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Librarianship as a Subversive Profession

Most of my Head for the Edge columns, updated and edited, can be found in my book School Libraries Head for the Edge. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.

Librarianship as a Subversive Profession
Head for the Edge, March 2005

Subversion: a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within (Merriam-Webster Online <www.m-w.com>)

Not long ago, I pulled my old copy of Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity off the bookshelf. I paid an astronomical $2.25 for a paperback copy when a college student in the early 1970s. It has lost a few pages in the introduction and first chapter (you’d think for $2.25 you’d get something that holds up better), but the book itself is as readable and relevant today as it was when written at the height of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement.

Postman and Weingartner argue that schools, because of their bureaucratic natures, cannot and will not reform themselves. That learning that is irrelevant is also pointless. That standardized tests don’t measure up. That schools reinforce conformity and mindless adherence to a “one right answer” mindset. And conclude that it is up to the individual teacher to “subvert” practices and policies that are not in their students’ and society’s best interests.

While I wouldn’t want this getting back to my superintendent, I have always prided myself on being a secretly subversive librarian in both small and large ways. The first time I realized my subversive nature was when I argued for new carpeting and air-conditioning when remodeling a library “to protect the computers and preserve the books” when the real reason was, of course, that these things would actually make the place more enjoyable for the people in the library. Hey, it worked! (For a fleeting moment, I thought I might have a career in politics.)

By our nature, we as librarians often say we are doing something for one reason, when deep inside we know the real reason is one that may not be acceptable to our institution.

  • We order exciting books and high interest magazines and bill them as “practice reading” materials designed to improve student test scores, when our true aim is to develop a love of reading and open young minds to the beauty and wonder of literature.
  • We form library advisory boards that offer us support to balance administrators who may not.
  • We teach our students computer skills, not to make them “computer literate” or help them use drill and practice software, but to locate and find materials that contain reliable information and express a wide-variety of opinions.
  • We teach the research process, less to help students satisfy requirements in English or social studies classes, but to help them learn how to one day use information to help them answer genuine questions and solve real problems.
  • We use puppets and share fairy tales just because they are so darned much fun, not primarily because they effectively transmit our cultural heritage.
  • We do inter-library loan for teachers and administrator even when it is for their book groups or graduate work.
  • We create and promote the use of rubrics and checklists as an antidote to “objective” tests and standardized testing.
  • We accept the role of “network administrator,” controlling passwords in order to gain the same respect enjoyed by the school secretary and custodian.
  • We serve on a mind-numbing number of committees, less to advance the goals of our school, but to make sure those goals are good ones.
  • We teach kids not just to find information, but to be skeptical of it by looking for authority and bias.
  • We make sure reports that warn of the dangers of too much technology use by children like the Alliance for Children’s “Tech Tonic” and “Fool’s Gold” <www.allianceforchildhood.net> are widely read and discussed.
  • We advance Postman and Weingartner’s positions that the questions are as important as the answers, that there is no one right answer but many answers to most questions, and that relevance is necessary if real learning is to happen. Oh, but we call this collaboration to support the curriculum.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we work to make our libraries at least one place in the school that is child-centered, safe, fun and exciting.

As terrible as the word itself sounds, subversion is not a terrible thing. In fact, it’s exactly the right thing to do if what one is subverting is detrimental to children. OK, sing along with me a verse of Pikku Myy’s updated lyrics to Tom Paxton’s 60’s song that began Postman and Weingartner’s book:

What did you learn in school today, dear little girl of mine?  
What did you learn in school today, dear little girl of mine?  
Learning’s just a job I do  
From seven thirty til half-past two  
And all my interests have to wait  
‘Til I drop out or graduate  
And that’s what I learned in school today  
That’s what I learned in school <www.susanohanian.org/show_commentary.php?id=110>
Posted on Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 07:47AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

Keep up this great resource

January 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAssissotom

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