Politics and English language teaching – a response

Should English language teachers be political animals? Are they already, by default, given the status of English as the first language of neoliberalism? And if so, what kind of political practice should they undertake? With particular reference to Critical Pedagogy (CP) and its top dog Paolo Freire, a kind of debate has reared up via a series of blogposts, talks and tweets by Russ Mayne, Rob Sheppard, Steve Brown and, to a lesser extent, myself and a couple of others. It’s a problem I’ve been burrowing away at for some time now – with a recent re-read of Pedagogy of the Oppressed along the way – so it’s time to see if I can surface somewhere around the right place. 

To summarise, on the one hand we have Russ Mayne, for whom there is something fishy about the leftist agenda behind Critical Practice. CP is, at best, overly selective of topics to be critical about, and, at worst, pure indoctrination. For Mayne, education is or should be primarily about learning things, and there are at least some learnable things, like “mammals don’t lay eggs”, that are ideology-free.  Freire’s concept of oppression, while perhaps relevant in his historical context, is now too simplistic, and in any case, Mayne doesn’t trust teachers or course designers to decide what constitutes oppression in the first place.

On another hand Steve Brown, an advocate of Freire’s problem-posing, dialogic approach, pulls for education as emancipation. Highlighting the role of English, and ELT, in the proliferation and privileging of the neoliberal status quo, he’d say that we teachers, alongside our students, are already implicated in oppressive discourses of power. CP therefore involves making objects of knowledge from the arising contradictions via a dialogic process. Freire’s notion of oppression, he acknowledges, is simplistic, but perhaps a Foucauldian approach to power could be more productive (pun intended: one of Michel Foucault’s crucial points is about the productivity or generativity of power).

On a third hand (third way?), answering Mayne, Rob Sheppard claims that the number of teachers pushing their political agendas on students is negligible, but that politics is ever-present in the classroom and can be addressed in various ways. He bats for a kind of CP-light – he sees CP as detachable from Freire’s revolutionary politics – in the service of expanding learners’ world-views and teaching skills (critical thinking, debate) that are transferable to political activity, if learners want to take them there. Furthermore, he advocates a zero-tolerance policy on discriminatory language from students, at least where students’ core identities are being attacked or denied, appealing to a set of liberal values that he argues ought to be universal. “Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance: these are not legitimate political views. That throughout history certain politicians have leveraged hate to sow division does not lend these views any legitimacy.”

If I have any of this wrong please tell me and I will correct it. Before moving on, though, I think it’s worth mentioning that all the people involved refer to quite different contexts: Sheppard and Brown to adult education (including immigrant/refugee education) in the USA and Scotland respectively, Mayne to EAP in England, and myself to the private ELT sector in Spain – although I do have 9 years experience in Steve Brown’s context. I should acknowledge that I worked alongside Steve for a few of those years, and in fact he was one of my Diploma tutors. I will from now on use the second names only in an attempt to keep everyone on a level, in some feint towards objectivity, although NEXT POST SPOILER ALERT!! … I probably agree with Brown the most, albeit with a ton of caveats. There’s something of value in all of the above positions, in spite of my disagreement with Sheppard most of all, and Mayne up to a point. Btw Brown did not serve up any CP on the Dip course as far as I recall (now I’m a Dip tutor myself I can see why) but then again he didn’t have a beard then, either.

None of the aforementioned contexts, however, were Paolo Freire’s first concern, although the adult education sectors of various first world countries have picked up on Freire’s ideas. In a sense, then, it’s no surprise that the two main advocates of CP here (Brown and Sheppard) have that background. I’ll get on to Freire, Brown and Mayne more in the next post – for now I’ll mainly be focusing on Sheppard’s response to Mayne.

“I’m a proud monkey”

(Kendrick Lamar, ‘The Blacker the Berry’)

I think I got off on the wrong foot with Rob Sheppard and the purpose of this post is not to get at him, it’s to gnaw away at some problems his post and Twitter comments raised for me. The example he cited on Twitter of zero-tolerance on discrimination was throwing out a student for persistently referring to black people as monkeys, and I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same myself. However, I’ve never been a big fan of being shut up or shutting other people up, even if their views are repellent, and what I took umbrage with initially was the casting of this exclusion as a moral imperative.

I also feel that the example is perhaps too toxic to be conclusive proof that, as Sheppard puts it, “the line that Russ overlooks [between what is an acceptable political topic or not in the classroom]  is not a particularly hazy one”. Even then, there are still a number of things I might try with the student and his monkeys before shutting him up and kicking him out (I’m not suggesting that Sheppard didn’t try any of this, but I’m not aware of him mentioning it). I wasn’t there, obviously, but I’ve got some form with this – a class with a Russian Jew and Turkish Muslim who hated each other, with the former also hating people of any colour other than white, i.e. the rest of his classmates.

  1. Is there anyone present at whom the remarks are directed or might feel they are the victim of those remarks? If so, and assuming that said person(s) are not now rolling up their sleeves in preparation for a more direct response, I’d want to give them a chance to speak and see where it leads us. I feel like we too often get offended on behalf of others, treating those others as automatic victims. I don’t think you’re a victim if you can speak up for yourself.
  2. If not, or if no student feels like answering (which is their right), or dialogue doesn’t get us anywhere, I’m going to give my opinion, which is pretty much Sheppard’s opinion, i.e. that in this context I think the remarks are unacceptable precisely because they dehumanise others. Secondly, they have nothing to do with what we’re trying to talk about (presumably). If the student keeps making them, then:
  3. Get them outside for the serious chat, with a warning that repetition is going to get them kicked out. Basically, it has become disruption. Disruption is something that’s stopping us doing our jobs and preventing other students learning anything. It’s not ideology-free but I feel it’s a better measure of when someone should get kicked out or not.
  4. Kick them out, send them to the DOS or whoever if all else fails.

There’s another way – maybe the Scottish way (of old) – which is probably liable to get you sacked these days, but God I wish I could use it. And no, it’s not what you think – it’s just verbal humiliation. I had a couple of teachers who were masters/mistresses of it. I don’t mean shouting and screaming, I mean perfectly calm remarks like:

  • “Yeah? Keep taking the tablets, son”. (Would now be seen as offensive to those actually on medication)
  • “Ach, away and play on the motorway” (Imagine if …!)
  • “Aye right. Go and take a long walk off a short pier. (See above)

The effect of these remarks, on the less-than-sharp teen tools at whom they were directed, was usually instantaneous. They just shut the fuck up as they tried to work out what was meant, by which time the teacher had deftly moved onto the next topic. Or the whole class just laughed. So here I’d really, really, want to say something about monkeys and dirty knuckles. We all come from apes, after all, it’s just that some of us still walk a bit funny.

Maybe it’s Twitter’s fault, but Sheppard’s view on this came across to me as too authoritarian, and I even suggested “intolerant”. He seems to assume that any questioning of such moral policing in these terms can only come from the extreme right. “There is an equivocation game we play in American politics, in which the intolerant flip the script and frame themselves as victims of intolerance.” This is to ignore the views of a significant current on the left which feels the left’s shift towards identity politics – by which I understand a primary focus on the rights and equality of the variety of racial, religious, sexual and gender identities –  has been a massive diversion from what the left should be about: tackling structural economic inequalities. The paradox of the new orthodox liberal leftism (I’m deliberately not calling it postmodern leftism or, shock horror, cultural marxism) is an authoritarian turn in which we find, for example, no-platforming of speakers whose views don’t fit into this new framework, and the branding of intolerant words by ordinary people as “hate speech”: words which cause damage – and which, like violent acts, have victims protected by law. If this is an application of Popper’s famous intolerance paradox, it is to misread Popper fundamentally. Popper did not equate the necessary intolerance of intolerant views with the silencing or prosecution of those views.

(By the way, in the Spanish context, it is the right who are predominantly responsible for censorship these days, but particularly regarding possible offense to ETA victims, the church, the royal family and the police (i.e. not lesbians, gays, trans people etc). It’s also worth noting, in an Anglo-American context, that there’s much stronger opposition to identity politics from the centre and right, especially with regard to censoring views that are intolerant towards minority identities, or (crucially for centrist liberals like Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson) can be seen as such. That’s too big a fish to fry for this blog post though.)

Sheppard, meanwhile, feels that:

No view that calls into question the humanity or equality of other people on the basis of who they are is acceptable in my classroom. The reason is very, very simple: I have students and colleagues of different races, genders, preferences, ethnicities, and religions in my classroom, and none of those people will be made to feel unwelcome simply for being who they are.

I’m not talking about the most liberal stances available, here; I simply require tolerance for those different from you. My students don’t need to agree with me about white privilege or affirmative action or immigration policies. We can disagree about these things without insulting or dehumanizing anyone.

Aside from the issue of speaking or acting for those being dehumanised, the first question for me here is where the line is drawn, and by what means we determine whether someone’s humanity/equality is being questioned. Sheppard does not offer any definition of racism as such, but the monkey guy example leaves things deceptively clear-cut. Furthermore, insofar as it relates to race rather than sexuality or gender, which is what I think Sheppard means by “preferences” (although this is obviously problematic), it might be a less complex example (but this is not to imply that categories of race are simple, fixed or immutable).

On everyday discrimination

Looking closer at how racist and other stereotypes operate, we encounter the profound ambivalence of much discriminatory language. Following Homi Bhabha’s analysis of colonial discourse, the fixing of stereotypes involves a kind of fetishism in which both affection and hostility come into play. “… [F]rom the loyal servant to Satan, from the loved to the hated; [there is] a shifting of subject positions in the circulation of colonial power” (Bhabha 1983, p. 31). This suggests that positive stereotypes emerge from the same fetishistic mechanism as negative ones – what they share is the reduction of subjectivity to a fixed, imaginary aspect. In this way, there are conflicting identities for colonised people circulating in colonial discourse.

It’s evident that much of this still applies in a multicultural, postcolonial framework. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve heard in a classroom and others which I believe could be heard:

  • “I don’t send my kids to public school because there are too many immigrants. No I’m not racist, it’s just that they don’t speak good Catalan and I want my kids to speak good Catalan.” (Immigrants as a homogenised group who don’t integrate well)
  • “Neil you’re not an immigrant, you’re basically the same colour as us.” (Northern Europeans are superior, darker skinned people inferior)
  • “The Chinese are good for this city. They are hard workers.” (A positive stereotype but reductive of all Chinese to machine-like workers to whom normal workers’ rights do not apply)
  • “We’d have Catalan independence if it weren’t for people from outside.” (Spanish and naturalised Latino incomers viewed as non-Catalan despite generations of living in Catalonia)
  • “Of course gays are equal to us but I don’t think kids should be taught about it in school.”
  • “I don’t think a man who becomes a woman is the same as someone born a woman. I don’t want trans women in my toilet, especially if they’re pre-op.” (There seem to be a growing number of women, particularly feminists, with this view, so much so they’ve been nicknamed TERFs by the trans community (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist))
  • “Well you know of course women just don’t have the brains for work in technology, it’s a biological fact” (An argument often heard from the centrist liberals opposed to identity politics, not only the right)
  • “You fucking porridge wog!” (Remark directed towards me by an English colleague on more than one occasion. He thought it was absolutely hilarious)

In all these cases, someone or some group is being dehumanised or at least regarded as not equal, which fits with Sheppard’s definition, but I don’t feel like any of them merits zero tolerance (bar the last one, although I dealt with it with some variation of the aforementioned “Scottish way”). Some are hugely problematic, of course, and any classroom discussion is going to be difficult. But it’s the ones that often aren’t seen as problematic – in my context, particularly the first four – which invoke the biggest risk in terms of wanting to get into them at all. It’s this kind of everyday intolerance that I usually, perhaps to my shame, let go and move on quickly, maybe after a remark signalling my disagreement. It’s partly because I feel I’m not really working in any kind of CP dialogic framework in my teaching, certainly not with the in-company classes that make up the bulk of my job (more on this in the next post). I also know from bitter experience, especially in relation to the Catalan independence question, that language learning tends to go out the window when opinions get heated. Hackles are guaranteed to rise, and if I wade in, at least half the class will be baring their teeth in my direction (and making lots of language mistakes in the process).

Should I be stronger in censoring or censuring this type of throwaway discrimination?  Sheppard reassures us that “the intolerance of human beings on the basis of who they are is not morally equivalent to the intolerance of particular views. Jews need not apply and Nazis need not apply are fundamentally different.” Maybe they are, but my worry is about precisely who gets to decide which views are not to be tolerated. The “Nazis need not apply” example is particularly telling. It seems to me that both in the USA and Europe, and most certainly in Spain, words like Nazi and fascist are rapidly losing meaning as they are hurled at anyone, particularly from the left, for practically any reason. I have at least one colleague in Barcelona who has been called a fascist during class discussions on independence, just for voicing support for Catalonia staying in Spain. I fully acknowledge the relatively recent history of fascism in Spain and how Catalonia was impacted, but we are losing all sense of perspective if we are resorting to that type of language for a difference of opinions on independence, and showing a profound disrespect to those who have fought against and suffered under fascist regimes. Ironically, the very act of calling out here is a somewhat totalitarian gesture.

And what happens, in the case of the comment on trans women and toilets, if I actually agree? Or at least understand how women could feel that way? There is a big issue at stake regarding at which point trans identities can be recognised as such, and for some people, an individual’s assertion that s/he is really living this identity is not enough. Furthermore, there are troubling (for me) issues regarding gender essentialism in some parts of the debate over trans identities, which in some ways can be seen to reinforce, rather than challenge, what is stereotypically feminine or masculine. Much the same, of course, can be said of many so-called cis-gendered people. So this issue for me is not about saying trans people shouldn’t have equal rights. It’s about talking through the complexity of identity because the explosion of identity politics has the potential to trouble the very notion of rights on which Sheppard’s argument rests, or in his words, “principles of basic decency that ought to be universals”.

(Sex, funnily enough for me, could be the one thing worth being binary and essentialist (biological) about here. I might get in trouble for this but I’m being not being entirely flippant. I appreciate there are intersex people and the issue there is not clear-cut at all. I also appreciate that the concept is asymmetrical. But if one could enter a toilet (and I realise how impractical this is) simply based on one’s genitals it would actually just cut this debate dead, provided that (and this is of course crucial) a safe and welcoming space is provided for people who identify with a gender that doesn’t apparently match those genitals. For God’s sake, we’re adults here. Without scaremongering we have to acknowledge the possibility of predatory non-trans men using trans identities to gain access to female-only spaces. Also, I like the idea of toilets which, rather than Ladies or Gents, are “[insert your favourite pet names for male and female genitalia]”.)

Lacan Blog 3

“A train arrives at a station. A little boy and a little girl, brother and sister, are seated in a compartment face to face next to the window through which the building along the station platform can be seen passing as the train pulls to a stop. ‘Look’, says the brother, ‘We’re at Ladies!’ ‘Idiot!’ replies his sister, ‘Can’t you see we’re at Gentlemen?’ (Lacan 2002, p. 143)


Rights (and lefts) (or what the Butler said)

As I hinted at before, people like Jordan Peterson are entirely wrong when they attribute identity politics and PC culture to the dominance of “postmodern”, “neo-marxist” thinking in North American academic culture, particularly in the social sciences. Thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and more recently Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek – via Marx – are regarded as high priests of the new orthodoxy in their theories on the subjugation of the other. It’s just that rather than undoing pecking orders based on class, they do it with sexuality, race etc. The argument plainly doesn’t stand up, mainly because most poststructuralists have (at least) a complicated relationship with Marx and Marxism (Derrida is bitchily caricatured by Žižek as having been a liberal voter for sure); secondly, because the main thrust of poststructural thought calls coherent identity into question; and third, because Žižek isn’t really a poststructuralist at all, although he does look like one to most.

So the real background to identity politics, I suspect, has got far more to do with the history of civil rights in the USA, the power that allows an identity to claim “I am somebody”, to come to voice. This is inseparable from the principles of liberal individualism. It also, ironically, has far more impact, more discursive power, than the voice of those who claim to represent that liberal status quo. That voice represents a false neutrality – that’s to say, it can’t reveal its racial or other bias because it’s supposed to stand for universality itself. And so it cannot say “I am somebody” because that would be to particularise itself, and thereby to call itself into question. It can only omit, oppress or adapt – say, “OK yeah, you are somebody – welcome to the club. By the way, I’m nobody in particular.” 

In Foucault’s terms, there is a force of resistance generated by the oppressive exercise of power that can be transformative. In the history of sexuality, the category of homosexuality (as a coherent identity, an identity which defines someone) was in part the invention of a medical science which regarded homosexual acts as perversions to be studied. In being named, described and “treated”, homosexuality became a political category which in turn generated a counterforce of resistance from a group which now had an identity, or at least a discursive position from which to organise and fight back. Fight back they did, and the gains made by gay and lesbian people in terms of recognition and rights are fairly spectacular.

The flipside of all this is the commodification of identity itself. Žižek (in an otherwise ill-considered 2016 article on the debate over access to public toilets for trans people) finds it unsurprising that big businesses such as Apple and Google are fully supportive of trans rights because the claim for those rights is actually not at all controversial for capitalism. In a way, there’s a consonance between the proliferation of new identities (and the apparent fluidity between some of them) and the promises of capitalism itself – you can be who you feel you are, you can change, you can choose (endlessly). I’m aware that’s not how many trans people feel and that there are criticisms of this neoliberal turn from the left of the trans community itself (see e.g. Spade 2009). Žižek is also unfair to Judith Butler, on whose theory of gender identity much queer and trans thinking rests. But it has to be said that the claim to ontological integrity on the part of new identities, a basic condition for the reclamation of universal rights, is also a basic condition for having stuff sold to you as part of a group worth marketing to, as well as somewhat at odds with the apparent challenge to the concept of identity that transgender people pose.

Butler’s theory, at bottom, is that all gender is performative. She builds this on Lacan’s work on sexual difference and Foucault’s theories of the discursive construction of sexuality, along the way challenging the psychoanalytic status of the incest taboo as the founding determiner of heteronormative gender/sexuality. It’s a compelling argument which blows open the sex/gender distinction and opens a space for transformation, even in regard to so-called straight, cis-gendered identities. Just like with the status quo, as mentioned above, little was written or said about what it was to be straight, particularly a straight man – as occupiers of the default universal position, straight men are not to be particularised, they do the talking about other particularities. Regarding straight male identity as another performance or set of performances (not so much conscious acts as kinds of culturally and psychically constituted roleplays) is therefore a fundamental challenge to the patriarchal order. But it left Butler vulnerable to Žižek’s charge of pandering, at the same time, to late capitalism’s privileging of plastic identities, ever shifting with the tide.

Putting aside their differences for now – outlined most clearly in their book with Ernesto Laclau – what Žižek and Butler both agree on is a kind of Hegelian concept of universality which particular groups can fight to gain access to, but which always already has another side, some particular content which is excluded. The universal thereby becomes a battleground for hegemony, for the recognition of rights of different identities at different historical junctures. What it tends to exclude at a formal level, for Žižek, is the particular of capitalism itself, which is nevertheless the invisible ground of universality, subjectivity and the various claims to rights. 

Butler’s response to Žižek’s accusations regarding the consonance between performative identities and capitalism is a useful one, I think. Casting doubt on the success of the gay rights movement, she points to the campaigns to gain access to the military or to legalise marriage, and the dissonance this has caused among some quarters of the gay community. The thing to do, she argues

is to investigate what kinds of identifications are made possible, are fostered and compelled, within a given political field, and how certain forms of instability are opened up within that political field by virtue of the process of identification itself. If the interpellation of the shiny, new gay citizen requires a desire to be included within the ranks of the military and to exchange marital vows under the blessing of the state, then the dissonance opened up by this very interpellation opens up in turn the possibility of breaking apart the pieces of this suddenly conglomerated identity. It works against the congealment of identity into a taken-for-granted set of interlocking positions and, by underscoring the failure of identification, permits for a different sort of hegemonic formation to emerge.

(Butler, Laclau & Žižek, 2000, p. 150)

This, for me, is crucial, and what is lacking from Sheppard’s analysis is precisely this view of human rights as the site of considerable struggle, one which can indeed undo the coherence of the very identities which claim them (including the most dominant ones, of course). “I am somebody” becomes, in a way, “I’m not that somebody”. Rather than undermine any political action, this generates new sites of struggle, ones that are sometimes difficult to take a position on as they become visible. It also recognises the cultural situatedness of the various struggles for rights in different contexts – as does Sheppard when he briefly acknowledges that “context does matter”, but I think he rather foxtrots around this issue. The key point is that the line between the mentionable and unmentionable in the classroom is not only hazy at critical points but is liable to shift fundamentally at different moments in time. 

Where I agree with Žižek is on how capitalism and class relations tend to become excluded from the discussion on universality and rights. These factors are also conspicuous by their absence in the current debate on CP so far, aside from some vague references to oppression. I will get onto this in the next post, where I’ll try to take a closer look at CP, whether or not we can detach it from a radical political agenda, and where and how it could be applicable to English language teaching.

This should, I hope, signal that my criticisms of identity politics and unease at left-liberal prescriptions are coming themselves from the left. If we are to believe in something beyond capitalism, issues of economic power and structures of class have to be brought back to the table. The claims of particular groups identified along other lines are of course important, but if we ignore economic relations, we foreclose all possibility of social transformation. 


Links to the relevant blogposts and talks are given in the first paragraph.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1983. “The Other Question”. Screen 24.6, pp. 18–36.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. 2000. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary dialogues on the left. London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Lacan, Jacques. 2002. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co.

Spade, Dean. 2009. “Trans Law & Politics on a Neoliberal Landscape”. Online. Accessed 3/8/18.

Ideology in ELT

Animalising ELT has been on an extended catnap but could slumber no longer. This long-promised exploration of ideology in ELT has been stirred into publication largely thanks to boooooo! hurrah! by Russ Mayne, a post about the ways in which belief, as opposed to knowledge, influences our preference for one teaching method or technique over another.

Mayne’s post calls on some of the late Alan Waters’ articles for support. Much of Waters’ work attacks what he describes as ideology in the field of applied linguistics for language teaching (ALLT). According to Waters, since the 1980s, a critical theory perspective has intruded into ALLT in such a way as to displace certain previously held beliefs. The problem is that the displacements have been politically rather than pedagogically motivated – they stem, in fact, from a kind of guilt-ridden, post-colonial turn to political correctness. For example, authentic language must take precedence over artificial, couresbook-type language (even though there may be sound pedagogical arguments for also promoting the latter); coursebooks themselves are an unjust exercise of the power of author/publisher over the learner; and, therefore, the autonomous learner should now be the central focus in language teaching, at the expense of any meaningful or serious focus on the teacher role.

All these tendencies (in which he includes, variously, task-based learning, coursebook-bashing and English as a Lingua Franca) are, for Waters, ideological; while there may be merit in some of these shifts in focus, for Waters they have become elevated to types of moral imperative which proscribe or occlude other tried and tested approaches.

Leaving aside for now any deeper discussion of the merits of Waters’ arguments and their relevance to the present day, what we are left with is an iteration of ideology which betrays what a dog’s breakfast of a concept it has become. In its dictionary definition, an ideology is simply a consciously-held world view. Marry to this a simplification of Marx’s idea of ideology as “false consciousness” and you pretty much have ideology as it is generally understood and used today – pejoratively. It’s a world view, but a wrong one. Who today owns up to having an ideology? Not me –  it’s always others who are ideological, distorting reality with their dogma.

This is a typical argument of the neo-liberal centre against the margins. The former Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, once said that in politics “there are two sides, only two: those who consider the individual as the final beneficiary of politics, and those who place the individual in the service of an abstract idea”. Obviously, Margallo put himself in the first camp. Ignoring for now the distinctly ideological nature of his own position, we are left with an idea of ideology as something you fling at people you don’t agree with.

For this reason, perhaps, the notion of ideology has to some extent been left aside in critical theory and social studies, to be replaced by power and discourse, two key concepts in the theories of Michel Foucault. The work of Louis Althusser in the 1970s, however, offered a new take on ideology that remained influential in the following decades. More recently, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has revitalised the term in a similar way.

There are motives, then, for holding on to the idea of ideology, or the idea of ideological critique as a useful tool. First and foremost, it allows for an analysis which traces political effects in everyday, apparently apolitical practices. It also brings economic relationships into focus. And finally, in positing that ideological belief manifests itself externally in actions, and is not simply a product of conscience or even something that needs to be consciously held, it sheds light on specific practices in the ELT industry which seem to depend on this type of belief.

First of all, however, we need to renounce the popular usage of ideology and, in the same gesture, refrain from any cocky assumptions that we, like Margallo, are somehow safely outside ideology while we accuse others of being in it. This is because ideology as Althusser and Žižek understand it (although there are very important differences between the two) is sustained by unconscious as well as conscious processes (for this, both owe a huge debt to Jacques Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud). For ideology to function, it must be experienced as if it is non-ideological – that’s to say, as a spontaneous, unmediated, obvious experience of reality:

It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’ (Althusser 1971)

In the ELT world as in any other, there is not always consensus on what seems obvious, right or true, but there are some discernible tendencies. One I encountered at a conference earlier this year, Power to the Teacher, run by ELT Jam and Oxford TEFL.  The stated purpose of this event was to focus on teacher empowerment in various forms, including grassroots ELT movements, the promotion of equal rights for NNESTS (non-native English-speaking teachers) and entrepreneurship. I have voiced my objection to the association of these issues elsewhere, although in the end there were many refreshing aspects to the conference: a plethora of unknown speakers, a wide range of issues up for discussion and even the opportunity for yours truly to put his two cents on the table.

There was still, I felt, a kind of party line being put across. It was probably best expressed by ELT Jam’s Nick Robinson in his opening plenary, where he linked the “Power to the Teacher” theme inextricably to entrepreneurialism, to teachers who had “ideas” and went on and did something about them. There was a pleasing rhetoric to it, in the form of “X had an idea … His/her idea was to …. And s/he did something about it …” And many had laudable political or social aims.  But in each and every case the project was the brainchild of an original, autonomous individual who had the guts to transform his/her inspiration (from where, was left hanging) into action. Even the Teachers as Workers collective was reduced to the inspired action of one individual. And so the true theme of the conference was established – teacher empowerment is about what individuals can do first by and for themselves, -“self-propelled” in one awful phrase I heard later – and then, in some cases anyway, for others.

(Of Foucault, of course, there was fuck-all – for that we needed the talk by Paul Walsh, the aforementioned inspiration behind Teachers as Workers. Now Paul is truly inspiring, but I’m sure his reading of Foucault (among other things) will have placed him far from the desire to be cast as the next ELT guru-in-waiting.)

It’s worth noting that many of the regular teachers at the conference were volunteers serving drinks, setting up tables and cleaning up – while most of the delegates seemed to have other, more glamorous feathers in their caps. But there was one in one of the discussion session immediately following the plenary. Describing her precarious work situation in Germany, she asked for advice, so I took  the opportunity to put forward a view that in various forms was being espoused around the fringes of the conference – that the answer lies in a collective approach. That she wasn’t the only one, that there are others willing to collaborate, defend and act to improve the teacher’s lot, whether officially through unions, or cooperatives, or other less formal grassroots organisations. That we shouldn’t read “the teacher” in “Power to the Teacher” as referring to the individual, but “the teacher” as a metonym, representative of the whole, as in “The dog is a faithful animal” or “The cat is a curious beast”, or “The teaching animal is …”

But a different message eventually got through. By the final discussion session, she was now the inspired one – the conference had taught her to have the self-confidence to make her own decisions, to be a self-propelled teacher, to believe in herself … in short, there was an awful lot of self. And there were also a lot of reassuring nods. I objected in vain, feeling like the party saddo everyone wishes would leave. Was this not bourgeois liberal individualism at its most pop, peppered with a dash of neo-buddhist mindfulness, but experienced as spontaneous, natural, unmediated? “It’s so obvious to me now – why didn’t I see it before?” she might have said, while the others assented, “That’s right! That’s true!”

It’s easy to be cynical here, although cynicism itself – as we’ll see later – presents another crucial aspect of contemporary ideology. It’s only worth noting here that in the ELT industry, despite everything, the lack of cynical or critical distance with regard to some of the bullshit that gets dropped is remarkable.

One particular cowpat is this self-propelled teacher, autonomous, self aware, entrepreneurial. Arguably, this is just another expression of one of the prevailing ideologies of our times – what Slavoj Žižek calls “enlightened western buddhism”.  That’s to say, seek spiritual calm, be mindful, look after yourself, enjoy your life but in the right way, but go get ’em all the same (Žižek makes great play of the fashion for buddhism among wolfish Wall Street types). Meanwhile, let the whole damn racket perpetuate itself ad infinitum. And that is really what is at the heart of the Althusserian, and more contentiously, Žižekian theories of ideology – that ideology allows exploitative relations of production to reproduce themselves by implicit consent.

This brings me back to my previous critique of humanism in language teaching: to what extent is the apparently laudable privileging of the whole person, of the autonomous and self-actualised teacher and student, an expression of ideology which unwittingly permits the reproduction of those very economic and other forces which dehumanise and alienate both teachers and students? In the tradition of Paolo Freire, the teacher who presents her authentic self to her students, and permits them to present theirs to her, is countering that banking system of education which casts students as passive receptors or consumers of knowledge. Yet what of the banking system of the educational industry today: namely, the private sector of language schools and providers of linguistic services, the publishers and tech companies and entrepreneurs, and the network of private individuals, companies and corporations for whom the learning of English is primarily an economic concern? In what sense does finding voice for my true inner self, and that of my students, impact on the amount I am paid for preparing my classes or marking homework? Or more to the point, how does it in any way challenge the material injustices inherent to this branch of the education system?

Fundamentally, and this is in no way to dismiss Freire, there is a certain romanticism or even spiritualism in the Freire tradition at times which undermines, in my view, the more transformative aspects of Freirean pedagogy. Here I’m thinking in particular of bell hooks, who in Teaching to Transgress cites spiritual authority in support of her concept of “engaged pedagogy”:

Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes wellbeing. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own wellbeing if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that “the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.” (hooks 1994, 15)

hooks also at several points refers to teaching as a vocation (literally a calling), e.g.

All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions-and society-so that the way we teach, live and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom. (34)

My argument is that despite the stated transgressive objectives to hooks’ engaged pedagogy, its emphasis on calling, coming to voice, wellbeing, authenticity to self and others, etc, is just another expression of the aforementioned enlightened western individualism – one of the very ideological mechanisms which permit the reproduction of exploitative relations of production. We are all free individuals with the chance to advance (or even transform) through our own endeavour, or so it goes. However, in the context of industrial ELT (if not also “the academy”), this often means that we must freely and happily sell our labour to private capital, whether we feel called to do so or not.

For Althusser however, the very constitution of individual identity always involves a type of calling and is therefore always-already ideological. Ideology, for Althusser, is a representation of one’s relation to real conditions of existence – in Marxist terms, of the material basis of reality, of relations of production. For the representation to function, ideology needs a subject, and that subject is by definition one who is called.

In Althusser’s famous example, when one is hailed by a policeman, when a cop (or other) says “Hey, you!” and one responds “He really means me” and turns around, “one” as a concrete (biological) individual becomes transformed into a subject, with a proper name and identity which at once bestow the restoring illusion of autonomy and wholeness, yet construct and contain that free subjectivity necessarily within the constraints of symbolic relations of power, here embodied by the state apparatus of the police.

In this Althusser owes much to Jacques Lacan (although his long therapy with Lacan seemingly did little to prevent him eventually breaking down and murdering his wife – the posthumously published memoir which recounts this event, The Future Lasts Forever, became a massive bestseller in France). Lacan’s theory of subjectivity holds that the infant child passes through a pre-lingual mirror stage in which s/he jubilantly (mis)recognises their mirror image as an other exterior self whose movements can be controlled. The child thus begins to imagine (literally from the image) him- or herself as whole and autonomous. On entry into speech, however, a mode of the symbolic (not imaginary) order, the subject is born, dependent on the call or recognition of others – not so easily controlled – for a sense of identity. For Lacan as for Althusser as for Žižek, this generates a fundamental lack in the subject. The subject is by definition split between the subject who speaks, and the subject which is spoken, and within this split unconscious processes come in to play, as we see in the classic Freudian example of the slip of the tongue.

But again it is the very “hailability” of the subject that makes it also the subject of and subject to ideology, which, in Althusser’s terms, is propagated through ideological state apparatuses such as the church, the family, the school and the media. All these institutions address us in certain ways, offer us places (even contradictory ones) in the social order. Ideologies, however, cannot be thought simply as ways of thinking imposed from above. They are generated and circulated at all levels of social identification, at times contradicting official state ideologies, at times reinforcing them, and at others exposing their dark underbelly. We are now more than familiar with how those elements which have traditionally remained unspoken in mainstream conservative ideologies (racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric etc.) are now coming to the surface in ugly but powerful ways.

To take another example from the ELT industry, in contrast to the more progressive or politically correct discourse supporting the rights of non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs), there are also those who speak out for discrimination. They trot out their own series of obviousnesses, presented as unquestionable truths: it’s obvious that native speakers are simply better, obvious that non-natives can’t teach pronunciation because it’s not their language, and obvious that having a language as your mother tongue automatically makes you able to teach it. Lying behind these affirmations, however, are a whole series of less obvious questions about privilege, class hegemony and ethnocentrism (or simply racism) on whose exclusionary logic (“They” (obviously) can’t be real English teachers) are constructed some of the more pervasive subject-positions in our industry today.

I say “our industry” (an ideological gesture in itself – if you feel it’s obvious what I’m talking about) but perhaps I mean more specifically the EFL industry – where native speakers largely teach abroad, and do so largely in the interests of private capital. Here I have witnessed a bizarre and somewhat shocking reversal of the ideological discourse by which the immigrant is cast as a threat to the honest hard-working native. Now the natives are the immigrants, and the threat is the resident NNEST! Other positions are less extreme, but equally telling. Here is a representative comment from a recent social media chat on discrimination against NNESTs:

Go complain to the correct government office stop trying to evoke a response from English people trying to make a living expecting them to feel or guilty or pity you or just to bash on the workers who have no influence over what the “bosses” or “clients” prefer .

In the name of a dubiously “English” workerism, NNESTs can basically do one. A species of self-interested ethnocentricism, which has been referred to elsewhere as native speakerism and may be linked to a wider trend in the UK and USA towards nativism per se, becomes the symbolic reference point by and through which the term “TEFL Teacher” is to be understood, as well as the other signifiers it relates to but differs from: namely NNESTs (a threat to the authentic TEFL teacher), clients (those who obviously want an authentic native speaker) and bosses (whose sound judgement of what the client wants protects the interests of the authentic TEFLer).

Žižek, drawing heavily on Lacan as well as social theorists Laclau and Mouffe, describes such a reference point as a master signifier: in Lacanian terms, a point de capiton or “quilting point” which in itself refers to nothing concrete (a signifier without a signified) but which fixes or quilts the meaning of the other signifiers around it. The native, like nation, is one such master signifier – a sign whose exact meaning is contestable or difficult to pin down – but in reference to which concepts like identity (national identity, ethnicity, mother tongue), difference (not of this nation/mother tongue) and freedom (national self determination, right to teach your mother tongue) are defined. However, were the worker or party to be the quilting point (communism), or the individual or market (neo-liberalism), these signifiers would have quite distinct meanings.

Native speaker, then, is (within this nativist ideology) one of the master signifiers which fixes the meaning of “TEFL teacher”, but which – if the ideology is to function – effectively remains ungraspable. For the illusion to prevail, a certain blindness to the radical instability or contingency of the master signifier is necessary. In Žižek’s theory, the fact that a subject cannot grasp the true meaning of the master signifier is a necessary precondition for ideological belief – firstly because belief in something fundamentally knowable would be contradictory (if I know, I don’t need to believe), and secondly because too much explicit belief is potentially dangerous for social stability.  But even if my belief is not explicit, I can still believe through others. If I don’t really know what is meant by native speaker, or I’m not even convinced that it does me much good to be one, I can still go on quite happily, convinced that others (e.g. the bosses, the clients) do not have the same difficulty as me and can therefore do my believing for me.

Also central to Žižek’s theory is the notion that enjoyment, or more correctly Lacanian jouissance, is central to ideological identification. If, in nationalist ideology, the mysterious National Thing is that which quilts the meaning of all other signifiers in the social field, that Thing also underwrites those cultural practices which permit the subject a little transgressive enjoyment – through sport, music, drugs, alcohol – all of which are necessary in modern societies in allowing a certain distance from explicit ideological belief, while at the same time reinforcing our attachment to the self-same ideology, albeit experienced in a non-political form. Forces which attack or threaten the National Thing are therefore precisely forces which threaten to take away our jouissance, our enjoyment – damn those NNESTs, the refrain might go, we had it so good before THEY came along with their superior qualifications and EU anti-discrimination legislation!

But hold on a second. This is so easy to see through, right? We don’t need Lacan or Žižek to expose nativism as the  ideology it is, it’s such an obviously false way of thinking! So abhorrent! I support those NNESTs! Some of my best friends are NNESTs!

And so it goes. It’s equally obvious to state that such politically correct positions are no less ideological. Political correctness is in fact a particular bugbear of Žižek’s: to paraphrase him brutally, it’s all very well if your boss is nice to you and doesn’t squeeze your arse, or in fact hires NNESTs with all the best intentions – if the material practices in the workplace maintain exploitative conditions, regardless of mother tongue, ideology is still very much functioning. Freedom and equality therefore boil down to the freedom to be exploited equally.

So once again we see that contemporary ideology is fundamentally embodied in social reality, and not necessarily located in an individual’s consciously held beliefs. It’s not just that we don’t need to explicitly believe – in fact, who really believes these days? – our very actions will express our beliefs no matter what we say or consciously think about them.

Here I recall my earlier comment about cynicism. Cynicism, for Žižek, is another contemporary ideological stance par excellence. I know they’re exploiting me, I complain about how much surplus value they extract from me, but I act as if I accept it, and this is sufficient for ideology to function. Or I know that NNESTs are equally capable teachers who are unfairly discriminated against, but I wouldn’t trust them with a class above pre-int level if there were a native available instead.

In order to account for this type of cynical yet utterly conservative position, Žižek was led to reformulate Marx’s definition of ideology from Capital, “They do not know it, but they do it”. In contemporary ideology, we know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it. The ideological element lies in not recognising this aspect of our social practices as illusory, or indeed that fantasy remains constitutive of social reality as we live it.

If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology , however, is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way – one of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.

Žižek offers the example of money. We know very well that money is in fact an expression of social relations and not some magic thing, but we act as if it were – as it it could solve all our problems, make us better people, or enrich us without doing anyone else any harm. Spain in recent years has been rocked by the scandal of the “black cards”, credit cards handed out to executives and consultants of Bankia, a public bank formed when the private Caja Madrid had to be bailed out at the start of the crisis. These cards were black in the sense of opacity; that’s to say, in a kind of magical way, they were not expected to be paid back or declared at all, and so millions of public euros were duly lavished on dinners, vintage wine, lingerie and nightclubs. In a parallel case, the Acuamed scandal, one of the accused was reported as saying “It’s public money, it doesn’t belong to anybody!” It’s quite possible that the speaker was joking or doesn’t seriously believe in what he said, but he acted as if he did, and that’s what counts. 

(Another relevant Spanish example is bureaucracy. I know very well that Spanish civil servants are not superhuman beings with the power to erase our very souls, but I act as if they were, and so treat them with meticulous care and respect. To truly gain power over the archetypal bureaucratic tocahuevos (ball-buster), however, one must become even more bureaucratic than they – as depicted brilliantly in the short movie 036.)

To return finally to teaching, I believe we can see two clear modes of ideology at work in the industrial sector of ELT today. The first, naïve one (we don’t know it, but we do it), persists on the one hand on the level of teaching as vocation, which I have aligned with humanism and the more recent figure of the enlightened and entrepreneurial self-propelled teacher, and on the other in the explicit nativist stance adopted against NNESTs. One purports to be progressive, the other not, but proponents of both do seem to take their own propositions quite seriously.

The second (we know very well what we’re doing, but still we are doing it) is a generalised late-capitalist cynicism no less ideological for all its apparent distancing. The illusion here is very powerful precisely because we feel we are too clever to be taken in. This mode sometimes exhibits elements of the first, naïve one, to create a third, hybrid form: a superficial kind of political correctness (is there another kind?) which offers support to specific claims while simultaneously allowing industrial ELT’s (literal) banking model of education to perpetuate itself unchallenged.

If there is a fourth, genuinely progressive or socially transformative ideology in play in industrial ELT, there is much work to be done before it can seriously challenge the party line. It would need to be an ideology in profound tension with its very ideological character – that’s to say, dependent as all ideologies are on subjects and the illusory character of lived reality, but operating on a level which disturbs the illusion by concentrated effort at the level of both knowledge and action. To do this it needs to find a point de capiton in radical counterpoint to the market or the native and which also moves beyond the individual, the human, the teacher or even the learner. What, then? For all the apparent strain the concept is under at the moment of writing, Laclau and Mouffe’s version of democracy, with its master signifier of the people, free and equal may hold the key. But to explore this will require another post – in which the concept of ideology will also need some further scrutiny.

I’ll end by pre-empting some questions along these lines. The most obvious one concerns how we go about disturbing the illusion or even breaking the hold of ideology. If ideology is so omnipresent that even our sense of self is bound up in it, if we are still in ideology even as we denounce others’ positions as ideological, how can the fantasy be dissolved? And what would be the consequences of this?

The second concerns the Marxist underpinning to ideology theory. Is it still possible today to refer to relations of production, to use a language of bourgeois and proletariat (words I have largely avoided until now), in the way Marx or even Althusser understood these terms? And even if we can, is class antagonism really the fundamental antagonism that ideology masks for us? What of other fundamental asymmetries: gender, race or sexuality? Or is a return to the site of class struggle the only ethical, truly progressive choice – the only choice with the possibility of addressing other injustices in addition to class ones?

Oh, and finally – what about Alan Waters then?

References and further reading

The image used is a still from the film They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Slavoj Žižek refers to this movie in his own film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, referenced below.

Althusser, Louis (1971). “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses: notes towards an investigation”. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press.

————- (1993). The Future Lasts a Long Time and The Facts. Trans. Richard Veasey. Chatto & Windus.

Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau & Slavoj Žižek (2000). Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Verso.

hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.

Laclau, Ernesto & Chantal Mouffe (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democracy. Verso (New Left).

Marx, Karl (1887). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol 1, Book 1. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Progress Publishers.

Sharp, Matthew (unknown). “Slavoj Žižek (1949 -)”. Online. Internet Encyclopedia of Philsophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/zizek/

Waters, Alan (2007). “ELT and ‘the spirit of the times'”. ELTJ 61 (4).

———– (2007). “Ideology, reality and false consciousness in ELT”. ELTJ 61 (4).

———– (2009). “Ideology and applied linguistics in language teaching”. Applied Linguistics 30(1).

Žižek, Slavoj (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

———- (1991). For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. Verso.

———- (2012). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Film. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Zeitgeist Films.

———- (2012). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Verso.

Humanism (and Other Animals)

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.19.47

One should be humane, after all, when dealing with humanist(ic) approaches to language teaching. Despite some recent maulings of some of the theories associated with such approaches – in particular multiple intelligences and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) – taken broadly, even if we don’t agree with all of them, there’s little to ruffle anyone’s feathers about the core axioms of classroom humanism. These I take to be:

  • that the learner should be at the centre of the learning process, directing his/her learning
  • that one of the teacher’s main roles is to facilitate learner autonomy
  • that communicative competence takes precedence over grammatical accuracy
  • that respect, empathy and authenticity are fundamental to the learning environment
  • that affect is key to successful or unsuccessful language learning

These ideas remain central to ELT today (along with, to a large extent, the pseudoscience that dogs them); they are usually part, to a greater or lesser degree, of institutional introductory training (and to some extent the diplomas), and are further enshrined in a significant amount of published materials (both about and for ELT). And to be fair, or more humane again, some of the less widely-accepted ideas of humanistic teaching – translation, for example – are starting to enjoy more academic support. Yet we rarely say now that we are teaching “humanistically” when we follow some of these axioms, or train others to follow them. These ideas, in certain ELT contexts at least, have become naturalised to the extent that we rarely feel the need to label them – they just feel right. (Conversely, I wonder to what extent we consider ourselves engaging in anti-humanist or dehumanising activities when drowning in the backwash of an exam class? Not much, perhaps, but I do believe that we recognise that things don’t feel quite right, that this isn’t really what teaching or learning should be about.)

But just to put these ideas back into a humanistic context, a bit of linguistic analysis. I created a corpus of the major and short articles from the ever-intriguing Humanising Language Teaching, the webzine whose title my title appropriates, along with Earl Stevick’s Humanism in Language Teaching (1990), Julian Pigott’s “A Humanistic Approach to Language Education in Japan” (on which more later) and some online articles about humanism and ELT. Then, with the fantastic AntConc, I was able to have a root around. (Warning: I am NOT a professional corpus linguist – nor am I trying to offer conclusive evidence for my claims.)

Here’s the wordlist by frequency (most function words excluded):

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.32.46

There is evidently and predictably far more focus on students (and learners) and their learning than on teacher(s) and their teaching in this rough and ready analysis; however, I would also venture that the high frequency of the verbs to use (use language to do/achieve things), to work (not only on your English, as a student, but as a teacher on an approach which “works”), to need (and have these needs met in the classroom environment), to lCaptura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.32.20ike (the centrality of affect), along with the nouns group and people, say something about the concerns of humanistic approaches.

The keyword analysis to the left, which compares my corpus with the Brown academic wordlist, perhaps shows more clearly the higher-than-typical frequency of most of the above-mentioned words in our corpus. Also noteworthy here are ask (students/questions about), give (information/examples), activity (simple, individual, group and even therapeutic) and approach – and of course the word “humanistic” itself (which collocates most frequently, as you’ll imagine, with “approach”). But when one pokes around a little more in the context, things get a little more interesting – not least in the context of “humanistic” itself:

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.06.04

From this roughshod selection a certain unstable distinction between humanist and humanistic – or should I say humanist(ic) – peeps out from its parenthetical burrow. Humanist relates to psychology, to a tradition of thinking we associate with Rogers, Maslow and Moskowitz, and humanistic to teaching approaches –  which accounts for the high recurrence of humanistic compared to all other forms of the word human in the corpus:

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.49.53

Why is humanist adequate for psychology and not for teaching? Evidently, humanist psychology’s pursuit of wholeness and self-actualisation is at the heart of humanistic language teaching, or, in the words of the webzine, at the heart of attempts to humanise language teaching:

When this magazine was established in 1999, its first editor, Mario Rinvolucri, and many of the early contributing authors, made very clear their personal identification with this Rogerian humanist tradition. In the first year, major articles were entitled ‘Are we ready for holism?’ and ‘Whole or hole’, and the first major article of all, ‘What is Teacher development?’, by Paul Davis, established a clear link with the Teacher Development Special Interest Group (SIG) of IATEFL and its newsletter, which, for years, had been showing a marked interest in counselling, co-counselling, the role of affect in learning and teaching and other areas associated with Humanist Psychology. (Kerr 2007)

However, as Kerr points out (and this is one of the beauties of HLT – that it has always been open to self-critique),

The honeymoon of humanist(ic) approaches was short-lived. The problem, essentially, was that humanism in ELT had become associated with a constellation of contentious topics such as psychodrama, Gestalt therapy or NLP. More contentious, still, were the attempts by advocates of aromatherapy or shamanism, for example, to hitch themselves to the humanist(ic) bandwagon.

Calling the webzine Humanising Language Teaching, rather than Humanistic Language Teaching, therefore attempts to suspend any pedagogically suspicious identification with the more esoteric aspects that dog it. But the chickenwiring was only partly effective, and with the high frequency of humanistic in the corpus, I can’t help but think that humanistic is the key term, and a term that permits a double reading – at once a claim to resemble humanist yet keep a distance, by means of a suffix which, “if said in the right way”, as Kerr points out, “can add a certain derogatory spice”. In other words, humanistic approaches became, in ELT academia anyway, an object of suspicion. So if humanistic invokes the simulacrum, in the learning environment, of humanist principles, it operates in the same way that realistic offers a simulacrum or the real – almost real, yet never quite enough to outfox us – or at least outfox those wily, cynical academics.

Yet speaking of the real, humanism of course speaks of the human, and we have already encountered the verb to humanise, to make more human, as if there is something unhuman, inhuman or inhumane about anything that human beings might do. Human beings suffer the contradiction of struggling to be human, to recognise the humanity of others and to treat those other humans with respect. If we are more human and more humane – “towards our fellow humans and animals” (Pigott n.d.) – we might achieve some of that self-actualisation or wholeness we mentioned above.

But as humans who may not always be human we might look in the eyes of the concept “human” itself and wonder at this difference. As we are wondering, thoughts of our fellow animals may wander in. A cat once walked in on Jacques Derrida while he was naked – “a real cat”, Derrida claimed, not a fictional or representative one – and looked at him. Derrida felt an immediate sense of shame, until he realised that the cat was naked too. It led him to ponder that perhaps one of the few credible distinctions between humans and animals is that “the property unique to animals and that which in the final analysis distinguishes them from man is their being naked without knowing it […] No animal has ever thought to dress itself” (Derrida 2002).

To put it another way, man is the animal that dresses itself, that knows it’s naked when it’s naked and feels shame under the gaze of another animal. Which animal? Human animals and others, even cats. More others? There are always other “animals”, the term catches all:

Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal […] as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting or fishing ground, a paddock or an abattoir, a space of domestication, are all the living things that man does not recognise as his fellows, his neighbours or his brothers. And that is so despite the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna. I interrupt my nomenclature to call Noah to help insure that no one gets left on the ark.

If being human or more human calls on us to respect our fellow humans and animals the recognition of such fellowship permits at once the definition and dismantling of the term human, founded as it is on such a shaky yet irreducible distinction from “animals”. This explains in some part the title of this blog. To animalise ELT is to renounce to a certain extent, or at least question some of the founding myths of what I’ve called classroom humanism – in particular to see the concept of the autonomous, whole, self-actualised human at the heart of language learning in its alterity – to look with other eyes at those student and teacher humans, the learning and teaching animals.

After all, of course, we wouldn’t want to dehumanise language teaching – humans have enough of a struggle to be human – this would be wanton cruelty. Yet within the history of humanistic ELT we find outmoded yet fascinating and still influential methodologies like Gattegno’s Silent Way – in which the teacher is reduced to grunts – and Lozanov’s Suggestopedia, in which more recognisably humanist concepts nestle alongside a certain robotic caricature of the teacher, with “absolute confidence in the method”, displaying “fastidious conduct in manners and dress” and somehow maintaining both “solemn composure” and “modest enthusiasm” (Lozanov 1978). In other words, to enable students to be more human, teachers may have to sacrifice some of their humanity.

There was something else not quite human stalking through my corpus.

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.11.09

There may be others, I am also waiting on a call from Noah. But I think humanistic teaching in the Rinvolucri mould is already to an extent animalised, albeit at the margins – it tends to recognise its own territorial limits, it’s aware somehow of the problem of culture which later came to overtake it in terms of academic ELT interests (see for example Rinvolucri 2001). But this doesn’t account for the appearance of our menagerie in the corpus. What does is an acknowledgement of the theatrical animal that classroom humanism can be – that is, we have not only the animals that we, as humans, observe, describe, draw, narrate, confirming thereby their otherness, their lack of naked shame before us, and in so doing our humanity – but the ones we – or more precisely our students – are sometimes asked to imagine ourselves to be. After all, what could be more typical of humanistic discussion questions than this: If you were an animal, what animal would you be? 

If I were an animal, that which I already am, I would try to be (a) human.

In the next post I will try to look further at the ideas of autonomy and wholeness in relation to teaching and learning subjects. I feel that bringing in the concepts of ideology and misrecognition may allow a more radical animalisation or transformation of humanistic ELT, as well as help me offer an explanation as to why those humanistic ideas now decried as pseudoscience continue to enjoy a hold over teachers, a hold that scientific language itself cannot account for.


Derrida, Jacques. 2002. “The animal that therefore I am (more to follow)”. Critical Inquiry 28:2

Kerr, Philip. 2007. “‘Humanising’ – what’s in a word?”. HLT 9:3

Lozanov, Georgi. 1978. Suggestology and outlines of suggestopedy. London: Gordon and Breach.

Pigott, n.d. “A humanistic approach to foreign language education in Japan”.

Rinvolucri, Mario. 2001. “The limits of humanistic practice”. HLT 3:4

Pegging “Postmodernism”


“Clothespegs” by Otodo, licensed under Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/6rGPAg

In the original post and discussion which prompted me to create this blog, I felt the need to distance or separate the terms “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” from a tactical viewpoint. Here I’ll try to explain why, and in so doing attempt to clarify some of the main strands of critical theory that my readings of the ELT industry draw upon – that’s to say, as much as clarification can be any use when dealing with thinking which tends to value opacity over transparency.

The words postmodern-ism/-ist, in conjunction with relativ-ism/-ist crop up frequently in Geoff Jordan’s and Kevin Gregg’s various defences of the rational basis of SLA theory against what Gregg calls “attacks from within the gates” (Gregg: 2000) – attacks which basically (and often clumsily) question the right of rational realism, or scientism, to be the only or most privileged way of accounting for second language acquisition. I would like to offer some thoughts on Gregg’s article in a future post. Compared with Gregg, Jordan’s approach is more considered and shows that he has read beyond the SLA version of “postmodernist” thinking, but I don’t think his conclusions differ too much from Gregg’s.

There, I did it again, putting “postmodernism” in inverted commas, those punctuational clothespegs we use to hang up soggy concepts, concepts we’re not happy about touching. Why? Because, for me, it’s less a way of thinking than a description of the state of things. While it is true that what can be called poststructuralist thinking emerged around the same time as the postmodern state of things began to become most visible, around the late 1950s/early 1960s, I don’t think either term is reducible to the other. So although there are those in SLA who have described their approaches as postmodernist, I’ll be using poststructuralist  as an umbrella term covering several (and sometimes competing) theoretical approaches whose methodologies can be used to analyse not only postmodernity (as a description of a state of things) but any body of discourses in which there are questions of reference, representation, power and difference. Which is to say, from the poststructuralist perspective, any discourse at all.

postmodernconditionOf course, there is a certain degree of slippage, or drippage from this most soggy of concepts, “postmodernism”, and it’s hard to avoid the backsplash. Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal The Postmodern Condition, a book whose position on science we will return to, may offer some kind of waterproof protection (another umbrella, perhaps). Lyotard shies away from attaching -ism or -ist to the root word of his enquiry except when referring to artistic movements, suggesting that there are certain types of creative activity which are consciously postmodern, are postmodernist, are consciously reacting against or going beyond modernism. “Postmodern” on the other hand, for Lyotard, applies to a cultural condition in which belief in the grand narratives or “metanarratives” of the enlightenment, sorely questioned during the modern period, have finally collapsed – a world in which plurality or eclecticism disrupts the idea of dominant ways of doing things, dominant styles:

Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games. (Lyotard: 1984)

You’ll notice no websurfing – The Postmodern Condition was published in 1979, although it proved prescient in its prediction of massive public information storage and retrieval systems. But this description of the eclectic, decentred, playful postmodern subject, accurate though it may be when referring to the contemporary cultures of the world’s most “developed” societies – Lyotard’s explicit field of study – seems troublingly close to the ideal consumer-subject, plastic and malleable, of what has optimistically been referred to as “late capitalism” (see Jameson 1991). On the one hand, there is the political and ethical move that a postmodern culture offers – to suspect grand narratives, to create new, situated, unstable but potent interventions; and on the other is a postmodern identity very much at the service of the discourses of advanced consumerism (you are what you buy, for example). Advocates of a consciously performative vision of identity, such as Judith Butler, are in this sense politically suspect, open to the accusation of “late capitalist libertarian[ism]” (in Zizek’s phrase; Zizek 2007).


Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, a “postmodern” film about about a film (about a book).

What are some of the hallmarks of this idea of postmodern culture, encompassing as it seems to do both radically radical and radically conformist positions? Aspects may include the dominance of the image, in advertising, entertainment, social and news media; a certain abandonment of cultural and political metaphors of depth and a consequent privileging of surface, of superficiality; a certain distancing, a renunciation of emotion and emotional response to art, culture or politics in favour of irony, the postmodern shrug, the one-liner; the repeated citation of other works, the celebration of intertextuality – not “quoted”, woven together by artistic genius as it may have been by a modernist, a Joyce or Eliot, for example, but “incorporate[d] into the very substance” of the work (Jameson 1991); the idea of self-referentiality, that representation is only ever about representation, from TV shows about TV shows to novels about novels to films about film; the collapse of the modernist distinction between “high” and “low” culture; and the coming to voice of previously subordinated identities, contradictorily coinciding with a persistent questioning of the stability of identity, of the possibility of an individual style, which in itself, according to Jameson, has led to the triumph of pastiche over parody.

What, then, is postmodernist critique, or postmodernist thought (two collocations, drip drip, that cannot be ignored) – is it to be defined as thinking/theorising about postmodernity, somehow outside it but observing it critically – or is it thinking which is postmodern in its nature, born from the condition of postmodernity and therefore slave to no grand narrative? I find this question too sticky; I find its undecidability unproductive. To add to my reluctance, there is the sense in which the word “postmodernist” itself has, at least in the hands of rationalism’s most vehement defenders, a pejorative import – that using it, whether in or out of clothespegs, carries with it an implicit mockery, a snigger behind the hand at the term’s contradictory anachronism (not helped when one considers those works which exhibit many of the key features of postmodernist art but predate the movement by sometimes hundreds of years – Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759) being one obvious example).

There is, of course, this danger with “post-“anything, the seeming impossibility of the development of an idea whose definition places it after something else, with the only tactical options being to go back to what was there before the post-, or to post the post- itself, or to somehow accept that we’ve reached the end of history, at least in epistemological terms. My preference for “poststructuralism” does not escape these questions, cannot really be fully and satisfactorily separated from “postmodernism” on the conceptual washing line, but its history as a way of thinking rather than a set of general cultural conditions, or a mode of representation of those conditions, make it seem far more useful to me in my present task.

Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm first emerging at the beginning of the 20th Century in the field of linguistics (with Ferdinand de Saussure) and later gaining currency, at least up to the 1970s, in literary and cultural theory, anthropology and sociology. It advocated a mode of analysis which considered meaning as dependent on an overarching structure, often regarded as fairly static. Within this structure culture becomes intelligible. Roland Barthes’ analysis of James Bond stories, for example, sought to identify the elements particular to Bond narratives, and by extension, all narratives – in mapping out a grammar of narrative structure, Barthes put forward the idea of a narrative code, the understanding and acceptance of which by a reader is essential to understanding the story itself.

Speaking very broadly, structuralism’s emphasis on systems of signs as the source and condition of any meaning, of the idea of human culture as fundamentally coded, rang true with some of the intellectuals caught up in the revolutionary atmosphere of late 1960s Paris, but its ahistoricism and tendencies towards totalisation, hierarchisation and what Derrida called its need not only to suspect, but “to reduce and to suspect” (Derrida: 1967), did not. For Barthes, on the one hand:

One of structuralism’s main preoccupations [is] to control the infinite variety of speech acts by attempting to describe the language or langue from which they originate, and from which they can be derived[.] Faced with an infinite number of narratives and the many standpoints from which they can be considered (historical, psychological, sociological, ethnological, aesthetic, etc.), the analyst is roughly in the same situation as Saussure, who was faced with desultory fragments of language, seeking to extract, from the apparent anarchy of messages, a classifying principle and a central vantage point for his description. (Barthes 1975)

For Derrida and others, however, the impossibility of definitively reducing the “infinite variety of speech acts” became the starting point for poststructuralism, a more radical force in critical theory insofar as it refuses the idea of a dominant structure that cannot in its own terms be deconstructed, that cannot escape its own history or suppression of history, that cannot unequivocally posit itself as a universal structure with a defining and delimiting “central vantage point” that somehow stands outside that structure, that escapes structurality. This, for Derrida, constituted a rupture, a moment

in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse – provided we can agree on this word – that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum. (Derrida 1978)*

In the case of Michel Foucault, one can trace this rupture in the trajectory of his works, from the more strictly structuralist perspective of The Order of Things and The Birth of the Clinic to a mode of historical critique more focused on conceptual instability, on the idea of power and knowledge as both produced and productive, but above all situated and contingent. In this way, although Foucault resisted the term poststructuralism, there is a movement in his work which breaches the totalising concept of structure, and that allows me to bring Foucault and others together with Derrida under the umbrella of poststructuralism without reducing the critical tensions between them. Zizek, to whom I referred earlier, is another example of an unlikely umbrella-sharer – a Marxist (or postmarxist?) thinker who at once resists the poststructuralist insistence on the dissolution of stable subjectivity and at the same time adopts some of poststructuralism’s more recognisable moves in order to do so.

I will suspend any discussion of what these moves may be for now – Patrick Amon has already elucidated a key example in his first comment on the previous post. I would rather, in the next one, turn more firmly towards the ostensible object of study for this blog – the ELT industry – and show the moves by attempting to deploy them. I have always felt that there is no poststructuralism outside of poststructuralist readings, no deconstruction outside of doing deconstruction, so from now on I will abandon this unavoidably reductive attempt at overview and proceed, as best I can, with the business at hand. Just don’t call me a postmodernist – or even a “postmodernist”.

*EDIT: Just to complicate the chronology of structuralism/poststructuralism I have offered, the rupturing “event” to which Derrida refers in the history of the concept of structure is not easily identified as the historical moment of rupture which produced poststructuralism, in a linear sense, as something which follows structuralism, whose centre could not hold. Derrida goes on to cite three great masters of suspicion regarding centred structures, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, whose names, along with that of Marx, should never be omitted from any account of the development of poststructuralism – and whose ghostly presences call into question the “post-” of that formation.


Barthes, Roland and Lionel Duisit. 1975. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”. New Literary History Vol. 6, No. 2

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences”. Writing and difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gregg, Kevin. 2000. “A theory for every occasion: postmodernism and SLA”, Second Language Research 16

Jameson, Frederic. 1991. Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Zizek, Slavoj and Michael Hausser. 2007. “Humanism is not enough.” IJBS. Vol. 3, No. 3



Posting, posting …

When I became a teacher of English as a foreign language I crossed a strange yet seemingly absolute boundary. I had, a year previously, graduated with a doctorate in Scottish literature from the University of Glasgow, an institution which at that time (the late 90s) was embracing theories and philosophies with a proliferation of “posts” – postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, even postfeminism and postmarxism. I was entirely and happily wrapped up in these continental ways of thinking, eventually producing a thesis which appropriated more than a couple of them, but I don’t think I seriously imagined I would ever become a professional academic in this field. I probably treated the whole experience as an enjoyable intellectual exercise with little currency outside of certain adventurous university departments.

Of course, in one aspect at least I was right. After a year’s post-doctoral drifting, I decided to do the CELTA and try my hand at another way of working with the English language. Although it took a while to sink in, I had now crossed a frontier into a world in which language was viewed in a strikingly different way from that encouraged in my academic training. Here there were no posts, no questions about ideology, about misrecognition; in place of radical doubt about the integrity of the speaking subject, I found unapologetic humanism; in place of psychoanalysis I found cognitive linguistics and other scientific discourses; in place of de Saussure I found Chomsky. On the other side of the line, Chomsky had been roundly mocked. Now I found those thinkers I had read and re-read – Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, mainly – being given similar treatment. Above all, I had entered a world in which the idea that language unequivocally represents a reality external to it, that the intentions of a speaker can be unambiguously understood by an interlocutor, were notions whose truth-value was never even questioned.

I did not object; I started to suspect, but I kept my mouth shut. There were still the few doubts I had about the validity of the thinking I had studied: although I found myself returning to it more and more often, I kept it from others for fear of ridicule, of being classified as an obscurantist. I risked a little poststructural critique in a Diploma essay on the UK’s language requirements for citizenship, and got away with it, but I left it at that.

The views of one of my best tutors at Glasgow, Drummond Bone, neatly encapsulated my position: deconstruction (the branch of poststructuralist philosophy most associated with Derrida)  is what happens when you put the microscope on language. When you pull back a bit and look at things more pragmatically or common-sensically, the rules change, much like when scientists move back from the subatomic level to the realm explained by classical mechanics. Students didn’t want or need linguistic quantum theory, I reasoned, they wanted to know how to express themselves. It was my job to help them achieve that – not to complicate the very concept of self and self-expression.

However, my own recent thinking about some of the dominant discourses in ELT – in particular humanism but also scientific rationalism and the new, purportedly revolutionary languages of edtech and adaptive learning – has led me to tighten the microscope once again. In this at least, my reading now feels like something that could lead to some interesting writing. A post on truth on Steve Brown’s blog, and a subsequent discussion between myself, Steve and Geoff Jordan about the validity of a poststructuralist approach to predominant modes of thinking in ELT, have been the spur to this blog: an attempt to find a productive space for deconstructive analyses of our industry, the ways it represents itself and the competing discourses which criss-cross it. In so doing, I guess, I am looking for a way to bridge that gap I unwittingly crossed when I took my CELTA, to think my way through this and other irreducibly grey areas.

In the next post I will revisit the comments section of Steve’s blog and try to clarify what I understand by the many posts which have popped up in this one.

Neil McMillan, August 2014, Barcelona.