Why PPP is a political issue

This was supposed to be my precise yet partisan part 2 of the critical pedagogy debate but Freire has waited long enough and can wait a bit longer. Somehow a number of different ‘as I write’ (aka ‘place of enunciation’) factors are pushing me towards this post about politics and PPP instead. In no particular order:

  1. What some regard as the tragedy of Brexit is playing out as properly peculiar parliamentary farce;
  2. I have been seriously questioning my precarious part-time position as tutor on a certain teacher-training qualification as in itself a tragic and maybe also farcical attempt to push back against a PPP and focus on formS hegemony written into the very fabric of the qualification itself, as well as into the belief-systems of the majority of teachers taking it—to the point that I have now resigned from that position;
  3. With colleagues at SLB (an organisation which this blog in no way represents) I am launching a Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) course which in some ways is aimed precisely at destabilising that hegemony and, perhaps precipitously and some will claim pretentiously, looks to install a new one; and
  4. Being in a period of quite intense personal realignment (don’t worry, I’m still enough of a Derridean not to trouble you with the details) I have launched myself on a self-prescribed course of Thomas Pynchon, philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, some of which has caused me to seriously question my previous positions on, and penchants for, poststructuralist thought in the Butlerian and Foucauldian moulds—even to the point that I now believe significant parts of my doctoral thesis were built on something a wee bit fishy. This is not (and this will get my good friend Geoff Jordan’s goat) a turn towards a more traditional rationalist position. It’s more like a further nod in the direction of Lacan (via Žižek, Todd McGowan, Alenka Zupanćić and, maybe most decisively as far as Judith Butler’s concerned, Joan Copjec). I await the inevitable pelters.

But all I want to say about that is that decisive interventions retrospectively rewrite history, in much the same way that many of us in the ELT profession who pass from the ‘structure of the day’, PPP model we were suckled on by the initial cert, to something more dynamic and meaning-focused, begin to negatively reevaluate the entire history of our approach to teaching language, and understand why, maybe, our learners weren’t really learning what we were teaching them.

I will not rehearse the arguments here; there are much better accounts of this than I could manage. Nor do I want to go too deeply back into an analysis of the pedagogic part of the debate surrounding Jason Anderson’s defence of PPP, on which Geoff thought I was too equivocal and probably stepping on his toes; except to repeat, as unequivocally as I can, that Anderson, despite an illuminating historical review, presents no evidence whatsoever to justify PPP on a pedagogic level. In fact, not one of the studies he cites even mentions PPP (which is, after all, only a lesson-staging model, not a methodology). Looking beyond Anderson, even when scholars examine PPP explicitly, such as in a study by Jones and Carter about teaching discourse markers (DMs), short-term gains are about as much as can be pointed to:

[T]he use of a PPP framework can be considered more effective [than the III framework]* because it resulted in a greater ability of students to use the DMs in the short term but this was not sustained over time. Test results show a decrease in the number of target DMs used from immediate to delayed post-test and there were no statistically significant differences between the groups’ usage of target DMs at the delayed test stage […]

Critics who dismiss PPP are both right and wrong. Clearly, it did have at least a short-term impact upon learners’ ability to use the target items in this study and many of these learners felt that it was a useful framework because it offered them opportunities to practise them. It would therefore be premature to claim that it is a discredited framework, as some have suggested […] However, it is also clear that practice within a PPP framework was not always considered as helpful by students in this context. For example, [… in some cases] it was not viewed as skill building but time wasting.

(Jones and Carter 2014)

(*III = Illustration, Interaction and Induction. It may involve more implicit instruction than PPP but remains within the ‘structure of the day’, focus on formS approach.)

Going back to Anderson, when it comes to PPP as a matter of policy we could also say that he too is ‘both right and wrong’ (if we avoid the temptation to echo the words of physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who is said to have remarked of a young scholar’s paper that ‘it’s not even wrong’). Etymologically, of course, policy has the same root as politics, that is polis or the city state, or group of citizens, by and for whom strategies of decision-making are developed. So, does PPP have more political validity than pedagogical?

First of all, Anderson notes that PPP is a matter of policy in the publishing industry, on the basis that it’s what learners really want:

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the preferences of English language learners does not come from research, but from their influence on materials design. The multimillion pound ELT publishing industry is consumer driven. Its most widely published and most popular titles are shaped partly by sales, but also by extensive consumer research, both into the preferences of learners in the case of self-study material, and also the preferences of teachers and learners for classroom-based materials. And what sales and consumer opinions reveal has been remarkably consistent; PPP has dominated the organisation of the majority of mainstream ELT coursebooks ever since Abbs and Freebairn used it for their Strategies series in the 1970s.

Anderson (2016), p. 17.

The absolutely crucial point missed by Anderson here—aside from the fact no evidence is offered to confirm that PPP is indeed what learners want—is that while the end users of ELT coursebooks (CBs) are students, the CBs themselves are already chosen as a matter of policy by schools (perhaps consulting the teacher and perhaps not), exam and national education boards, whose demands shape their content to a significant extent (see, for example, Şimşek & Dündar (2017), p. 971). The clear preference of the industry is precisely this one-size-fits-all approach and a focus on the development of easily measurable, granularised, declarative knowledge (i.e. knowledge of how to explicitly apply a rule, rather than the ability to spontaneously use the language).

In other words, taking us back to Žižek and his notion of the radical exteriority of belief, it doesn’t actually matter what students prefer, because the ELT industry does all the preferring for them. Students can happily (or not, in the case of Jones and Carter’s sample) get on with it, safe in the assumption that those subjects presumed to know—the teachers and institutions to whom they trust their education—well, actually know.

So maybe Anderson is so wrong that he actually gets it right. Or to put it another way, his ‘strongest evidence’ is so weak that it somehow leads us to the correct conclusion. I feel the same about his next point, which is about teacher training. PPP is popular among trainers on courses like the CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL because:

PPP has a number of advantages, especially important on more intensive (four weeks) courses:

1. It is a common sense, logical framework for skill training […]

2. It is familiar to the prior educational culture of many trainee teachers (including many from the UK, where such courses are popular), a significant influence in much initial teacher training.

3. The prescriptive structure of PPP serves as a useful scaffolding artefact, especially beneficial for such trainee teachers often experiencing high levels of stress and steep learning curves.

Anderson (2016), p. 17

If there’s one thing that an education in critical theory gives you, it’s to treat appeals to ‘common sense’ with extreme caution. But let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s imagine that having been given this nice, prescriptive, logical framework that apparently chimes so well with how we learnt things before, we can do a bit of teaching. What happens when we take the next step and try to get the Diploma, the DELTA or—the one I’ve been more involved with over the years—the Trinity Dip TESOL? Is the learning curve now less steep? No, I claim—because most of us have done little else but PPP in the intervening period. Not because it’s evidence-based, but because, again, the industry we’re in, in which both Cambridge and Trinity are central players, demands it. The whole justification for PPP (and more broadly, focus on formS) in fact follows a circular logic in which the possibility of doing anything else is heavily proscribed.

Looking at Trinity’s ‘must pass’ criteria for teaching practice in their Dip, the key one of the four is:

LD 12: There is clear evidence of language / skills development taking place.

Helen Rountree, a Dip candidate giving the kind of advice many Dip tutors do, translates this as ‘teach them something new’. But that isn’t exactly it. First we have to understand that ‘something’ as a language point in most cases (the ‘skills development’ option often boils down to this too, e.g. teaching discourse markers to improve spoken fluency). Then you have to be able to point to evidence that they learned that something new. And given that each lesson is restricted to 60 minutes, the path of least resistance to passing LD12 is to adopt a focus on formS approach in which a structure selected with scant reference to student needs (these don’t feature in the must-pass criteria) is presented, practised and, we hope, produced by at least a few of the students before the timer runs out.

Does that really mean they learned it? Has there been ‘uptake’ or ‘acquisition’; has it become part of their procedural knowledge? Would that even be possible within the 60 minute showcase? Trinity, it seems, doesn’t care. And so Rountree is quite right when she gives fellow candidates her first piece of advice on how to prepare for TP:

  • Familiarise yourself with B2-C1 textbooks and build up a bank of activities and lesson ideas for grammar points which are found at this level.


Now don’t get me wrong, a Dip-level lesson simply lifted from a coursebook and delivered without much attention to learner difficulties or emergent language is unlikely to get too high a mark. But first principles really have not advanced too much since the Cert. And, crucially, it is very difficult to depart too radically from the model. Following a TBLT approach, for example, simply leaves the teacher with too many conundrums. How can s/he describe the ‘something’ to be taught when the ‘something’ in TBLT is a task, not a specific structure? Will the 60 minutes be long enough to get the students close to an exit task and the chance to demonstrate that ‘language/skills development’ has taken place? Will the tutor be satisfied that elaborated input, with a focus on form approach to output, perhaps with little explicit teaching, has got the job done?

Probably not, because the efficacy of TBLT (and other approaches that privilege implicit learning and respect learners’ needs and readiness to learn) needs to be measured over the longer term, and with other kinds of assessment tool than the final P of PPP. The hypocrisy of qualifications like the Dip is that they require teachers to be aware of multiple methodologies and concepts like interlanguage or learnability, but for TP purposes teachers have little leeway to depart much from what they’re already used to. Just about the most radical thing you can do as a tutor, if you want your tutees to pass, is to encourage them to try a communicative version of the Test-Teach-Test approach or something like Dogme, but insofar as discrete language points still need to be anticipated and worked on, it is most often the pre-chosen grammar that dictates the communicative element of the class and not the other way around. And this, in my book, is about as clear a case of the tail wagging the dog as you can get.

In the end, it is not only students who have their believing done for them—it is also the teachers. And this is where PPP is most obviously political. Qualifications like the Dip raise awareness of other possibilities while in practical terms keep teachers deskilled and dependent on CBs. Or to put it another way, they raise the skill level only in terms of improving the deployment of CB-driven, top-down methodology, making it just a little more student-centred and responsive. The students may benefit slightly, but the industry that propels all this benefits a lot more, because not one of its assumptions gets challenged in a significant way. And so teachers acquire more freedom to choose, as long as they make the only choice that’s practically available.

Anderson, Penny Ur (whom Anderson cites) and others, in their defence of PPP and dismissal of its critics, seem to claim to be standing up for ordinary teachers whose choices are heavily limited in this way. What they don’t see is their implication in the very ideologies which already limit such choices. To paraphrase Marx on Feuerbach, too many ELT writers have hitherto only interpreted the industry, and badly. The point is to change it—or, as a minimal first step, at least to understand it.

References (with thanks to Tom Flaherty and Chris Jones)

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. ELTED 19, pp. 14-22.

Jones, C. and Carter, R. (2014). Teaching spoken discourse markers explicitly: a comparison of III and PPP. IJES 14, pp. 37-54.

Şimşek, M. & Dündar, E. (2017). Investigating EFL Coursebook Research in Turkey: Trends in Graduate Theses of the 2001-2013 Period. Educational Sciences: Theoretical Practice 17(3), pp. 969-1014

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.