ELT is suffering from a mild case of schizophrenia around the question: are we an industry or a profession?*
Which answer you arrive at stems from completely different sets of values which are, I would argue, incompatible.
Psychiatry divides the symptoms of schizophrenia into two categories, positive and negative:
Classic positive symptoms of schizophrenia are: hallucinations, delusions and disorganised thinking
Classic negative symptoms of schizophrenia are: introversion, apathy and low self-esteem
Do any of these symptoms apply to the mild schizophrenia affecting ELT at present?
The ELT industry
Question: if you were to cast a fresh eye on the ELT industry, what would be the unit of analysis?
- what is produced? (the materials i.e. coursebooks)
- what is bought on the market?
- service providers and customers?
- the flows of production and distribution?
What is the position of the teacher here? It’s peripheral.
At best, the ‘teacher’ is a service provider or an entrepreneur–holding a basket of fungible skills that can be traded on the open market. If those skills aren’t needed in one particular place at one particular time then that’s just supply and demand.
In this world, the market knows best; when you’re no longer needed you just find a new job in a new market. What? You have a family, kids? Sorry, no one is entitled to a job round here!
But ‘making the market real’ is a logical error, a fallacy of misplaced concreteness – making something real and natural which is in fact, socially and culturally constructed (reification).
What is ‘made real’ here is the free market guided by the ‘forces’ of supply and demand.
The free market doesn’t exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How ‘free’ a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition.
(Ha-Joon Chang 2010: 1)
This process of ‘making the abstract real’ comes about because of the influence of neoliberalism, a philosophy which involves a gradual encroachment of market-based mechanisms into all spheres of life, especially as solutions to social problems e.g. food banks, tax credits, nursery vouchers. In a neoliberal worldview, as individuals (and we are always individuals in this worldview) we are expected to take responsibility for ourselves, to be self-maximizing ‘entrepreneurs’:
Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself. (Foucault, 2008: 226)
But we can’t all be entrepreneurs… and neither do many of us want to be entrepreneurs.
However, there’s no shortage of pressure to become an entrepreneur–to rebrand yourself, market yourself, to become a coach or a trainer. Because these are the brands that command higher prices from our clients.
So when did teacher become a dirty word?
An industry aims to expand. It comprises of profit-maximizing businesses driven by providing increasing returns to shareholders. All this is grounded in a logic of efficiency and competitiveness. So what are the values here?
The values are that competition is a good thing, that the market knows best (over the state and society) and that the fittest will survive–a kind of economic Darwinism.
In ELT, this logic of increasing competitiveness and efficiency leads to PARSNIP-averse materials and to the deskilling of teachers:
Teachers are pressed to accommodate to the demands of being cast as technicians and deliverers at the cost of their abilities to explore and facilitate growth. (Edge 1996:14)
In general, with society operating on market-based values, work defines us more than ever before. However, the border between work and leisure becomes blurred, as workers are increasingly precariously employed, work is irregular and the benefits of permanent work such as holiday and sick pay are non-existent. Globally, only a quarter of workers have full-time jobs.
Ulrich Beck (2000:14) states that “on the one hand, work is the centre of society around which everything and everyone revolve and take their bearings; on the other hand, everything is done to eliminate as much work as possible”.
As Medley (2009:12) writes, “Language instruction does not take place in a socio-political vacuum.” There are issues that need to be addressed that extend beyond the limits set by the ELT industry; these are ethical questions more suited to a profession. But these issues should not remain unsolved or unaddressed; at the very least, they should be acknowledged.
Some critical questions we might ask that relate to the dichotomy between ELT industry and profession could include:
Are we short-changing ourselves and our learners?
What might a better balance look like between ELT industry and ELT profession?
How can we bridge the gap?
Finally, this is a plea for dialogue to bridge those divisions and correct what I perceive to be an imbalance between two conflicting sets of values: those of an ELT industry and those of an ELT profession.
Between some teachers first and every teacher first.
What do you think?
*Thanks to Adam Beale (@bealer81) for first bringing up this idea
Chang, Ha-Joon. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Penguin, 2010. (youtube video here)
Edge, Julian. Cross-Cultural Paradoxes in a Profession of Values. TESOL Quarterly, 30: 9–30, 1996.
Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics:
Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Medley, Michael. Hope for the English language teachers of Kosovo. Newsletter of the Global Issues in Language Education Special Interest Group (GILE SIG) of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT), 72, 11-13, 2009.