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

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.