English in Military Culture, Academic Culture
and Omani Culture – Maintaining the Balance
by Neil McBeath
This paper examines House’s (2009) definitions of culture, places them in an Omani context, and then demonstrates how Gardiner’s (2006) description of basic infantry training applies to the Sultan’s Armed Forces.
The paper then outlines four sets of materials designed for SAF personnel, indicating how these were designed for men with ever increasing levels of formal education.
It then turns to academic culture, demonstrating that potentially problematic linguistic and pedagogic issues can be resolved in the Omani context.
The paper concludes by describing four approaches to academic writing, suggesting that the academic genres approach is to be preferred.
As this paper which intends to examine the impact of English on three different cultural areas, it seems appropriate to begin with a definition of terms. This paper, therefore, takes its starting point from a paper by House (2009) who offers three contrasting definitions.
According to House, there have been two traditional views of culture. The first was the humanistic view, which captured “the ‘cultural heritage’ as a model of refinement and an exclusive collection of a community’s masterpieces in literature, fine arts, music etc” (House, 2009, p. 109). This is the view that values a “high” and exclusive culture, frequently the product of wealth and leisure, while disregarding everything else. In a nutshell, the gardens are admired but the gardeners are ignored.
The second view is the anthropological concept of culture, which focuses on how a community lives its life – “all those traditional, explicit and implicit designs that act as potential guides for group members’ behavioural patterns” (House, 2009, p. 109). In this instance, culture is defined in terms of behaviour, and can be sub-divided into behaviour deemed “appropriate” – that is, appropriate in the eyes of the community, according to social standing, age or gender.
House also, however, suggests that “with the rise of post-modernist, cultural studies-inspired thinking, the whole notion of culture has come under attack.” (House, 2000, p. 110). In the post-modernist critique “pure culture” does not exist, because stable social groups do not exist. External influences and the behaviour of individuals constantly destabilize groups, and hence the concept of culture is little more than the idealization of a concept serving primarily to reduce the differences between people living in any one area.
The post-modernist conception is attractive, and helps to explain why, for example, Shakespeare’s plays could have been “low”, demotic culture to his contemporaries, but became “high” culture with the passage of time. It also explains how, in the Sultanate of Oman, the 40 years since His Majesty’s accession have seen radical transformations, and yet Omani society has integrated these changes into its culture; accepting the changes because of the benefits they confer.
Holes (2009) reminds us of the extent to which Oman has changed. The Renaissance of Oman is dated from the 23rd of June, 1970, but it takes little thought to realize that practical changes did not occur overnight. The development of a modern state required an infrastructure that remained incomplete until approximately 1985. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to suggest that the first fifteen years of His Majesty’s reign were devoted to the laying of foundations – a basic road network through northern Oman and down to Dhofar; electricification; health and education systems and a series of government ministries to oversee the workings of the system.
The infrastructure alone brought transformations. Holes (2009) reminds us that “The rate of social and economic change in the Gulf in the last 50 years, and especially in the last 20, has been giddyingly fast, and certainly much faster than at any time previously. Before this sudden acceleration there seems to have been a long period of stability, one might almost say stagnation, in the way of life, no matter who occupied the seats of power. In a sense, when we talk about 50 years ago in the Gulf, we may as well be talking about 200 or 300 more years ago, so slow was the pace of change until recently.” (p. 217).
This picture is easily confirmed. Photographs taken in the 1960s show us an unrecognizable Oman that – a country of tribal loyalties, where most people were subsistence illiterate subsistence farmers and/or fishermen; where water came from wells, where travel was limited and based on the stamina of a donkey or camel. Holes (2009) recalls that “In the mid 1980s, it was still a common experience to meet elderly Omanis living no more than 60 miles from Muscat who had never been to it in their lives.” (p. 233).
This, of course, partly explains why the Marxist insurgency in Dhofar never spread. The insurgents were unable to carry their fight north, while northern Omanis had no interest in events so remote from their own sphere. In 1981 I encountered almost the same attitude from a sailor in a class at Muaskar al Mutrafaa. When asked if there was a cinema in Seeb, 10 kilometres from the camp, he had no idea. He lived in Fanja – 20 kilometres in the other direction. He had never been to Seeb in his life. He had no relatives in Seeb and, therefore, had no cause to visit the town.
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