05 March 2007

Our students are not cultural virgins

Many teachers have laid out their viewpoints on the appropriateness of the teacher speaking frankly about personal feelings on various issues.

I can understand that some teachers, sensitive to being charged with "cultural imperialism" or not being "politically correct", would carefully control their communications to remain absolutely neutral on these issues.

But I think the cultural imperialism of today is a little different than the cultural imperialism of 50 or 60 years ago. My students show up in class wearing Nike shoes and a copy of an NBA magazine in their bag. I often have to ask them to put away their MP3's which are loaded with songs by Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. I have to ask them to discontinue their excited discussions about the most recent cool American movie adventure so they can direct their attention to my class.

And I teach in China!

It is not much different at my business English classes at various American, French or Japanese joint ventures here in China. The difference only being the product, now it's cars, houses, travel abroad, technology gadgets or MBA programs. Rather than magazines it’s the latest business book by Jack Welch or Tom Peters.

Due to the "small world" dynamics of the Internet movies and TV, our students have already been exposed to culture worldwide. They have already made cultural choices. They are not culture virgins. Now they want some deeper understanding of it, some explanation.

About half of the classes that I begin in China are met with the request that I devote a certain amount of time to teach "western culture" every week. This does not mean that they think western culture is superior to their own but it does indicate that they feel they don't know enough about it and want to improve their understanding.

What is the teacher's role in this? I do not believe the teacher should always remain a neutral and passive instrument on this subject. After establishing that this is the teacher's personal opinion the teacher should feel free to explain what and why he or she thinks or feels something as well as offer the other side of the argument.

Our students are not young naïve sheltered cultural virgins and are capable of making their own independent choices and forming opinions which might even frequently and surprisingly include the assessment that the "teacher is a jerk" for thinking that way.

It seems to me that some arguments are elevating the English teacher's role to that of high priest of all knowledge or to something like Plato's Cave scenario.

If we are not talking about children then we should treat our students like adults who can, will and have already made up their own minds about ethics, morality and culture.

There are far too many wars going on around the world because people don't understand each other or fall prey to the demonization efforts of others. Especially when students request it teachers can be ambassadors of understanding. And as on teacher implies, why can't the teacher also be a realia?

"Here is why I'm against the Iraq war...Here is why George Bush is for the war." Our students know these are opinions and not the universal oracle of knowledge speaking. We are not doing some Stanley Milgram experiment on them. "Teacher, just obey and administer the shock!"

Teachers could be so bold as to state "Here is why I am a Christian." I sure wish I had some teacher in my school who told me, "Here is why I am a Muslim" because currently there are some raging misunderstandings going on over these matters and all kinds of crazy opinions are flying around.

I'd certainly be interested in talking with a real live Muslim in my classroom about his religion instead of relying on media reports and politicians. (After I hear his views I'll go look it up somewhere on my own.) I have a friend who is a black American Muslim and often use her as a substitute teacher when necessary. She gives my students a different perspective than the fat white American viewpoint which I embody.

I don't think our students, especially adult students but also many teenagers, are so malleable that we are going to brainwash them in our ninety-minute a week class with them. That is why I claim they are not cultural virgins. Teachers should not be afraid to give their own opinions and use themselves as a form of realia as long as they do it in an explanatory manner without being combative.

No comments:

Post a Comment