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"Teaching as a Subversive Activity": The Theory of Political Indoctrination

Last weekend I visited the U.C. Berkeley campus and on a whim attended a lecture with the provocative title "Teaching as a Subversive Activity — Revisited."

Because this was a presentation aimed at education insiders only, the lecturer, retired professor H. Douglas Brown from S.F. State, seemed perfectly willing to let the cat out of the bag about political indoctrination on college campuses. Fortunately, I had my trusty camera with me, so I was able not only to snap a few pictures but also record several key portions of his speech, which I found so eye-opening that I felt the general public deserved to hear it as well.

The timing couldn't have been better: A devastating new report issued by the National Association of Scholars had just been issued a few days beforehand, which documented with exquisite and irrefutable detail the extreme liberal bias at the University of California. However, the main problem with the NAS report (which you can download in full here if you're interested) is that it's too overwhelming and too technical to deliver the kind of emotional impact needed to sway public opinion. To drive home the point in a more personal way, the NAS report needed an introductory companion anecdote of a professor frankly confessing the rationale behind what is essentially the "theory of indoctrination." As if on cue, Professor Brown stepped into that role, unwitting though he may have been.

Let it be noted that Professor H. Douglas Brown is no wild-eyed extremist; in fact, he's rather bland and respectable and not the most thrilling of speakers, as you will soon hear. But that's what made his presentation so disturbing: radical and self-admittedly "subversive" attitudes that affect the future of society are discussed with matter-of-fact nonchalance. The main drawback of Professor Brown's verbal style (at least from my point of view) is that he often resorts to the academics' tried-and-true escape hatch, which is to rephrase statements as questions, so as to have plausible deniability if later confronted. Thus, for example, instead of just flatly saying something like "We should indoctrinate students with leftist ideologies," he asks "Should we indoctrinate students with leftist ideologies?" and only after five minutes of talking in circles eventually concludes "Yes."

The title of Brown's lecture is taken from an influential and groundbreaking book published in 1969. Written by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, the manifesto Teaching as a Subversive Activity did not actually advocate political indoctrination in the classroom, but rather it was one of the first books to completely deconstruct the concept of education itself, and the "subversion" it advocated was much deeper and more structural: Get rid of tests, the notions of "the right answer" and "the wrong answer," the memorization of facts, the ascendency of teachers, and so forth; instead, make education an ungraded process of learning how to think and how to criticize, respecting the opinions and ideas of the students themselves. Of course, this being 1969, it was presumed that the establishment status quo with its facts and rules was rigid and conservative, while the students were radical and transgressive, so all one had to do to foment a revolution was simply to put the kids in charge of their own education, and they'll naturally overthrow society without even being specifically instructed to do so. (If you're curious, the entire text of Teaching as a Subversive Activity is now available for free online as a PDF document.)

In the decades since, many of the recommendations in Teaching as a Subversive Activity and similar books were in fact implemented to various degrees, but things didn't quite work out as the authors envisioned. Without some structure, students often flounder aimlessly. Furthermore, the "authority figures" controlling academia are no longer uptight conservatives, but are instead now liberals, progressives and radicals themselves, so when students are encouraged to ignore those in charge, then they may very well ignore the progressive messages as well.

Professor Brown's talk focuses specifically on this problem: His basic thesis is that it is no longer sufficient to simply tell students to think for themselves, because then we lose the ability to influence them, and there's no guarantee that the students will then develop progressive worldviews. The "Revisited" part of the lecture's title means that these days, we must be more blunt and to the point: Since the good guys are now in charge, let's just dispense with all the experimentation and instead directly indoctrinate the students in leftist thought and ideals.

Now, I'm sure Professor Brown, were he to ever read this essay, would take exception to my characterization of his lecture; but listen to the excerpts below and judge for yourself. Although he (and his legions of fellow educational theorists) seems partly aware of his biases, and frankly admits them, he also seems to be blithely oblivious to the depth of his political prejudices, which you'll encounter below.

I'm not presenting this lecture in and of itself as a significant political watershed, nor as a shocking behind-the-scenes glimpse at academic bias. Rather, it's just another random day at a random university; stuff like this goes on all the time. And it's this normalcy of radicalism that makes it so alarming; people in the academic hothouse chat about the most disturbing ideas as if they were discussing the weather. The banality of subversion, as it were.

Below you will find six audio clips from his April 6 lecture, followed by six exact transcriptions. The sound quality of the audio is, admittedly, rather poor, so read the transcriptions as your main resource and only refer to the mp3s as proof that the transcriptions are true and accurate. The lecture was nearly two hours long in full, far too long to present in a short essay like this, plus I was only able to record segments of it, so what you see here are only excerpts; but they're a fair representation of the overall lecture. (Portions of the transcriptions [in brackets] indicate words that are not clearly audible; Ellipses [...] indicate passages skipped because they were inaudible or were asides.)

Following each clip are brief comments and analyses by me.

Also scattered throughout the essay are photos I took of various slides in Brown's PowerPoint presentation; if you want to see the whole thing as a PDF document, the Berkeley Language Center (which sponsored the lecture) has made it available here.

Ever wonder how "progressive" educators justify their one-sidedness? Behold:

Clip 1: "Agents for Change."

Host: OK, well, it's a great pleasure to introduce Professor H. Douglas Brown — Doug Brown — who is truly an iconic figure in language acquisition and language teaching broadly, incredibly influential with many years of experience. He's professor emeritus at San Francisco State Department of English and also director for 22 years of the American Language Institute at S.F. State.


H. Douglas Brown: Thank you very much. ...

The Postman and Weingartner book was intriguing to me because I thought, "Well, what do you mean teaching as a 'subversive activity'? What are we talking about?" And of course what Postman and Weingartner were trying to point out, not for language teaching in particular but for education in America and the United States in general, to what extent are we shaping the lives of the children in our public schools and the kids in our high schools? To what extent are we perhaps subversively providing messages to them on: What is good? What is bad? What is right? What is wrong?


The first observation is that our motives are rooted in our desire to help people, to communicate across national, political, and religious boundaries and our desire to be agents for change in this world.

Wonderful phrase: "Agents for change." And it certainly fits with that whole mentality that Postman and Weingartner were talking about in their "subversive teaching"; "agents of change."

Right from the beginning Brown is unconsciously wrestling with the distinction between the book's publication date of 1969, when the "right" and "wrong" values which teachers were conveying to students were presumed to be old-fashioned and reactionary and thus ripe for "subversion" by new teaching methods, versus today, when educators are now motivated by all sorts of noble ideals, and thus it's OK for modern teachers to tell students what to feel. Of course, the philosophical framework no longer makes total sense, since (as a questioner after the lecture later pointed out), if teachers still want to be "agents for change," the old puritan society they are rebelling against no longer really exists anymore, so what are they trying to "change" now if the change they sought already happened?

Whenever you see the phrase "Critical Pedagogy," your indoctrination alarm bells should ring.