Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Blasted Oak of EFL

Some sensitive souls who have entered the teaching profession are acutely aware that the world is not as it ought to be. For them, becoming a teacher was apparently a way to join the forces of good and to keep their hands as clean as possible. However, the sensitive soul who comes to teach English may find herself reeling from the experience, staggering back to her garret with a heavy heart and a bad conscience.

The hope was to inculcate a love of the subject. Knowing what remarkable voices are to be heard in the more thoughtful corners of English culture, she wanted to bring students to the point at which a work in Engish might begin to resonate, to speak, to express something students can feel an affinity with so that it might take on a lasting significance as a work that peoples their private cultural worlds, coming to mind time and again, not in the manner of an advertising jingle, but in the manner of something that bears all the traces of a kindred spirit. What she hoped was to begin what could become a lifelong dialogue in English, with students beginning to feel at home in the language and reacting with joy when English begins to speak through them too.

Sensitive souls have high ideals - too high for the dog eat dog worlds of business and politics - but not too high, or so it was thought, for the world of education, where young people were supposedly to experience how things could be otherwise. So it comes as a shock to realise how much the world of EFL, rather than opening new horizons, is simply more of the same.
However, right from the start there was already a contradiction between the noble ends of the project and its being premised on a fact of no nobility whatsoever. The demand for teachers of English is a function of its status as an international language - a status it has acquired not because of any claim to cultural excellence or because of any international democratic deliberation but simply because it is the language of the guys that kick ass at this point in history. At the end of the day the sensitive soul, whether she likes is or not, must do her own little bit as a footsoldier on the linguistic flank of the New World Order.

Too enraptured by the eloquence of Blake, Dylan and Bobby Gentry to pay much heed to these grim realities, the sensitive soul embarks, hoping that it is still possible to do something creative and inspiring with the language in the classroom. Yet these hopes are soon dashed.
Despite the predictions of nineteenth century social theorists, the working day remains long, arduous and stressful. For the sensitive soul adolescents should be able to enjoy what is left of their childhood before being cast into the loveless world of work, and they should have enough free time to begin to grapple with what maturity is to mean to them. Consequently, the sensitive soul finds herself feeling guilty about her participation in a system that overloads students with extra lessons and a quantity of work that can only be got through by taking no particular interest in any particular subject. She balks at adding more to the timetable of an already overly programmed existence. Youth is squandered and the beloved subject is reduced to another rung on the treadmill.

EFL may be just one in a long list of evening classes on which students feel forced to enrol, but the sensitive soul hopes that English can be a lesson with a difference. Another hope dashed against the hard rocks of economic necessity. Employers demand certificates and parents want tangible proof of progress, and time, being money, is limited, so there is a rush to prepare students for exams. Teaching ends up being equated with exam preparation.
Yet English exams - the sensitive soul reflects - could have been exams with a difference - exams premised on the value of students developing an individual response to English. Texts could be chosen that students might actually want to go into in depth. Students could write on topics geared to their interests, and write at their own pace, drafting and redrafting their work with feedback from their peers. Such coursework could be an important part of the final assessment. Drama could also be used to deepen an appreciation of the spoken word, and media studies could be included to help develop, for instance, a more critical appreciation of English-language cinema. If only.

As it is, after all those years of linguistic square-bashing everything hinges on a few hundred multiple choice questions, with reading exercises that put all the weight on forms of speed reading for which a genuine interest in the text would be a definite handicap, and with essays to be written in a time so short there is no opportunity to do anything other than re-heat pre-processed, pre-cooked ideas. `

Teaching can kill. And when the language is reduced to rules, lists and endless cloze exercises, and students are put through their paces again and again until they can tick the correct boxes, and along the way are denied the chance to make the language their own, the prognosis is not good.

Reflecting upon this, the sensitive soul realises that her beloved language has been reduced to an instrument, a tool of no intrinsic value - a language so devoid of expression it begins to seem dead. The voices that turn life into poetry go unheard and the hoped-for lifelong dialogue is stillborn. She realises too that her students are being trained more for a world in which high ideals are replaced by the peculiar dualism of corporate efficiency and private pleasure - just what is required for the perpetuation of the status quo. The sensitive soul was hoping for something more. Now she is racked by her complicity and she despairs at the thought that if the hope for something better cannot be nurtured in the realm of education, where else?

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