabilities, should one fail the student, advise him to leave, or just give him marks because he tried hard so that he does not feel discouraged. Are we benefitting him by letting him linger on? Teachers try hard to be nice, but that is a four-letter word and like other four-letter words implies a lot. Other examples arise. Most teachers are good at dispensing information and believe that they are helping their students. Would it not be better if they did not but spent more time and effort in inculcating skills that may be more relevant? The buzz around flipped classrooms suggests that many are beginning to see it that way. We can best prepare our students for uncertain futures by making them resilient. That may require us to make more demands on them, by provoking them, in fact stressing them to make them uncomfortable. Can we be cruel only to be kind? Sadly, with the excessive caution about trigger warnings and so on, we are going out of our way to mollycoddle our students—a wimpfication of the future!

PSU: Well, not sure that many students would go along with that. You mentioned autonomy and I presume you mean giving them license to make decisions.

Agni: Yes, and in a modern University, students do have considerable autonomy—they can select courses, take electives, time off, do part-time courses. All of that adds to their learning experience and no one could cavil at that. There are situations, though, where teachers run into difficulties. If we want to foster student autonomy, we must respect their individual aspirations and idiosyncrasies. Laudable aim but difficult to institute in practice. Consider differences in learning styles, which have been well documented. How are teachers to cater to different learning styles in large classrooms, where they barely know the names of their students, let alone individual idiosyncrasies? Evaluation proves trickier since not all students do equally well on the same set of exams. I have had students who have surprised me by their capacities to stretch themselves and hand in reports I never thought they were capable of based on their performance in the classroom setting. Teachers must set up different evaluation procedures so that students can be given an opportunity to display their strengths, not just expose their weaknesses. So, in the interests of both beneficence and autonomy, teachers should adapt their approaches to cater to suit differences in learning styles and assessments. This is practically impossible to achieve under most circumstances where resources are often limited, even in the wealthiest countries. This is where the notion of justice enters—treating all students equitably becomes difficult in practice. Physiologists are quite familiar with the notion of scaling (they use the term allometry). As size changes, operations alter. There is a scale problem in teaching. What is possible in a small tutorial group becomes difficult in mid-size classes and well nigh impossible in larger ones. Again, given pressures of time and resources, these worthy aims may be very difficult to achieve. Remember that universities do not exist in isolation, so both teachers and students are answerable to the public that provides much of the infrastructure that allows such institutions to function. Standardized testing is an attempt to bring some justice into the picture, though that itself creates more problems. A standards-based world may solve institutional problems but deprive students an opportunity to deal with ambiguities which abound in the world outside the hallowed halls of academe.

PSU: I am taken aback with your pessimistic views. Are you saying that subversive teaching cannot achieve much?

Agni: Not at all—I am optimistic and quite hopeful but am merely trying to present a more complete picture. Postman and Weingartner strongly favoured a system that allowed students to recognize the foibles of their own culture and upbringing, creating, in a sense, an ever-renewing society. The sad part is that the subversive of today becomes the pillar of the establishment of tomorrow and resists change. The life span of subversion is limited. History provides many examples. In the Western world, I cannot think of a more subversive teacher than Jesus Christ, a superstar. Yet the movement he started has not been free of blemish. I think it was Quigley who emphasized that the instruments of expansion of one generation become vested interests of the next. Progressive instruments get institutionalized and fossilized. Progress is not a scalar entity but a vector with both magnitude and direction. What results is really the resultant vector of many forces. My defense of radical politics is that it serves to polarize the vector and pushes it in the direction of overall human progress. The old notion (sometimes attributed to Hegel, perhaps wrongly) of a thesis provoking an antithesis to a newer synthesis still has merit.

PSU: What, then, is the value of subversive teaching?

Agni: The issue is not subversive teaching at all but subversive learning. Students should recognize the forces that shape the world, the value of change, and the limits. They should remain vigilant—follow Hamlet’s advice and defy augury. The readiness is all.



Mueller G.E. (1958). The Hegel legend of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”. J History of Ideas 19: 411–414.

Postman, N. & Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY: Delta Publishing Co., Inc.

Quigley, C. (1979). The Evolution of civilizations: an introduction to historical analysis. Carmel, IN: Liberty Press.


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