Letters to the editor: Rob Sheppard

So I’ve been hoping to start a new section on the blog and my most recent post has fortunately facilitated that. Obviously there is the comment section of every blog post but Letters to the editor will be a place to post long reactions to, or criticisms of things I’ve written. Starting us with the very first in the (hopefully) series is Rob Sheppard with a response toolitics and English languge teaching‘.

If you’d like to read more by Rob he’s has recently written a post for Mike Griffin and also one for TEFL equity.  Over to Rob:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics
In a recent post on this blog, Russ expressed concerns that the current push for politics in the ELT classroom is one-sided: not a push for an unbiased discussion of politics generally, but for a liberal social justice agenda. “Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins,” he writes.

As I indicated in a few tweeted responses, I think this post misses some critical nuances and misrepresents a benign—and in some contexts, necessary—push for politics in ELT. I won’t dispute that this push is aligned with liberal politics, but this is not an indication of a problematic bias. Rather, the historical coincidence that anti-racism, feminism, religious tolerance—principles of basic decency that ought to be universals, not partisan politics—have aligned with liberalism simply makes certain liberal principles appropriate for inclusion in the classroom.

Brevity is not a strength of my writing, but I’ll try to limit myself to five main points that Russ makes.

A Zealous Few
Russ treats the push for politics in the classroom as synonymous with a strict interpretation of Freire’s critical pedagogy, claiming that it “crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating.”

From his examples, we are left with the impression that swarms of social justice warriors are bent on injecting the classroom with their views about everything from race relations to GMO foods, environmentalism to 9/11 conspiracy theories. We are led to believe that this is characteristic of the push for politics, not a few zealous outliers.

Are there teachers out there like this? Sure. I’ve met a few. They’re typically young, overzealous and their boundary issues when it comes to political views are a problem out-of-class, as well as in. But are these teachers representative of the majority of teachers who believe that some politics have some role in the ESOL classroom? I don’t think so, and we are presented with no evidence that this is the case.

There is a difference between discussing political topics and indoctrination. However, once Russ expresses his suspicions that teachers are preaching their own foregone conclusions, he ceases to distinguish between the two. Maintaining the distinction is crucial both to his argument and to our classroom practice.

Blurred Lines

“Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy?” wonders Russ.

The answer is easy: “Easily.”

The line that Russ overlooks is not a particularly hazy one, the way I see it. Racism is unacceptable falls on one side of the line. GMO foods should be labelled falls on the other. Sexism is unacceptable is on the former side. Supply side economics created jobs is on the other.

The issues that I feel no problem imposing on my classroom are those related to discrimination and intolerance. Put another way, they shouldn’t even be considered political opinions. 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. Nor does the horrifying fact that this populism works, time and time again.

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.

Before moving on, a caveat I wish weren’t necessary. There are people who will say, “But you’re being intolerant of people with differing views.” This is an equivocation game we play in American politics, in which the intolerant flip the script and frame themselves as victims of intolerance. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, sometimes try to claim a religious justification for refusing to serve gay couples. To any thinking person, this is a cheap sleight of hand, but just to head this one off, let’s be clear: 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.

The Right Side of History

Russ writes, “it would be nice to imagine there is a ‘wrong side of history’ and we’re all plodding along hoping we’re on the ‘right’ side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective.” In our Twitter conversations, he suggests that I’m oversimplifying the issue, focusing on the easy examples when there are countless muddy, difficult examples.

He is certainly right that there are challenging cases. I don’t deny that for a second. But complex cases do not lead us to the conclusion of moral relativism. More to the point, my argument is that I don’t think there is any widespread push to inject the muddy examples into our field.

The issues I believe have a place in the classroom are unambiguous. Issues of intolerance are categorically different from our views on taxation, corporate regulations, capital punishment, firearms legislation. I hold relatively liberal beliefs on all these issues. Under the right circumstances, I sometimes reveal my beliefs on such issues to my students. They are curious for insights into “what Americans think.” But I would never dream of presenting my view on these lesser issues as the right way. I would never dream of silencing a student who wanted to voice their disagreement with me on these issues.

The expression of intolerant views in a diverse classroom makes those who face marginalization and discrimination in society at large feel unwelcome even in our classroom. In many cases it calls into question the humanity or basic rights of individuals based on who they are. This is unacceptable. By validating, tolerating, or ignoring the expression of these views, teachers sanction them. We are leaders, and by taking up the onus of leadership, we forfeit the right to silence when injustice arises.

I don’t think that the view I describe here, the line that I draw is unusual. I think that I’m more representative of the politics-in-ELT push than the zealot Russ imagines.

An Isopropyl Solution?
Some will object that a better way to avoid this threat of intolerance is to create a classroom free of politics altogether, and Russ briefly flirts with this solution. Though I do not think he ultimately advocates for it, some did on Twitter, and I want to address this argument.
For one thing, the apolitical classroom is impossible in two senses.

The first, which Russ addresses, is that everything is political. Silence is political, and all the more so to the marginalized and vulnerable. A quick flip through your average coursebook is quick confirmation. Choices intended to be apolitical are anything but: One-dimensional tokenism in representation of minority groups, heteronormative examples, antiquated gender roles.

The second is that these issues will almost always enter the classroom in an overt manner at some point or other. I didn’t always feel the importance of explicitly calling attention to these politics. It was a series of experiences that led me to this position: kicking a student out of class for describe certain races as literally subhuman, observing a student calmly explain to his teacher what punishments his god has in store for gay people, reading an essay explaining why a student was moving out of her “black neighborhood” because a “black guy” and “another black guy” robbed her… I don’t know how the apolitical classroom crowd deals with these situations, but as I said above, I don’t think silence is an option.
Finally, though, I think we need to inject political topics into our classrooms because these are topics that surround us. These are things that we talk about—important, consequential things—and our job is to prepare our students linguistically to talk about the things people talk about.

I won’t remove students out of my class for offences they don’t understand. Nor do I want my students to be shunned outside the classroom for expressing views that they don’t understand are unacceptable in their new home.

Where I’m Calling From
I have avoided talking much about teaching context so far, but context does matter. An EFL classroom in Saudi Arabia and an IEP in Northern California are different in fundamental ways, and of course we need to adjust accordingly.

My own most recent context has certainly informed my perspective on this issue and it is my understanding that the push to include politics in the classroom is much stronger in contexts such as adult education. The students are adult immigrants to the United States. They are the politics, the hostage bargaining chips discussed on the news each day.. What I have the privilege of talking about with the distant abstract noun, politics, has concrete impacts on these people and their families. For these students the machinations and debates of white guys on TV translate to My sister isn’t here anymore. I thought my green card meant I was safe here. A stranger yelled at me on the street for speaking Arabic. I don’t know if it’s safe to take my child to the hospital. To wash our hands and sanitize our classrooms of “politics” is a privilege not afforded to all.

Politics and English language teaching

One theme of 2017 was whether we should be more ‘political’ in our lessons. At IATEFL, JJ Wilson argued for the inclusion of ‘social justice‘ in ELT classrooms and others criticised such things as the avoidance in materials, of PARSNIPS or other ‘difficult’ topics. Lessons promoting ‘more politics in the classroom’ have also been promoted, such as one on the French election and another on refugees. So should we be including more politics in ELT lessons? Do students want it? Does it lead to better educational outcomes? Is that even the point?

Everything is nothing

One of the main arguments for including more politics in class is that since ‘everything is political‘ and all classroom practice is value-laden, politics is already there. 

‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles. Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’. (Auerbach in Thornbury)

Of course, it follows that if everything is political then the push can’t be so much for more politics in the classroom, but for different politics in the classroom. Currently, what students in fact get is a ‘sanitised’, inoffensive version of politics avoiding any politically sensitive topics. Students are treated to a diet of bland topics and never really have their ideas challenged. 

If we want more politics in teaching then, the question becomes how we differentiate political topics which are ‘sanitised’ and bland from those which are important. Elections in France were an important topic for one teacher (above) and LGBT rights for another. We could have lessons on a range of political topics, for instance, domestic violence, circumcision, gerrymandering, corporation tax, abortion, the death penalty, atheism, NAFTA and so on. But are these the right kind of politics?

Not politics but ‘politics’

I get the distinct feeling that if I taught lessons on political topics like trade deficits, estate tax and the gold standard, those advocating more politics in the classroom wouldn’t be satisfied. These are undeniably important topics which are not usually in textbooks but my sense is that they’re not the ‘right’ political topics. That’s because those pushing for more politics in the classroom are actually pushing for more of the politics which are important to them, specifically, broadly ‘liberal’ or ‘social justice‘ issues. These I would guess, include topics such as inequality, environmental issues, sexism, and minority rights.

Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins. Advocates often tout political lessons as merely being about examining views, having a discussion and ‘asking questions’ but to my mind this is not quite true. The reality is the lessons are used as a platform for a teacher to promote a certain political vision to her students. An example of what I’m talking about can be seen in this interview with J.J. Wilson. He suggests that the topic of ‘work’, a staple of many EFL textbooks, could be made more ‘political’:

Another common topic is work. Again, we problematise. We might ask about exploitation, environmental damage or corruption. Or we might question the very nature of work – and ask why an employee in a supermarket is setting out genetically engineered fruit rather than tending her garden, why a line cook is taking orders from strangers instead of cooking for his family, why a woman is watching the children of the wealthy at a daycare centre rather than spending time with her own, why a musician is composing jingles for fizzy drinks rather than jamming with his friends.

It is apparent here that Wilson thinks organic garden grown foods are preferable to GM foods. He also seems to suggest that the concept of work itself is problematic. The questions he’s posing are pushing in a certain direction. Since there is no instruction about what kind of politics should be in the classroom, one could reasonably imagine questions like ‘why do so many people dislike GM foods when they are so safe?’ or ‘ Why do middle class Westerners eat organic food which takes so much more land and resources to produce -are they just selfish?’ and so on. These questions, like Wilson’s cannot be considered neutral.

Critical Pedagogy thus crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating. Teaching students to think critically must include allowing them to come to their own conclusions; yet Critical Pedagogy seems to come dangerously close to prejudging what those conclusions must be.

The right answer is…

Unlike questions of grammar and vocab which usually have a right (or at least, standard) answer, questions of politics are more tricky. it would be nice to imagine there is a ‘wrong side of history‘ and we’re all plodding along hoping we’re on the ‘right’ side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective. Sure some issues seem easy. Should some people be slaves? Should we kill people who we think are witches? But it quickly gets more ‘muddy’. Should the state help terminally ill patients to commit suicide? Should male inmates convicted of rape be allowed into female prisons if they identify as female? Should male religious circumcision be banned

The idea that something is morally right for all time and everyone should ‘get up to speed’ as soon as one country does is naive. Most people living 100 years ago would be moral monsters to us, and no doubt we will be moral monsters to those living 100 years hence. different times, and different places have different views about things. 

Neutrality works for both sides. 

A key point that advocates of more politics in the classroom miss is that anyone who can use this argument to teach the ‘right’ topics can also use it to teach the ‘wrong’ topics. Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy? Those who consider instituting bans on certain ‘wrong’ politics are myopic and never consider that those tools, once instituted, may someday be used against them. The bland, sanitised topics arguably protects everyone from the experience Callista Hunter describes in this screenshot. 

Bully for you

Another issue with those promoting more politics in classrooms is the faintly moralistic whiff with which they sometimes do it.  Johnson writes:

Critical pedagogists have also commandeered a certain political vocabulary that gives them claim to the moral high ground. They borrow extensively from the language of proletarian protest, talking frequently of struggle, emancipation, and liberation. Their favorite adjectives are revolutionary and radical. Their metaphoric use of such terms seems intended to make readers feel like romantic rebels. (2012)

A cynic might ask exactly whose interests the politicised classrooms are serving? The students, who might learn a bit of interesting or unusual vocabulary, or the teacher who gets

to believe their teaching is a higher calling than, as Wilson puts it mere classroom managers transmitting McDonaldised content‘. This kind of rhetoric belittles teachers who just want to teach. Teachers, who do not partake in activism, are shills, or to quote one, are  ‘colluding in highly neoliberal/ imperalistic form[s] of global governance/ managerialism.’ Teachers are either critical or stooges, ‘with us or with the terrorists’. As Ding writes:

This conflictual and aggressive discourse is also accompanied by a binary and divisive stance regarding the choices facing teachers…It does so because of a lack of nuance and subtlety, failing to accommodate ideas and pedagogies that do not foreground quite so vocally an ideological version of language education…

Can we avoid politics? 

I think a lot of these people feel passionate about injustices they see in the world and want to do something about it. I don’t doubt the convictions and the good intentions of those who want to live in a better world but activism disguised as academia isn’t, to my mind, the right way to go about it. I see the classroom as something akin to the yearly family get together. There’s history and disagreements and racist uncles. It all bubbles under the surface and so we put a nice polite smile on our faces and get through the ordeal sticking to bland, safe topics ‘How’s work’ and ‘been on holiday anywhere nice?’ rather than ‘Grandad! why did you vote for Brexit!?’ 

I actually don’t have a problem bringing up controversial topics in class especially if the students ask about it and everyone is happy to discuss it. These kind of classes/moments are usually really valuable. I have a problem with political activism disguised as teaching and the implication that ‘just’ teaching makes you a puppet of shadowy corporate forces.

I was reluctant to write to this post as politics doesn’t really fall under my remit. I also can’t point to any evidence to say it’s wrong or right to inject your politics into the classroom. All I can really say is that I wouldn’t like it if I were a student and I don’t like the idea of doing it as a teacher. I also don’t think teacher’s should be shamed for not pushing certain politics on students. Educating someone is itself inherently empowering. Isn’t that enough?