December 17, 2017

Is teaching a subversive activity?

Some teachers see their work as a subversive act. To them, perhaps, western democracy is lacking, and requires their intervention. There is also an assumption that the teacher possesses the truth - that he knows with some degree of certainty what needs to be changed in our society and why.  

This is not how I see it. The real purpose of education, I believe, centers around  the pursuit of truth. The teacher's role is to help learners find truth, not to instill a particular political view of the world, and still less to set them on a course of active subversion that the teacher chooses.  

There is no single truth in politics or morality. No paradigm explains either, and no teacher can 'know' political truths -  he can only hold opinions.  The learner has to be free to seek truth and form his own conclusions. To my mind, imparting political  'truth' is a form of coercion, something you find amongst ideologues or authoritarian systems. I believe teachers have a moral obligation not to push their own political agenda in the classroom.

As citizens in a democracy we have obligations (not just rights) towards it.  Subversion for its own sake is not one of them.  There is a difference between fairly debating the good and the bad in our society, and encouraging students to undermine it.  If teaching is subversive it is unlikely to present both sides of the issues. So, imbuing students with hostility towards their own democratic tradition (even where we vehemently disagree with a particualr government) is an anti-democratic thing to do. Consider the company you keep in that category.

It  may be true that, as an individual, you are either working to support political status quo, or working against it. But again, this is an issue for outside the classroom. Students are not our pawns - they also have rights. We are not hired to subvert, just  ask your employers, the parents, the learners themselves.

Ideology (again)

 The edupunk debate was a watershed. What for me was a discussion about a really bad software company was for others an issue of ideology. Can of worms: the people who drew anti-corporate political messages about Blackboard need to consider this: 

 If “edupunk” is anti-establishment and anti-corporation, does that mean a true Edupunk does not use any tools provided by large-scale companies? So does that mean no Google? no Flickr? no QuickTime? Alas - these are all tools provided by corporations. (Link.)

Neither this case, nor society at large, can be defined in terms of class warfare or one group oppressing another on the basis of ideology. That is way too reductionistic a view of society. (It's also unnecessarily confrontational.) Besides, it is fully possible to take Blackboard to task without resorting to ideology. Politicization makes proper discussion untenable, particulalrly where it is reduced to Marxist analysis. 

Of course it is true that a free society has its own ideology. Many, many layers of meaning and ideology underlie free societies, but these include the ideology of democracy itself, of free speech, and of economic freedom, etc. It may even be true, as Gramsci pointed out, that one of the ideological foundations of democracy is that democracy does not have ideology, when of course it does. Either way, no single paradigm captures the complexity of an economic or social system. All it will do is distract from the real issue of learning.

Note, too that we have formed our own hierarchy in the edublogosphere. At the head of it sits Stephen. Like the rest of you I read Stephen assiduously, because I learn from him every time. He simply is a leading light in this field. But whether he likes it or not, Stephen has become an authority. Shouldn't we be subverting authority figures? Is he oppressing us with his ideology? (No, he is not.) How about a cultural revolution? An attack for the sake of it? How much sense would that make? Not much.

I don't plan on writing about politics again, so let me just say that subversion for its own sake is wanting. My vote is to keep ideology out of this debate. Can we just stick to the learning?  

 Ken Carroll

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  1. Peter says:

    Often education is a subversive activity. I don’t see anything wrong with that. To me, subversion isn’t indoctrination (i.e. “instill a particular political view”. To me, subversion is simply questioning assumptions. If my questions erode a student’s assumptions and cause them to change their view (i.e. be subverted), so be it. And by asking questions, we leave open the possibility that the subverter becomes the subverted.

  2. Ken Carroll says:


    Any definition of subversion that I know of, involves a deliberate act of undermining or destroying something. I believe that is indeed the idea that motivates some teachers – people, for example, who seek political change and set out to purposely undermine what they regard as the conventional opinions of their learners.

    Questioning, on the other hand, is entirely diferent. It is an absolutely necessary technique for any teacher, but questioning does not seek destruction as its goal. It is fully prepared to leave the learner’s veiws intact because it is not coercive and gives equal weight to more than one side of any argument. This obviously requires a degree of self-restraint on the part of the teacher and is one reason why I have talked about the necessity of maturity on the teachers’ part.

    Ken Carroll

  3. Hi Ken! Thanks for being a brilliant voice of clarity in this conversation. I only recently heard of this edupunk meme going around and quite frankly it just didn’t seem important enough to merit attention at this time. However, I’m catching up on long overdue gReader reading, and this post made me smile.
    You Rock! And you’re right, let’s all stick to the (e)Learning.

  4. Peter says:

    Well if you equate subversion with coercion then I suppose I’m coerced into agreeing with you. 🙂

    As for the tools, I’m against Blackboard not because of corporate involvement per se, but because it’s proprietary software. It’s not impossible for a corporation to be involved in promoting FOSS technologies and open standards – and in those cases I have no problem with corporate involvement. I think it is superficial to put forth a blanket opposition to corporate involvement in education but equally dangerous to have a, “Well, it’s all OK because people are just trying to make a living” attitude.

    The free software movement has a strong political element to it and I promote its ideals in education while “questioning” proprietary software. If that is being “edupunk” then I take “edupunk” as a compliment.

  5. Bob Schlemmer says:

    The Gramscian concept of ideological hegemony and how the basis of our ideology is the idea that we do not have ideology are particularly interesting. Why would someone of such an avowedly non left-wing bent be so familiar with leftist theory? (Don’t get me wrong. I agree pretty much with your argument.)

  6. Ryan says:

    I agree as well. In college I took several courses where the professor used/abused the class to preach his/her own ideologies that had very little to do with the subjects we were supposed to be studying. Forget getting an A if you stated an opposing point of view and poked holes in your professor’s argument during a class discussion. Teachers should instruct their students how to acquire knowledge, how to reason and how to to express themselves clearly. Leave ideology for family and religion.

  7. bentinho says:

    a(b+c) = (ab)+(ac), politicize that!

    ideology has its source not only in the teachers preaching. some students are also eager to engage in political arguments. I can offer myself as an example. I never been a teacher, but as a student I have started many political arguments. Sure I was most times a victim of ideological teaching.

  8. 敦禮 says:

    Ken, please come and talk with the United States Department of Education.

  9. andybest says:

    I’m from the UK, the education system there is full of propaganda and the system as a whole is atuned to the ‘free-market’ society ideology of the government.

    Subverting it is to educate students about more than one side, and to promote cooperation, not competition, to promote one human race and freedom, not post-imperial national states and the kleptocracy of the powerful.

    There’s nothing wrong with subverting something controlling and negative.

    We live in a world full of Orwellian double speak – war to bring peace (Iraq) – free trade (by state subsidised super corporations that inflict crippling rules and conditions on the third world) …

    Students should be able to rationally analyse the world around them and see it as it is, then they can make positive change.

    It’s far cry from current education systems around the globe and from selling off bits of knowledge for profit.

  10. > The real purpose of education, I believe, centers around the pursuit of truth.

    The pursuit of truth is a subversive activity. It is probably the most subversive activity.

    Authority – especially in our own society – depends typically on fiction. These fictions typically describe some way in which our rulers are ‘naturally’ rulers.

    The divine right of kings has been replaced, in secular society, by the right of the ballot, but the process of democratic election is itself a fiction.

    > The teacher’s role is to help learners find truth, not to instill a particular political view of the world.

    Quite so – but it is precisely this practice that is discouraged, and even punished, in our education system.

    Our mechanism of testing, for example, masures not how much students are *able* to learn, but rather, how much they *have learned* of a specified curriculum.

    Our methods of teaching focus on the memorization of facts, rather than the cultivation of disciplines – such as, say, logic and critical thinking – that allow them to think for themselves.

    Students’ assertions of their own right to express themselves are routinely squelched at all levels of administration, including the courts.

    > The teacher’s role is to help learners find truth, not to instill a particular political view of the world…

    Teachers express ‘truth’ every day; it is the major part of the curriculum. This ‘truth’ constitutes the academic subjects, as well as the system of values and expectations created by a certain ‘polite’ society.

    Teachers deviating from this approved curriculum are accused of ‘preaching’ and of ‘ideological teaching’ – as though the pronouncements from the permissable perspective are ideologically neutral.

    Crucially: if a teacher is to be expected to teach the pursuit of truth, and to value students’ own pursuit of the truth, then they must *model* and demonstrate their *own* pursuit of truth, and their own exercise of the freedom to express their own truth.

    How could you ever trust the assertions of a teacher who says “you are free” when all teachers, without exception, follow some sort of party line?

    To teach the freedom to pursue one’s own truth is to *be* free to pursue one’s own truth. You do not encourage the seeking of truth in the classroom by telling teachers to suppress what they believe to be true.

    If this means that some teachers – or even a majority – espouse a left wing ideology, so be it. For people of the right to promote the freedom of thought by squelching what they believe to be left wing or liberal ideology is the height of hypocrisy.

    If you want teachers to espouse right wing philosophies, pay them more. Otherwise, the vast majority of teachers will choose their profession based on some concept of the social good, a position that will put them at odds with the set of fictions created and promoted in order to preserve the ideology of the government (accurately described above as “the kleptocracy of the powerful”).

  11. bentinho says:

    at Stephen Downes

    these kind of comments make me wanna become a mathematician, or a theoretical physicist, I don’t know.

    we should pay teachers more so right wing capitalists would come to the class room displace left wing abnegates?

    that doesn’t help in Brazil. Here university teachers are paid much more then the average worker. Even throughout all levels of teaching thei’re paid 55% more than others. Despite that most teachers are leftists. Most common people who are paid much less are conservatives. And worst of all, teaching in Brazil is terrible. Students graduate not knowing how to write, read, count, or locate their own country in a map. Such figures are high from the junior high to the graduate.
    We have the lowest scores in the PISA test. That’s what happens when you pay teachers well without accountability, and let them preach their left wing ideology.

  12. 敦禮 says:

    Stephen Downes wrote: If this means that some teachers – or even a majority – espouse a left wing ideology, so be it. For people of the right to promote the freedom of thought by squelching what they believe to be left wing or liberal ideology is the height of hypocrisy.

    敦禮 writes: If this means that some teachers-or even a majority – espouse a right wing ideology, so be it. For people of the left to promote the freedom of the thought by squelching what they believe to be right wing or conservative ideology is the height of hypocrisy.


    In short, I find the Downes quote to be just the rationalization that many teachers are using in the American/Canadian educational systems. Taking the lead from the media, the educational system is following suit. (Or was it the educational system first?) What does it leave us with? Delusions? I think our guts tell us it is definitely not the truth.

  13. I’d tend to say that teaching can be (not is) an empowering activity. That’s the ideal, of course: the teacher as informed guide, especially with younger learners who are still finding out how to acquire and assess knowledge, how to try out and refine skills.

    The “problem” with empowerment, as any parent knows, is that the newly empowered individual often makes choices that you didn’t expect and may not care for.

    I see that as what [Chinese characters] alludes to: it’s not only possible, but likely, that some empowered young person will chose an approach or a political viewpoint far different from that of the teacher/guide/parent.

    “If you want teachers to espouse right wing philosophies, pay them more. Otherwise, the vast majority of teachers will choose their profession based on some concept of the social good…”

    Having taught junior high, senior high, and GED courses in three states, my experience is that most teachers I worked with chose their profession because teaching appealed to them personally. “The social good” is a pretty highfalutin concept, and the notion that paying people less will bring more “social good” is as amusing as it is condescending — kind of like endorsing Richard Nixon to stir up the proles.

    My admittedly limited experience says it’s hard to generalize about the typical teacher. I would guess (and it’s only a guess) that in the U.S., organizations of teachers tend to be socially and politically liberal, but that on average teachers are less so.

  14. Kellen says:

    wonderful read. fortunately i’ve not had teachers during my time in college who pushed their own ideologies over the pursuit of truth. unfortunately i’ve found mysef guilty of this with my own students, though i think more as a reaction to their own blind following or someone else’s ideology. i’d like to think i presented my own merely as an alternative for them to digest but in truth on some level in my brain i’m sure that wasn’t my sole intent. while it’s difficult at time when faced with a wall of students upholding a party line, in this case the chinese communist party, it’s still not an excuse.

    it’s good to be reminded of this from time to time.

  15. Good to see you again Ken. I find your posts and subsequent conversations very thought provoking. They linger in my head for days as I try and work out my arguments. Perhaps it is because I think we differ on so many fundamental levels, that I find our correspondences so valuable. But this time around, I do not want to come with an attack or break down your argument point-by-point. I have read all the other comments, but still do not feel the need nor have the energy to address each one individually.

    I just want to express my thoughts on the concept of teaching as a subversive act. But before I begin, I think it is important to define the word subversive:

    a radical supporter of political or social revolution
    intended to overthrow or undermine an established government

    Yes and yes. I am guilty on both counts. As an artist, a father, and a member of the human race I am a radical supporter of political or social revolution, because the world I see in front of me is not the place I want my daughter to live. I am well read enough in history to see patterns leading to the state it is in, and I feel it is important to change those patterns. I advocate the overthrowing not only of most current governments, but the very fundamental principles on which they are based. I advocate a new world vision, not of radical violent Marxist revolution, but a more synergetic, organic vision. I feel the revolution of which I speak is still be concocted by the very youth we are discussing. I feel it is my job to show my students that another world is possible, that they have the power to shape it.

    So where does the subversion come into play? I agree with you that preaching, sermonizing and converting students to any ideology has no place in a classroom. Students should be allowed to weigh ideas for themselves and make informed decisions. The problem, however, is that we are not playing on a level playing field. Much of what young people ingest these days, from their text books, media saturation, advertising, and even moral values and life priorities are dictated by an uber-aggressive money making machine known as the new privatizing global economy.

    The winners make the rules, and so they begin to market our children from the day they are born and create a race of apathetic consumers. Is it subversive to teach children to love and share and create outside the box created by a global economic system that teaches them to compete and one that measures success and happiness through wealth?

    As teachers we are told to ignore this elephant in all of our classrooms. I am not advocating teaching students that the current system is all bad and that I have all the answers. I am simply saying that the system is not perfect, far from it, as it is sold to us and that we must consider alternatives. The system itself does not like being criticized. See the tear gas and riot gear in all the anti-globalization demonstrations since Seattle 1999, but don’t students have a right to see alternatives to the history the system prescribes? Where is our history? Why are subversives forced to teaching under the dark of night? Why can’t we parade our heroes in our classrooms along with the Lincolns and Washingtons? Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Allen Gingsberg, and Hunter S. Thompson have every right to be heard in an objective classroom. Why aren’t Chomsky or Zinn on any major curriculums?

    I entered teaching because as a teenager I realized that I couldn’t change the world alone. I needed help. As an adult, I am learning that this help is not coming from adults. So I look to the students in my classroom to look at the world objectively and make choices to help make it better. I am not subversive. I simply show them what I have learned. I share with them my life experience working in the third-world and inner city schools. I am a connector of worlds. I am a painter of pictures. I understand that the term make the world better is ambiguous and can be construed as neo-hippy blather, so let me put it in more simple terms. I believe in people who work to ease suffering. On all levels. In all places. At all times. That is why I teach. It is past politics, ideology, or subversion. It is my nature and I cannot teach any other way.

  16. What is truth? Truth is a contested state, especially in academia. Would you really want all teaching to be delivered from a steadfastly neutral viewpoint? Tertiary teachers may have been hired precisely for their opinions. Primary and secondary teachers work in an ethnographic state. Any beliefs about their subject, the act of teaching, the price of milk and bread, must permeate them, otherwise they wouldn’t be beliefs. That doesn’t mean that they cannot educate our children fairly and without prejudice. I don’t want my children to be educated with “the truth” – it doesn’t exist and anyone who claims to purvey it is preaching a dangerous and false god.
    The Earth was once flat, now it is round. The world first formed 6000 years ago and then it rapidly aged to 4.6 million years. Animals once swam between continents, then tectonic plates and continental drift appeared.

    It is not truth that we should be teaching, rather the question and the ability to question.

  17. Jared Stein says:

    I love that you’ve taken this argument on, and I enjoy your tone and even-handed approach with all the readers regardless of their political persuasions or perspectives on the issue. For me the topic is too exhausting–perhaps it is because we often have only exchanges rather than dialog, more likely it is because there seems to be virtually no ROI except to further entrench one’s own opinions.


  1. […] Here is a comment I left recently on a post by Ken Allen called, Is Teaching a Subversive Act? […]

  2. […] A few months ago, Ken Carroll wrote a great post asking, Is Teaching a Subversive Activity?”. He begins with Some teachers see their work as a subversive act. To them, perhaps, western […]

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