Humanism (and Other Animals)

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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.