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