Saturday 9 May 2015

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

In a few minutes I'm off on a trek to Dublino for celebrate the retirement of one of my old teachers. This is the chap who engaged a whole class of second-year students as willing robots-of-science back in the 1970s. I suspect that, because it is hosted by the Genetics Department, the nature of the tributes on Saturday will be about the key role McConnell played in the development of Irish genetics. There is a wider context for this (not that much wider: it’s still within the secure palisade of Trinity): the commitment to college life which is much more than the set pieces of the curriculum in any one department.  In about 1974, McConnell and Robert Blackith [from a different Department!] organised an evening symposium series on aspects of teaching and learning. Anyone could turn up, even junior ticks like myself and my future Gaffer. It started off in FRED [First Right Entering another different Department - this was getting really ecumenical] and after the formal session, we spilled out into the FLED biochemistry laboratory across the hallway for tea, biscuits and carcinogens - there were no health and safety officers back then. One of the casual references to sources of pedagogical inspiration in that symposium was Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The next day I went out and bought it (I still bought new books in 1974). More than any one book, this encouraged me to look hard at the unconsidered certainties in which we were, and are, awash. I was too young and ignorant then to articulate it thus but I began to understand that university chaps have duty and responsibility to think subversively. Unless you take what you think you know on a damned good run into the wide unknown you have not earned your salt as a foot-soldier of thought. Although the process was 20 years in the gestation, it came to a head in our two decade experiment with home education I, II, III.  Letting our girls follow their own path in acquiring an education (we did our best to just get out of the way) allowed them to polish their crap-detectors, starting with when their father was clearly saying something that hadn’t been fully thought out or was manifestly insincere.  Those girls both left home before they turned 18, standing tall, striding into their own future, financially independent and enrolled in the university of life. Now is the time to say thanks to David McConnell and Robert Blackith for being the flap of a butterfly’s wing 40 years ago.

I'm really looking forward to a day kibbitzing with other McConnellists and hearing how each was changing in their course by this man.

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