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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.

Clip 2: "A Two-Edged Sword"

H. Douglas Brown: Is all language teaching — does all language teaching have that same motive? Some of you may have taught at or been to the DLI, the Defense Language Institute, down in Monterey. And I would say when I was down there for several workshops that the teachers openly admitted that the reason for teaching a certain language was basically to listen to radio broadcasts and to — I mean if you want to use the word "spy," it's to spy on another country and figure out if they have any deep dark secrets or gonna come over our heads and annihilate the United States. So, that's not exactly the same spirit that this particular statement is in and it's not exactly why you teach language, in order to get people to be able to spy more easily. But it is a motive. And you and I know that there are languages being taught — perhaps in this country, in many countries of the world — where the ulterior motives are not necessarily for peace, they're not necessarily to communicate and be nice to somebody who is of another culture, another country or another religion; so it's a two-edged sword.

But I think most of us agree that at least in almost all of our schools and universities here in the USA, we are at the heart of the matter agents for change, for communicating across borders — and to try to bring down the barriers that lie between cultures, politics.

See, all the good teachers have pure hearts and just want peace, love and harmony; but down there at the evil Defense Language Institute, they just teach people to become spies. Boooooo! Because God forbid we take any steps to forestall our enemies by learning their languages.

In the passage above, Brown is segregating educators into two clearly distinct camps: the "good guys" like himself and the vast majority of liberal teachers who want to bring unity to the world; and the "bad guys" who use education to help the military-industrial complex. And the good guys are all "agents for change."

Clip 3: "Refrain From Revealing Your Own Beliefs"

H. Douglas Brown: Because if we, if we agree that we all kind of have a moral imperative as language teachers, an imperative to be someone, a teacher, not just another unit of linguistic bits and pieces. To be someone. And we're going to have to face these questions. So can we be agents of change? And at the same time refrain from revealing our own beliefs and convictions — or should we? It's kind of a two-pronged [...]. So, being an agent for change. But the question that I'm still leaving on this is "Can you, or can you refrain from revealing your own beliefs and convictions?" One of my teachers at the ALI says no, she would never be able to do that when it comes to hatred and prejudice. And she cited the issue of the KKK and she says, "I will NOT be balanced in my treatment of the Ku Klux Klan and what they did — and are doing — in the Southern part of the US. I will not present that other side."

"Oh well, you know, they could be right."

She just said, "I'm not there."

So, is that a good place to be? Should you present both sides? All the way, even though you intensely dislike that other side? I mean, that is the question.

You can see in this passage Brown's typical academic habit of hedging his statements by phrasing them as questions. Translated into direct speech, what he seems to be saying is: We shouldn't even bother hiding our political agendas when we indoctrinate our students. To illustrate this point, he cites a (probably apocryphal) scenario in which a teacher was expected to present "both sides" of arguments for and against the KKK, something she refused to do, and rightly so. Using an extreme example that nobody would argue with is a good way of getting your foot in the door; from there on down it's a slippery slope, and teachers can use the same excuse to justify one-sided discussions of all sorts of topics which they will claim also don't merit even-handedness, a process we see being played out in classrooms constantly, with stories cropping up nearly every day of teachers exclusively presenting the liberal side of issues, or actively disparaging or misrepresenting conservative concepts.

In case you didn't catch it, the phrase "moral imperative" means "My progressive views are so over-archingly correct that it becomes my moral duty to spread them, and a crime against the world to keep them to myself."

Here's the slide he was showing during the discussion above.

Clip 4: "Just a Complete Wacko"

H. Douglas Brown: The third question: "Does our zeal for realizing our own vision of a better world stand in the way of truly equal, balanced treatment of all issues?" So in this part I want to talk a little bit about Christianity or religion in general. I had a very devout Christian ALI teacher a few years back who came to me and said that, "I'm teaching English because I really want the whole world to believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior." OK [laughs], I took a deep breath, and sat back in my chair and, y'know, made a few comments about how I appreciated anybody with zeal, but that first of all this is a state institution, and that we're not a Christian institution, and that part of our whole ethos in the United States of America has to do with freedom of religion or — if you wish — freedom from religion, depending on what your perspective is — and that a motive like that could remain in the back of her mind, I thought, but that we weren't going to ask her to get up and start reading John 3:16. [This is an] English class. That this was beyond the mandate and beyond the scope of what the American Language Institute was doing. Well. Was that the right thing to do? Was she just a complete wacko in saying that she wanted everybody to convert to Jesus Christ, or what? I still think y'know, I think I said the right thing. She left ALI fairly quickly [audience laughter] because she realized that we were not an institution where she could teach Jesus as The Way. And she did say Jesus was The Way, and I said that, well, y'know, "That's, I'm sorry, but we can't do that." And I think she went to another place.

So that's just one example of, y'know this balanced treatment, and how far does your zeal for a particular issue go? I mean, let's — we can name any issue — how far does it go?

Here's another kind of ridiculous little example, but: from an ESL textbook this dialogue came: "Why do you smoke? Because I like it. You shouldn't smoke. Well, it makes me less nervous. But it's not good for your health. I don't care. Well, you will die young." That was actually in a textbook. Well, you know, that's sending a message. That's not exactly balanced treatment of tobacco use. And I'm afraid I would have a hard time giving balanced treatment on an issue like that. I would tend to kind of go along with this dialogue and say, you know, "Stop smoking." But what is our mandate? What is our moral imperative as teachers and what can we do subversively and yet maybe not so subversively that could get to be fairly overt?


Well, I think that's the realistic thing when we become agents for change and when we become teachers with some sense of our moral imperative.

So one of my favorite books that came out by a former ALI student, had a chapter in it on homosexuals in— I think they were just in just Any City, USA, and it was about "Daddy's Roommate." And do you teach this, and how do you teach it? And what do you do when students rise up in holy wrath and say, "Well, you know that's" — whatever they're going to say — "It's a sin, it's bad, or whatever, to be a homosexual?" How do you treat that? What do you do as a language teacher?

We had a unit at ALI about, it was a videotape, about My Two Mommies, a wonderful, wonderful, very sweet videotape, and kids of gay parents were being interviewed. Beautiful, beautiful tape. But some students didn't like this, right? I mean, you can imagine. They thought, "What are you trying to teach me?" Well, we're trying to teach English, but we're trying to get you to think a little bit. Maybe some of them didn't like that, and we got some controversy over that.

We had an article about burning down an abortion clinic that we also used at ALI once. Equally controversial.

This clip is truly mind-boggling. Brown first cites the example of a Christian teacher who of course is completely forbidden from discussing her crazy values with the students, something Brown recounts with pride — and then moments later he turns right around and discusses how "wonderful" and "beautiful" and thus reasonable and praiseworthy is his curriculum about homosexuality and abortion clinics and so forth. He's not even trying to be unbiased here; he's just presuming that his worldview is correct and superior, and the Christian's worldview is "wacko," and thus it is right and proper to banish her and instead promote his agenda.

(An explanatory note that applies to this clip and many of the other clips as well: Professor Brown's specialty was teaching English as a second language to adult students, so many of the scenarios he presented involved introducing progressive American liberalism to foreign students who sometimes had brought with them conservative or old-fashioned values from their native cultures, and who were therefore affronted by his politicized language lessons. As a result, the "indoctrination" scenarios he described are somewhat different from standard public school scenarios in which teachers can manipulate the comparatively unformed psyches of young American children.)

Clip 5: "I wish that people didn't have that freedom"

H. Douglas Brown: So I'm kind of pushing down here toward a resolution of all this, in a way, and that is: In order to make these decisions about what you do or don't do or what you face or don't face in a classroom: Are there universal values? I happen to think they're not universal, because "universal" means everybody believes in them. There's no such thing as everyone, six and a half whatever it is billion people on earth believing the same thing.

But, I do think that within our culture, and this is speaking in the United States of America, within our culture, there is a certain given set of working moral hypotheses. One is the equality of human beings. Two is freedom of individuals to speak out, write their opinions about sensitive — that's a double-edged sword. Sometimes I think all of us wish that people didn't have so much freedom [audience laughter]. I don't know how many of you listen to any syndicated morning talk shows lately, but there are some times when I wish that people didn't have that freedom. Ultimately because they disagree with me [audience laughter]. A culture of open-mindedness. We tend to think, yeah, you know, we believe that's basic to our ethos. We believe in nonviolent resolution of conflict and we tend to believe in responsibility as stewards of the earth, to take care of this planet.

And so some people have disagreed, of course, that we shouldn't even be talking about this stuff, and [one] teacher said, "Your charge is to teach English or French or whatever, Finnish, or whatever language you're teaching, and not morality. So just teach the bits and pieces and get off this, you know, sort of holier-than-thou kind of thing. Teachers should emphasize unity, not difference, so don't do any of that controversial stuff. You get people too upset. The teacher is an authority figure. Students will believe whatever you believe in order to please you, so you should steer clear of sensitive issues. Because if you say something that is on one of these sensitive issues, the student is likely to look at the teacher and say 'Oh yeah, well, whatever you say, teacher.' Or teachers will inevitably sometimes they push their own beliefs and agendas." Yes. I think we do.

The question is: How do we do it? And the view that you don't have to believe in a point of view, I mean, I, I — maybe, maybe if you really backed me into a corner I might sort of reluctantly respect a student's point of view who said that, y'know, "Racial prejudice is good." But I don't think I'd respect it as much as respect the right of the person to believe this. And then to dialogue with the person.

I nearly fell out of my chair when he first said that he wished conservatives didn't have freedom of speech, and then practically the very next phrase out of his mouth was that people like him believe in "a culture of open-mindedness." I mean c'mon, does he have any self-awareness? How could someone say that with a straight face? And the audience just laughed, ha ha ha. This only confirms what I have long suspected: That liberals have banished overt conservative thought from many college campuses with "speech codes," and that given half a chance they would implement the same thing society-wide, and feel sanctimonious and justified in doing so.

The key phrase in the passage above, which you kind of have to hear in the audio clip to fully appreciate, is when he says "Yes. I think we do." The tone of his voice is a sort of adolescent "Duh!" Of course we're going to push our own beliefs and agendas on our students. That's a given. The only remaining question is: How should we indoctrinate your children? Overtly, or surreptitiously? Rigidly, with no talking back allowed; or more casually?

The key thing to remember from this passage is: Liberal teachers are so convinced of their moral superiority and pure intentions that they do not feel guilt or doubt about imposing their views on others.

The expression on his face conveys how he feels about the counter-arguments presented on the PowerPoint slide.

Clip 6: "If You Were a Republican You Had to Really Hide It"

H. Douglas Brown: In Berkeley — um, Berzerkely, as it's known to those of us outside of Berkeley — we live in a luxurious metropolitan area, I think. I'm now living in the [Sacramento] Valley. Uh, now, I don't want to say anything bad about those nice folks that, y'know, that provide our strawberries and crops and everything, but I'm learning — [this is another true confession] — I'm learning to live with and make friends with Republicans [audience laughter]. Nothing wrong with Republicans, but I — at San Francisco State University I think if you were a Republican you had to really hide it, and/or if you felt that you were on the right side of the political spectrum. So, it's actually a good lesson for me, because you know I'm hearing stuff that I wanna just — you know I want to come back at them, [completely] overcome here, I want to try to see if I can diplomatically engage with them, especially when there is a challenge. But you're right that this area is a wonderful area to expose students to. If they were in, I don't know, Platte, Nebraska or something [...]

Yes, sir.

Questioner: With regard to that, actually when I was listening to your talk I couldn't help but think of Rick Santorum's recent attacks on higher education—

H. Douglas Brown: He and I are just two peas in a pod [audience laughter].

I only included this passage in case there was any doubt as to Brown's (and the audience's) political leanings.

Having said that about the audience's political leanings — well, it wasn't unanimous. After the scripted part of the lecture, there was a question-and-answer session (which I mostly didn't record, unfortunately), and this guy pictured here emerged as the hero of the day. He was the only person to speak his mind and basically call Brown out on the carpet. I don't have a tape of his exact words, but he basically said, "Are you nuts? My job, like yours, is to teach English to immigrants; and all they want is to learn the language. Period. Politics is completely beside the point, and the reason students get mad at you is not the specifics of your viewpoints, but because you're wasting their time on social issues when all they want to learn is the grammar of an unfamiliar language. Get over yourself, and get back to basics." Well, it wasn't quite that direct, and it was said with a thick Indian accent, but that was the gist of it. I was so impressed, I later took this picture of him.

One other audience member made a good point, which I mentioned above; A guy a few rows behind me noted that since the contemporary status quo in almost all universities is liberal by default, then what is modern "subversive teaching" even being subversive against? Itself? But Brown just laughed it off and didn't really address the question.

What did we learn from all this? Well, aside from the obvious — that the educational establishment not only indoctrinates students, but also openly discusses the best way to do it — I learned of the various code words they use to mask their discussions. Here's a handy list: Remember these phrases, and keep an ear out for them when dealing with teachers or educators.

Code Phrases Alluding to Indoctrination

If you hear or read academics using any of these tell-tale terms, they are actually discussing how to indoctrinate students:

• Critical pedagogy

• Agent for change

• Moral imperative

• "Critical" anything

• Subversive

• Mandate