TEFL & international politics: A personal narrative
by Julian Edge
I wonder how many people read Bill Templer's article in Issues 173 about ELT and Iraq, and how many were turned off by the topic, and how many found themselves engaged by it. In my own case, my position has changed over the years, and I do believe that we now live in critical times.
When I started out teaching EFL (in 1969), I made a point of insisting that I just taught the language. What people did with it was up to them, and whether they were bothered about my cultural background, or I about theirs, might be a matter of some interest, but was definitely not central to how I earned my living.
Something changed for me in the mid-seventies, when an Egyptian medical student, whose English was unlikely to see him through the upcoming exams, asked me with a great deal of passion exactly why I thought he should be stopped from becoming a doctor in his own country simply because he couldn't learn my language.
I came to see that English is a barrier to personal and professional aspiration to exactly the same extent that it is a gateway. Except, of course, that it is a barrier to many times more people than it is a gateway. I came to see myself as inevitably implicated in this system of repression and reward, and I came to live with this perception. It is, after all, little different from any other educational situation, isn't it? A student might ask, 'Why should I be stopped from becoming a carpenter, just because I can't learn to use tools precisely?' or 'Why should I be stopped from becoming an accountant just because I can't learn to calculate numbers accurately?' The list is endless and the answer is always the same: 'Because that's the way things are. Because those are the skills that you need. Because not everyone can realise every aspiration.'
And in the bigger political picture, the English language itself is also neutral. It is the particular situation that determines its role and function. So, the same language that had to be displaced in the Tanzanian struggle for independence was a tool for liberation in the South African struggle. As an EFL teacher, I provide access to an international language that a lot of people want to learn - their politics is their business, and mine is my own.
An important next step for me was coming to understand the concept of hegemony: that we act in ways that reinforce the power structures that control us because, in the end, we see it as being in our interests to do so. We may do this consciously or unconsciously. So, I go to the cinema and watch almost exclusively Hollywood movies, even though I dislike the hegemonic relationship through which Hollywood styles and values of storytelling threaten to eliminate other indigenous styles of film-making. My Egyptian medical student continued to study English (finally passing the requisite exam) and, in so doing, supported the system of English requirement that angered him so much. We have choices, albeit constrained by the over-arching systems and power structures of 'the way things are.'
Recently, things have changed for me again. The invasion and occupation of Iraq by the USA, Britain and Australia opened up a new chapter in my political awareness, and in my sense of the political significance of what I do for a living. It is not simply that the USA, Britain and Australia are the three major English-language teaching providers in the world, although that point helps highlight what is going on. It is, for me, more important to consider the change from a relationship of economic, cultural and political hegemony, which involves constrained consent, to one of outright and overt military force. If it is true that the USA is shifting from its age of republic to its age of empire, English becomes once again an imperial language, and that is significant. If Iraq, for example, is to emerge from its current turmoil in any way that is foreseen by its present rulers, then that will be an Iraq in which the ability to communicate effectively in English is of paramount importance. Without English language teaching, imperial policy would be infinitely more difficult to impose. To put that another way, English language teaching is an arm of imperial policy - out in the open - in ways that were not so obvious before. I believe that it is now possible to see us, EFL teachers, as a second wave of imperial troopers. Before the armoured divisions have withdrawn from the city limits, while the soldiers are still patrolling the streets, English teachers will be facilitating the policies that the tanks were sent to impose. And wherever, and to whomsoever, I teach EFL, I am a part of that overarching system.
That is where I have come to now and, like every such statement, it invites the question, 'So what?' Either there is a so what, the pragmatist might say, or all of this is so much hot air. I believe that there is a so what, but I'm not altogether clear at the moment what it is or how to articulate it. I no longer believe that it is sufficient to say, 'That's the way things are.' I have come to see the above parallel with carpenters and accountants as facile and self-serving. It is no longer credible (if it ever was) to teach EFL and blinker out the political impact of the large-scale endeavour to which one contributes. It is not that I am forgetting the personal triumphs and individual aspirations that one can enjoy being a part of, it is more that I feel now that the shadow has grown larger beyond those sunlit images.
We need to look again at the materials we use in class and the worldviews that they represent, at the methods that we use and the interactional and learning styles that they foreground, at the choices we make in selecting the content of our courses, at the extent to which we teach a language of compliance to the exclusion of a language of protest, at the tests we use, to what purpose, and at the policy decisions we make in language planning. Fundamentally, when we are asked, as EFL teachers, what contribution we make to a better world, we need to be ready to reply.
In the Language Studies Unit at Aston University, we are planning a symposium at which we hope to develop further some responses to these so what aspects of a growing perception that we are implicated up to our communicative necks in the building of an empire with whose purposes we may not wish to align ourselves, but whose uniforms we may be seen to be wearing. The symposium will take place on 15 and 16 December, with Christopher Brumfit and Sarah Benesch as the keynote speakers. If you would like to know more, and perhaps be involved, please contact me at: email@example.com
I am aware that there is a literature to which I have not referred, and I in no way wish to disrespect those concerned, any more than I would want to endorse without reservation their varying analyses. I list a small sample of these authors and their work below. My purpose in this article has been to chart a personal shift of perception and, with it, of response. And to seek a resonance in the profession.
This article first appeared in IATEFL Issues, No. 175, pp. 10-11, in October 2003.
S. (2001) Critical English for academic purposes: Theory, policy and practice,
Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
Julian Edge's TEFL background was built in Jordan, Germany, Egypt, Singapore and Turkey. He now teaches on Aston University's distance-learning MSc in TESOL.His most recent book was 'Continuing professional development: Some of our perspectives', edited for IATEFL in 2002.
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