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September 1995 - Issue No. #20 (p. 12 -14)
This article was originally presented as a paper at the Georgetown University
Round Table on Languages and Linguistics, Washington, D.C., March 14, 1994.

Teaching Global Interdependence as a Subversive Activity

by H. Douglas Brown (San Francisco State University, USA)

Nagasaki is one of my favorite Japanese cities. All the advantages of an urban center are present but one can very quickly escape to its surrounding mountains and look down at the beautiful fjord-like inlets characteristic of the western side of Kyushu island. It was here that I had the privilege a few years ago of visiting the Nagasaki Peace Museum, commemorating the dreadful event of August 9, 1945. After a sobering walk through three of its five floors, each with vivid depictions of the catastrophic destruction, I asked my gracious hostess to escort me out. I couldn't bear to see the other two floors.

A few years earlier, my family and I visited the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a somber reminder of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Among those touring the site were people from many different countries. At the end of the tour, as we exited the area, a Japanese couple - obviously shaken by the experience - turned to us and said, "We are so sorry."

These two incidents are indelibly etched into my memory. Both are dramatic reminders of the consequences of choices that human beings made some five decades ago, but more importantly, both are reminders of the collective guilt we feel as interdependent human beings inhabiting this globe. Can we harness such guilt-driven emotions, turn them around into positive, assertive action for peaceful coexistence, and guide them toward productive educational programs? I think we can. I think we must. But sometimes doing so involves a degree of "subversive activity" in our classrooms.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Twenty-five years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1969) shook a few educational foundations with their best seller, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. In this stinging critique of American educational systems, they described our schools as "entropic,...the tendency of all systems to 'run down,' to reduce to chaos and uselessness," (p. 3) and challenged schools to become antientropic:

What is the necessary business of the schools? To create eager consumers? To transmit the dead ideas, values, metaphors, and information of a century ago? To create smoothly functioning bureaucrats? These aims are truly subversive since they undermine our chances of surviving as a viable, democratic society. And they do their work in the name of convention and standard practice. We would like to see the schools go into the anti-entropy business. Now, that is subversive, too. But the purpose is to subvert attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness." (p. 15)

Students, according to Postman and Weingartner, need to become "crap detectors" who can deal with (a) major changes in our social, economic, and political systems, (b) burgeoning bureaucracies (repositories of conventional assumptions and standard practices), and (c) a communications revolution in which the mass media is creating its own version of censorship. "There are many forms of censorship, and one of them is to deny access to 'loudspeakers' to those with dissident ideas, or even any ideas. This is easy to do (and not necessarily conspiratorial) when the loudspeakers are owned and operated by mammoth corporations with enormous investments in their proprietorship." (p. 9)

Those words were printed in 1969. Now, a quarter of a century later, isn't it ironic... ...that we are still beset with the very same problems in our educational systems? ...that we still haven't truly been effectively subverting the attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness? ...that many of our schools have fallen into pedagogical disrepair as we dribble fewer and fewer dollars into public school budgets? ...and that, more than ever, "subversive' teachers are few and far between?

The call for subversive teaching is a challenge all teachers can and should take up in the present day. Those of us who teach languages have a special responsibility to subvert attitudes, beliefs and assumptions... ...that language teaching is neutral, sterile, inorganic and has nothing to do with political issues, ...that global conflict and other forms of international aggression are no longer serious threats in the "post-cold-war" era, ...and that there is no particular urgency to act assertively to stave off an imminent global environmental crisis.

It is this last topic - environmental interdependence - that I call to your attention as a rallying point for subversive activity in our language classrooms.

A Western View of Progress

One of the major causes of what I see as an impending worldwide environmental crisis is something that may loosely be termed a "Western" view of progress. Much of current Western thought and morality is colored by Judeo-Christian and Cartesian beliefs. Genesis 1:28 depicts God commanding human beings to "subdue" the earth and have "dominion" over "every living thing that moves on the earth." Descartes likewise viewed the natural world as a resource to be managed. In this reductionist view that has now come to characterize not just Western, but "modern" thinking in general, human beings are seen both as objective, autonomously rational observers of the world, and also as "masters and processors of nature." (Descartes 1637: 119) Science therefore becomes a means of controlling and perfecting nature for human ends. So-called advanced, modern science and technology are based on a root metaphor or worldview in which human beings are not interdependent with natural systems. Instead, as Bowers and Flinders (1990:229) note

"...the environment has been viewed as a resource to be exploited and, in more progressive circles, to be 'managed.' The modern Western mindset views the future in terms of an ever-widening expansion of economic development, technological possibilities and personal freedoms."

Bowers and Flinders (1990:249) see the need for altering basic cultural foundations in order even to begin to solve the problem: The conceptual foundation of industrial society (and now the society of the 'information age') has been based on assumptions that, if we continue to live by them, will further accelerate the rate of environmental damage....In effect, the evidence of environmental disruption and system breakdown is a clear message that our most basic cultural assumptions are going to have to be reexamined and, in many instances, reconstituted in ways that take into account the interdependence of culture and natural environment."

The global environmental crisis that we now find ourselves on the verge of experiencing may well be impossible to prevent. Clearly, in a world where economic equilibrium is directly linked to technology which is in turn firmly rooted in a "subdue-the-earth" ethic, the prospect of adjusting cultural patterns around the world to achieve global ecological balance is even more formidable than the prospect of world peace!

Ecology and Interdependence

In contrast to the Cartesian worldview is Gregory Bateson's metaphor of ecology: a natural system that includes humans and other life forms sustained through information and energy exchanges. "The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line, or the society. The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment. Thus, in no system can any part have unilateral control over the whole." (Bateson, 1972:451, 316)

Perhaps if our educational institutions - and I daresay our language classrooms - were themselves more responsive and responsible, we might not place the self on such a lofty Cartesian throne. Instead, we might see the interdependence of life on this planet.

The ecology metaphor is exemplified in the ethic and religion of many Native American cultures. This contrast in culture was poignantly illustrated in 1854 when President Franklin Pierce made an offer for a large area of Indian land in the Pacific Northwest. Following are excerpts of the eloquent reply given by Chief Sealth (Seattle):

When the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, every humming insect, the sap which courses through the trees - these carry the memories of the red man.

We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters, the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man - all belong to the same family.

This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. Each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells us of events and memories of the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.

How can you buy or sell this sky, this land, this water? I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

Responsive Language Teaching

Bowers and Flinders (1990) remind educators everywhere that responsive teachers will treat the classroom itself as an ecology of behavioral, mental, and cultural patterns. Responsive teachers, as I view the term, empower not only themselves but also their students by squarely facing issues of ultimate importance to the lives of students. We teachers are "transformative intellectuals," Giroux and McLaren remind us, "who connect pedagogical theory and practice to wider social issues, ...and embody in our teaching a vision of a better and more humane life." (1989:xiii) Surely, then, our commission as teachers includes the goal of helping learners to become informed about the crucial issues that intrinsically affect their lives. We as Earth's stewards, rather than seeking further "dominion" over the planet's life, are more likely to "be fruitful...and replenish the earth" (Genesis 1:28) by helping our students to engage in an international, cross-cultural dialogue.

That dialogue is taking place across the TESOL profession in multiple context itself:

  • NYSTESOL's Idiom recently (93-94) published an issue exclusively devoted to peace and environmental education.

  • In Japan, a Special Interest Group on "Global Issues in Language Education" is going strong with a bimonthly newsletter and 700 supporters.

  • Recent issues of two of Japan's major language teaching periodicals, The Language Teacher and Cross Currents, featured special issues on global education language teaching activities.

  • One of the 1993 issues of TESOL Matters published material by Darlene Larson and Sylvia Mulling on peace/global education.
  • Hockman, Lee-Fong, and Lew (1991) have compiled a large number of activities for teaching global/environmental education in the ESL classroom called "ESL: Earth Saving Language."

  • The English Teaching Forum, a periodical published by the United States Information Agency, devoted its October 1993 issue to "Environment and ESL," with a plethora of practical activities for EFL classrooms.

  • A 1993 National Symposium on English Teaching in Egypt focused on teaching English in a "global age," highlighted by presentations on global/environmental education.

  • A 1993 Global Education catalog is replete with hundreds of materials for teaching environmental awareness and action in K-12 classrooms.

I hope that you are - or soon will be - incorporating into your classrooms the critical thinking implied in such activity. This kind of subversive teaching helps our students not just to become aware of information, but to become participants in a global partnership of involvement in solution-seeking. The little differences here and there that teachers make can add up to breaking the perilous momentum of the now worldwide mindset that gives transitory technological progress priority over basic survival. If we don't act swiftly and decisively, we or our children may witness "The Death of the Earth," as poetically and dramatically depicted by Abraham Akaka of Honolulu's Kawaihao Church:

It began with the processions of gods departing. Pele, who would no more do her earthbuilding fiery dances. Laka, who would no more hula nature's lovely nuances of joy. Kane, who would no longer green the islands.

Hawaii's gods joined the parade of departing deities, back toward the darkness and formlessness and void that was, before God said, "let there be light." And then we saw the Earth die. And we died with her. We could see no more.

We smelled the Earth die in its searing acid breath. And we died with her. We could smell no more. We felt Mother Earth die, her great heart broken, the cells of her beautiful body put asunder, no more to bring forth life, and we died with her. We could feel no more.

We heard the Earth die, with a great ghastly groan. And we heard God's voice saying, "I gave you freedom to choose - between death and life, between hate and love, between greed and giving, between wasting and renewing." And God wept - and he left to tend his other planets.


Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Press.

Bowers, C.A. and Flinders, David J. (1990). Responsive Teaching: An Ecological Approach to Classroom Patterns of Language, Culture, and Thought. NY: Teachers College Press.

Descartes, Rene. (1637). "Discourse on Method," Part IV. In E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (Eds.) (1955), Philosophical Works of Descartes. New York: Dover Press.

Giroux, Henry A. and McLaren, Peter L. (1989). Critical Pedagogy, The State, and Cultural Struggle. Albany, NY: State University of NY.

Hockman, B., Lee-Fong, K., and Lew, E. (1991). ESL: Earth Saving Language. Workshop given at the March 1991 TESOL Convention, NY

Postman, Neil and Weingartner, Charles. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell Publishing Company.


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
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