Home > Commentaries on TTC > The Chinese Hell has 18 levels. Screw you, Dante!

The Chinese Hell has 18 levels. Screw you, Dante!

He never gave a dull class...

When the great Tao is forgotten,

Kindness and morality arise.

When wisdom and intelligence are born,

The great pretense begins.

The disordered family

is full of dutiful children and parents.

The disordered society is full of loyal patriots.

The first thing I think of when I read these lines is the EFL industry. This is an industry that has risen to meet the clients’ needs; which centralises the students; where we empower students and facilitate learning. So many of our advances are the fruit of much wisdom and intelligence. And then Freddie Mercury kicks in, with his pyjama suit sans bushy moustache. “Oh, yes! I’m the Great Pretender…”

How kind are we to put our leaners above all? How moral is the teaching of English? Who are we kidding?

What do you mean: you've forgotten your homework?

Why do we teach people English? More often that not because we labour under the illusion that this is how we are going to give them a better life. You need English to get along. These people need to get along. These people need English. And so we swoop in with our Headways and our Cutting Edges and we educate the natives to speak like us, to embrace our culture, to unquestioningly accept that if they want a Better Life, they had Better be more like us. One wonders whether the Vikings taught Norse as a Foreign Language in between raping and pillaging.

And our courebooks feed the students our ‘culture’ – packed full of vacuous human interest stories that provide anecdotes, celebrity facts, cautionary tales and cultural titbits. After all, if We like this kind of thing, it follows that the Other must like it too.

But in the background, forgotten, is the great Tao. That is the great way; the way(s) people learn language.

Our kindness and morality is based upon a great lie: English does not change lives. Having to learn English guarantees that life does not change: to get on, you have to embrace the values of the leaders, have to be able to speak their language. There is a lot of talk among certain people about how English can be appropriated by the world’s underclass and used as a tool. And that may be true, but I have yet to see it happen. The world’s underclass tends to spend their life pushing a broom around until such time as they are ready for the brush end. It matters not a jot whether they can cry out in English, “Oh! I say! Stop that, it tickles!” as they are swept into the gutter of history.

But such things are far too serious to be spoken about. It is much better to labour under the illusion that our work is non-political. After all, we are language teachers, not fomentors of revolution. It is not our job to question the way of the world. Even if it it a world turned upside down.

And so we, the dutiful children and parents, keep schtum. We maintain the great pretense both to the rest of the world’s people and to ourselves. We concern ourselves with measuring teacher talking time and the ability of our students to twist their tongue around consonant clusters whilst ignoring the reality that we are engaged in building.

Sometimes I feel a bit like the trades unionists who work in British Aerospace must feel when they are assembling bombs and torture devices. That is, a bit confused by the whole thing. It’s a job – and as I approach 40, having only ever taught EFL, and with 3 kids in tow, it’s unlikely that I will ever give it up. And yet, I feel uncomfortable with the politics of English Language Teaching. At times like this, the argument that our learners can appropriate the language and use it to their own end seems most attractive to me. And then I look at my students and wonder to what ends will these exceptionally wealthy students put this language. I’m like a fly caught in some honey that was dripped into a Venus flytrap in a world that is riddled with global warning.

With the Tao forgotten, we need leaders to help us through the chaos. People who will stand at the front and shout, “Follow me!” A guru caste is born. People begin to earn their living by writing books and touring conferences. Their take on the whole shebang is given preference over the take of others – very often over the take of others who actually teach in a classroom. These people are the “loyal ministers” that Lao refers to. They appear to offer guidance and help, but they really serve to stop people realising that they can do it all by themselves. They manage the chaos – as if!- and they earn a buck by creating this new illusion.

And in this state of managed chaos, wisdom and intelligence are born. Teachers become teachers by passing through an exam that bestows the qualification upon them. Now they can call themselves teachers and go forth to get whatever salary is available. We cling to the empty words, “principled eclecticism” in place of Lao’s “disordered society.” And we are faithful to the precepts of our trade: we are a science, we can crack the code of language learning, we are doing a good thing. Further sub-codes are written that tell us How To Be A Good Teacher; which methodology is The Good One (answer The Communicative Approach) and which is The Bad One – all others. We get out students to call us by our first name and try to negotiate everything that we want. All is happy. Chaos becomes order.

This is illegal and harms your health. The defence that you answer to a higher force than humanity does not always carry much water.

Quite. Sitting under the tree, rolling joints with pages from the Encyclopedia of the English Language, our Taoist smiles an infuriatingly patronising smile and continues to stare into the chaos. Because chaos can’t be tamed. It is a greater force than anything that humans can come up with. And the desperate attempts to enforce order upon it are just another feature of a larger complex system that goes careening off into the sunset like a mad Tasmanian devil on speed.

So, enough analysis. What’s the solution? I’m damn sure I don’t know. My solution is to do whatever can be done to keep the creditors at the door, and as I live in a country that is deprived of the constitutional right to bear arms, that means having to go to work on a daily basis.

I think I get around my quandary by realigning my job description. I really teach other things through the medium of English (TOTTME). At the moment, I am working with students who want to go to university in an English-speaking country. We do a lot of work on study skills and research skills. The fact that students need to hone their critical faculties to become better students within higher education means that they can be taught to question givens and I can sleep at night.

There is no need for experts; there is no need for certificates and diplomas. There is no need for methodologies nor coursebooks nor approaches. If we respect the great tao, all that is needed is a student who wants to learn and a teacher who can answer the questions. When the first is absent from our classroom, it is a myth, a lie, a falsehood that we are exercising kindness and morality in our work.

I accept that we are living in the 21st century where a brother can’t just hitch himself to a handcart and get the hell out of Dodge. We are surrounded by experts and we appear to benefit from their findings. Whether or not certificates and diplomas are necessary to truly know, they are most definitely necessary to truly earn.

Perhaps the message from the TTC is to pull back and put things into perspective. If we rise above our world and look down, we see a huge sandstorm blowing in the desert. All of our experience is just one grain of sand in the middle of the vortex. Now, that grain of sand may have been trodden on by some very esteemed historical figures – Rommel, Lawrence of Arabia, Saladin, err…the three wise men. But it’s hardly more distinguishable than any other grain of sand that’s being buffeted by the winds. In fact, it’s hardlyt distinguishable at all.  The only thing that can be said about it with any certainty is that it is very good at being a grain of sand.

And we can have all the qualifications that are possible – and these are becoming increasingly necessary to secure even the most lowly EFL job- but the only qualification that we really need is for our students to be able to move on in life and look back and say, “The only thing I can say about them with any certainty is that they were very good at being a teacher. Well…the be more preceise, he was a better teacher than a blogger. That’s all I can say. If you want any more, you’ll have to speak to my lawyer.”

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. January 19, 2010 at 08:59

    This is my favourite of your voices Diarmuid. I really enjoy it when you do these kinds of manifesto of a different sort of world posts – they are powerful and moving. I can honestly say that in the wee hours of this morning when I read this on my smart phone device (u know which one) my eyes welled up with the injustice of it all and I don’t mean in a Hollywood way – sometimes its a relief to hear things spoken about in their purest terms, rather than covered in the protective bubble wrap of ELT. It was only the clumsiness of the reply function that stopped me from rattling off a huge reply of agreement. Have just re-read this morning and what can I say except I agree with it all even in the crisp light of the frosty Thessaloniki morning. Keeping it all in perspective is my new motto, but not at the expense of seeing it how it is or trying to change bits of it where possible. Thank you for keeping it real 🙂

    • dfogarty
      January 19, 2010 at 21:14


  2. January 23, 2010 at 22:20


    I certainly feel like a grain of sand at times, one swamped in administrative work at that!

    My current quandry: How to teach ICT to Entry 2 ESOL (quite low level) students? I don’t think there’s quite an ELT book on that yet – have to learn by doing, I guess.

    A very interesting piece 😀

    • dfogarty
      January 24, 2010 at 08:27

      You mean the government have loaded you with administratve work? How very unlike them! They are the antithesis of Taoism, I suspect. They believe in a world where all can be measured and everyone can be held accountable. If it can’t be costed, it doesn’t exist. And if it can be costed, it can be Made More Efficient…Still, to look on the bright side, it’ll mean an end to the perception of radical change when The Other Lot get in…gone are the days when celebrities need to say, “If the XXX party gets in, I’m leaving the country.” We can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that when we wake up, we will continue to share the land with Delia Smith, Michael Barrymore, Freddie Starr and other such luminaries of this great culture.

      As for teaching ICT to Entry 2 ESOL, learning by doing sounds like the way forward. What is on the syllabus? Do they need to learn how to type? Use Microsoft Office? Write, save, and print? We used to have to drag students into the computer lab…sorry…the PC suite…every week. A lot of people did proof reading things: add the punctuation etc. Then they would give handouts with design instructions: change the font to…justify the text…add a picture from clip art etc.

      I got students to look at a story that I’d made on PPT for my daughter. Then they worked together to do the same. I went around and helped out. Using Jing might be a good idea for you. It’s a free screencast tool that allows you to record up to 5 minutes of screencasting. This could be the input part of the lesson where you show students what you want to do (perhaps set up a blog for them where you can upload your screencasts…that way they can practise at home too – if they have a computer).

      Interpret the syllabus quite loosely would also be my advice. If it has you getting them to type and save in Word, ask yourself if it would be developing the same skills were they to tye and save in a comedic subtitling application from Web 2.0? At least the product will be amusing.

      Don’t know if that helps you at all. Hope it does.

      • January 29, 2010 at 12:24

        Yes, that’s great.

        Thanks for the tips. Luckily the syllabus isn’t too restrictive (in fact the scheme of work only until December); I had been having trouble thinking of engaging tasks for the students to do (not of the ‘type this into Word and check spelling’ ilk) so I will definitely be giving blogging a go, as well as your suggest of a subtitling activity.

        On that note, do you have any advice on good apps to do this. I’ve been looking at Overstream recently (having trouble getting used to it myself) so I would be apprehensive about setting my learners on it.

    • dfogarty
      January 29, 2010 at 19:09

      Have a look at teachertrainingvideos.com. Russell Stannard has found some great stuff.

  3. January 24, 2010 at 14:22

    Cool chunks in your soup, Diarmuid…

    I’ve been feeling some similar sentiments for some time now, and being at a similar stage to you with career and family, can understand the feelings of hypocracy and frustration – as well as the clarity peeking through shuttered windows.

    I have to say, however, that there is some hope – and I think it can come through online teaching, with freelance teachers and “freelance learners.” The roles of certificates, experts, credentials, etc. give way before the sort of chaos you allude to in your post above. At the end of the day, stripping away all the overlords and middlemen becomes most feasible through online meetings between willing students and willing teachers. I find it constantly refreshing through my own online teaching endeavours that learners come to me to see what I know and what sort of person I am, and how well we can click (mind the pun). They don’t give a rodent’s posterior about all the pieces of paper (credentials or coursebooks or articles) that have become a type of feudalism in the standard institutionalized delivery of language courses these days.

    So, presumptious or premature as it might sound, I do have hope for a different way.

  4. dfogarty
    January 24, 2010 at 19:37

    I agree Jason. The criticism that there is a lot of dross to sift through on the internet before one finds a gem is clearly made by people who haven’t been into a bookshop for a while. The internet provides great potential for another kind of teaching…despite my reservations about the medium itself. It is most certainly a great leveller. Or more accurately, it has the potential to become a great leveller.

  5. ij64
    February 1, 2010 at 10:06

    Um! Did you say you were approaching 40?

  6. dfogarty
    February 1, 2010 at 22:42

    Yes…but slowly.

  7. April 5, 2010 at 11:30

    Funny, I’m just now getting around to reading this piece, just minutes after digging around for information on the new “Masters en Formacion del profesorado de secundaria” in Spain. Is it really worth the time and trouble? Only my landlord knows for sure…

    • dfogarty
      April 6, 2010 at 08:23

      Landlords! They tend to be large stumbling blocks along The Way. Perhaps you could bust a cap in their dome?

      Enviado desde mi iPhone

  1. No trackbacks yet.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on all of this!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: