Teaching encompasses space and time, the internal and the external, reason and emotion, the known and the unknown; but education is foremost a human phenomenon, and as such, a historical phenomenon. By pointing out that education defines its substance in history, I am really saying two things: on the one hand, that it fulfils a cultural function, and on the other hand, that there exists no ahistorical ideal in terms of the material that should be taught. The concept evoked by the term “education” is in itself a historical construct. For example, for non-modern cultures education as an institution separate from daily life has no significance. It is only with the schism between humans and nature (with the creation of a “more complex society”, a class based or “civilized” society with leaders and followers, subjects and objects ) that education becomes problematic and subject to dispute and competition. (When I speak of dispute and competition I am not referring to our understanding of these terms in a capitalist society, which is to say the race to achieve the highest social position and gain recognition, money, and power. Instead, I refer to the competition of two fundamental worldviews: The functional and the subversive.)
In general terms the functional view (with its principal variants, liberal and conservative) accepts as fact the foundations of the sociopolitical and epistemological reality of the structure in which the teaching is taking place. The subversive view, for its part, presents three principal variants: Marxism, Anarchism, and the non-patriarchal Indigenous. Of these three, the Marxist in its two variants (the liberal [Allende] and the revolutionary [the Cuban revolution]) shares the rationale of progress with English industrialism, French Illumination, German philosophy (Hegel), and, more generally, the popular promise-based foundational mythology of progress. Anarchism, for its part, is born of the political reality of modernity but discards its fundamentals, attacking principally the legitimacy of the nation-state and its supposed progress. The Indigenous, affected by modernity but independent of its historical project, shares with Anarchism the goals of the dissolution of the State and the advent of a horizontal or consensual democracy, which is not expansive in human or capitalist dimensions. Unlike anarchism, non-patriarchal indigenous approaches to education are anchored in traditions centered on family and community relations as well as the nourishment of equilibrium in nature-human relations. Central to Subversive education is the questioning of the legitimacy of the hegemonic rationality that keeps people alienated from the things that shape their lives and from the planetary space and time that they inhabit.
We could say that these two educational approaches represent differing desired outcomes. The functional approach emphasizes the “production” of a passive and obedient (domesticated) subject resulting in a “good citizen”. Although this citizen may be encouraged and taught to think critically, the boundaries of such critical thought do not exceed the boundaries of the existing governmental structures. In this realm, criticism is channeled towards reform, and the structures are upheld as the best possible example of human governance (ie. representative democracy). The second, or subversive, form of education seeks to empower an active and critical subject with the capacity to analyze and perceive the blind spots within their given social reality. The dominant ideology maintains these blind spots by means of total silence and diversion of attention from problems and substantive decisions that affect everyone, especially the weakest. Part of the silence is maintained through a fragmented student community (the ideology of individualism, upward mobility, and competition), and part of the strategy of diverting attention is the entertainment offered by the mass media. The critical thought generated in the subversive realm questions the pillars of the governing structures and exposes the blindspots.
Passive education can also be confused with mere instruction: the transfer of information from the subject invested with authority to the students (by a variety of methods from the rigidly authoritarian to the more or less friendly and collaborative.) Active education, on the other hand, must help students take charge of themselves, observe their historical conditioning, and finally perceive themselves as inhabitants of a planet and a cosmos, not just a state.
To teach subversively it is important to demonstrate the commonalities among humans (the natural), in relation to that which separates them (the cultural). Thus, myths begin to crumble and the student becomes more receptive to unfamiliar concepts; at the same time, this produces a collateral effect: It awakens a profound necessity to fill the void that the crumbling of the old myths has left in the mind and the emotions of the student. The subversive educator places emphasis on the relationships between professor-student, student-student, student-professor-planet, etc. above any programmatic content. Such teaching is a fundamentally philosophical and critical praxis with the objective of reexamining the patterns of living offered by capitalism and modernity, presenting a fresh perspective on the human position in the cosmos. As Paulo Freire states, we are conditioned by the hierarchical society in which we live, but not determined by it, although it might seem at first glance as if this were so. Although an education with these characteristics is not authoritarian but participative, and although this type of professor does not fit the traditional mold, a minimal amount of authority must be maintained to facilitate the participation of all students. As students come to understand their communal responsibility, they are increasingly able to make use of their own autonomy.
Subversive education is not based on competition among students but rather their collaboration. Its central objective is not a passing grade but true learning. To achieve the central objectives in education for life, we must rethink the systems of methodology and evaluation to the extent that they can either facilitate or impede the process of community bonding. In consequence, we must give priority to patience and empathy as elements of our methodology. The educator should be close to the students (not merely appear to be), and should not play the role of an antagonist who humiliates and punishes the students if they do not share his/her point of view. The educator must be capable of motivating rather than disheartening. She/he must emphasize the ability of all (based on various life experiences) to teach, evaluate, judge, recognize, critique, imagine, and propose. The educator should encourage and reward students for group work, and the exchange of opinions. Even allowing them to take exams home and work communally helps them begin to erase, at least for the duration of the course, the idea that they must knock others down to fortify their own social position, identity, and security in the proverbial rat race of current Western society.
The same goes for final grades. My students generally get good grades because I am constantly observing the development of the class, and adjusting the rhythm according to them and their process of group and individual learning. For example, if I see that the students have achieved less on the first test than past classes have achieved, I give them a chance to replace the first test score with that of their final exam (this applies to class work or individual work). This is a way to assure, on the one hand, that the student has studied and internalized the material, and on the other hand permit him/her to pass the class with a good grade that reflects their learning (not just a reflection of a standardized program/syllabus). This enables them to move forward in the official educational system, which is not the focus of my teaching, but is important nonetheless, as there is no viable alternative at present.
Clearly, the student is central in the learning process. The university student comes from somewhere, usually a manipulative and indifferent high school where classes have poor and often false content, like the “official history” classes which mainly seek to affirm patriotism and loyalty to the Nation State. Students remember a few high school teachers, generally those who are accessible, open, unselfish, and inspiring. Despite the deadening of imagination and restriction of freedom students experience in high school, they maintain a curiosity to put together the pieces of the social/existential puzzle. In this space a humanistic, responsible professor can sow the seeds of solidarity, justice, and peace.