This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature in 2005.
“Should a teacher bring his or her politics and religion into the classroom?”
This topic forces me to review my teaching history. My first degree was in American Studies with Political Studies. The latter is a subject I’ve strenuously avoided for thirty years. My Master’s degree was by research, and was in American Literature, specifically Hollywood & The Novel. I’ve taught literature to native speakers at tertiary level. I’ve lectured on film courses for native speakers, too. I’ve even taught ‘Western Political Systems’ for six months to a group of Chinese interpreters who arrived for a course in the UK in the 70s at Proficiency level. I’ve taught English to multi-national classes with a Chilean politician (under Pinochet), an Israeli army officer, an Algerian political Commissar and a Japanese executive from a multi-national company in the same class. So politics is off the agenda. To me, the point is that in ELT we’re teaching a skill, not selling ideas. This gives ELT a basic honesty that is absent from the teaching of Politics, Sociology or Literature, where however hard you try not to, you’re selling an idea. That’s what I always loved about ELT. It’s an honest job.
HOW honest? My main function nowadays is as a textbook author. I like to think it’s an honest and unbiased profession, but I have to hold my hand up and admit that like 90% of course book writers, I sometimes slip things in that I arrogantly think are “good” for the readers. Little things on the intelligence of whales and dolphins (which might help to stop people killing them), or on the environment (which might save a tree or two). Some text books lay their hidden agenda on with a trowel. I like to think that we’re more subtle, but potentially I guess we’re no less dishonest. I like to think that a general spirit of liberal humanism pervades most ELT textbooks, and I was pleased at reactions a few years ago when I was talking about video. We had a character in our videos called Dennis Cook who was supposed to be a comic “everyman”. Within a few months I heard people say “he’s just like a typical person in my country” in places as diverse as Thailand, Mexico, Poland and France.I feel that spreading the awareness (gently) that all nationalities are “just like us” is a positive thing to be doing.
Political correctness imposed by publishers has been mentioned by other contributors this month. I’ve never had a serious problem with PC editorial comments as long as they’re applied intelligently. To my lasting shame, I stood in front of an audience at the University of London who were asking why a best-selling textbook of mine had so few African-American / Afro-Caribbean faces. I answered truthfully that back in 1978 we had asked for them, and specified them in the art brief too, and our publisher didn’t think it important. They certainly do now, and that’s right. In a debate I got into on this, some other authors were furious that they’d not been allowed to show people smoking in their textbook. I don’t find it a problem to avoid people smoking in textbooks.I don’t find it a problem to avoid showing people drinking alcohol either. Others do.
I’d be totally against expressing any religious beliefs to a class. I have beliefs, but I would not apply the word ‘religious’ to them, as the most spiritual people I’ve met in my life have been from the whole range of belief systems. I’ve also encountered publishers’ fear of mentioning religion in textbooks. Though Marc Helgesen’s example of a topic banned by his publisher, Christmas in Australia, IS actually illustrated in the workbook of my current course, IN English, in the past I had some strange deletions. To me the weirdest was in ‘Main Street’, where there is a big picture of a parade in a typical New England town, except I was told I had to have a town hall NOT a church, as a church in a picture of an American small town “might offend other religious beliefs.” I thought that seriously weird. When I go to Istanbul I expect to see mosques, and in Kyoto I expect to see temples. I’m sure non-Christian visitors to the USA expect to see churches!