Stories and Strategies for Activist Educators
By Michael Newman
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006
The novelist Walker Percy, in his essay “Loss of the Creature,” said schools and teachers often get in the way of their students’ educations. We do that, he argued, by giving them prepared and packaged ways of understanding themselves and their world.
A kid, Percy said, armed with honest curiosity and a jackknife, will get more out of working over a dead dogfish on a beach than a student with a pickled one at a school bench. Likewise, he thought, an eager but unschooled reader of a sonnet has a better chance of getting at its meaning than a Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II.
The reason those in school have a harder time, he said, is when they get the fish or sonnet they’ve already been briefed, told what to expect, invited to see it a certain way and not others. They get the received view of the thing.
Better, Percy thought, that students learn to see a fish or sonnet, or just about anything else, for themselves – to engage what they find, study it, stack it up against what they know, pursue questions about it, see it for what it is, than to see the facsimile that they’re supposed to see.
Better, he said, at least now and then, that students of poetry find dead fish on their desks and biology students find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting tables.
Newman’s book Teaching Defiance is not a manual for teaching college students. But though he makes no reference to Percy’s essay, he’s arguing essentially the same thing and has much to teach those of us who do teach them: that it is our business to encourage students to be awake and aware, to think for themselves, to engage the world as ethical activists (in the broadest sense of that word) rather than as passive receptacles.
Newman, a teacher and activist, has worked mainly with adults in Australia and England, as well as a number of other places around the world, from post-Apartheid South Africa to the outback of New Zealand. The book is pitched to community activists, union organizers, agitators for social and political change. Its chapters have titles such as “Taking Sides,” “Inspiring Rebelliousness,” “Teaching Choice,” “Teaching About Action.” His touchstones are political theorists and philosophers such as Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Jürgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault. The book is in many ways a latter-day deployment of Paulo Freire’s influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which articulated a program that got Freire tossed out of Brazil as a revolutionary … because he was teaching people to read and think for themselves.
Newman’s book is therefore abundantly relevant to school or college or university teachers. Don’t we pray each morning that our efforts will free the minds of our students? Don’t we say that we want them to be critical thinkers, fully engaged in the world as it is? And don’t we too often wish that our students (and ourselves) were more critical, engaged, and alive? “It is common enough these days,” Newman writes, “to hear people say that we should teach critical thinking, but this injunction has become a platitude” (9).
Newman sums up where he hopes to move people:
Ideally, the learners move from a fatalistic consciousness to a critical consciousness. Through dialogue, through the process of naming and renaming, through the use of authentic language, through the critical analyses of their worlds, they come to understand the ways in which their thinking has been constrained by their social, political and cultural contexts. From inaction and passivity they move to praxis, a fusion of critical reflection and action. (249-50)
Those familiar with educational (and leftist political) theory of the latter half of the past century will nod in agreement and learn little that is theoretically surprising in this book. Like the notion of critical thinking, these ideas are now commonplace.
What is novel about this book is that Newman manages to compress such a wide range of disparate theory in one place – linking existentialists and interpretivists and postmodernists with the sonnets of William Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, the poetry of Louis Aragon. Newman links the theoretical and the human, the head and the heart, and advocates that activist programs do the same.
I anticipated that the book would be colored in gray prose. Instead I found it bright with stories and insights and poetry. There’s plenty of theory, cleanly and clearly presented. But there are also tales of rebellious soldiers in World War I and of Gandhi’s 1929 salt march against the British salt tax. Newman describes behind-the-scenes union negotiations in Australia, then visits rioters and bystanders on the streets of Paris in 1968. He walks us through the love talk of Mirabell and Mrs. Millamant in William Congreve’s The Way of the World.
At every turn Newman describes people struggling to be aware and awake and honest with themselves and others. And at every turn he mines the stories for insights to help others chart their own way through their own circumstances. In this way, the techniques of agitating for social change become the techniques to enlighten our students.
It is easier to mention the abstract ideas and references, for they take up less space. But most of the book is given over to practical, useful examples of teaching the arts of analysis, consciousness raising, negotiation, dialogue and dialectic.
In one extended story, for instance, Newman describes tense and delicate negotiations between New Zealand cattlemen and Aboriginals competing for access to ancestral lands. He talks about the way both sides came to see the humanity of the other, to see each other as active subjects with interests rather than merely objects getting in the way, of how they learned to see each other as people through their common enthusiasms for such things as cricket matches, and to soften their positions in light of each other’s gaze.
Similarly, Newman walks the reader through workshops he has conducted between angry union officials and management teams, inviting them to talk through their differences until the differences came to be at least mutually intelligible. “Little by little,” he writes, “the interpretations each person places on the word will come closer together so that, without either person being able to point to a particular moment when a breakthrough occurs, they will nonetheless begin to communicate more effectively” (174).
I found his chapters on hate and anger most disturbing. I am inclined to think such feelings get in the way. Newman proposes that they should not be ignored but marshaled (and that is probably the right word), recognized as motivating forces. He indicates that they should be thought through and channeled, that angry people need to be careful with their anger, make responsible choices. But in the end, he says, there is much to be angry about in the world.
And just when Newman starts to sound shrill, even bitter, he reminds us with a story – not unlike Percy’s image of the kid on the beach with a dead fish – about how much there is to celebrate and affirm: “Beautiful surroundings, fine music and easy-going civility – a world worth defying the doomsayers, barbarians and bigots for” (288).