"Besides, isn't this what we always wanted?"

In an article titled ‘Empowerment as a Pedagogy of Possibility‘ (Language Arts 64 4), Roger Simon makes the following observation:

As an introduction to, preparation for, and legitimation of particular forms of social life, education always presupposes a vision of the future. In this respect, a curriculum and its supporting pedagogy are a vision of our own dreams of ourselves, our children and our communities. But such dreams are never neutral; they are always someone’s dreams, and to the degree that they are implicated in organising the future for others they always have a moral and political dimension (p. 372, emphasis added).

I had originally intended to use this quote as a prompt for a discussion of what visions of the future are visible in the Greek national curriculum and of the prevalent pedagogical practices in Greek schools. This, I hoped, could be juxtaposed with some form of empirically-derived narrative, so as to illustrate what scope exists for subverting the dominant ‘vision of the future’. Unfortunately, it appears that this is not possible, but I do feel that the quotation deserves some comment.

Specifically, I would like to focus on the word ‘someone’, which I have highlighted, and to problematise the moral issues that arise from the disconnect between those who organise the future and those have the greatest stakes in it. The most salient problem, as far as I can see, is that it is not at all clear who this ‘someone’ is, whose dreams are projected to the future through the educational system. I would rather not venture an answer, for fear of that my prejudice gets the better of me, but I hope that the personal anecdote that follows may be of some relevance.

I was recently at a talk by a senior ELT person in the Greek state education sector, during which he enthusiastically described the planned integration of a testing battery in our language curriculum. Among the many advantages of this change, he argued, was that High School English took on a ‘real purpose’ (after seven years of learning and -in most cases- intensive private ELT tuition, many students feel that additional English courses are redundant). I had to point out that if the ELT provision in Greek high schools is unnecessary for some students, it would make more sense to direct the available resources to those who really stand to benefit from them; and that, as far as I was concerned, the most urgently relevant purpose for ELT, its linguistic and communicative goals aside, would be to address their political, ethical and social bankrupcy by fostering values rather than exam-taking skills.

The official’s reply, delivered with a warm smile, was that an intelligent person such as myself surely must be aware what would happen if students were not actively encouraged to take English lessons, especially during such an unprecedented crisis (English teachers, presumably including those who are too clever for their own good, would risk unemployment). ‘Besides’, he added, ‘isn’t this what we always wanted? More ‘kyros’ for our subject?’ By ‘kyros’, he meant influence and prestige, and, some cynics might add, opportunities to make money on the side by manning the exam apparatus. By ‘we’, he meant the various teacher associations and quasi-academic bodies associated with ELT in Greece, who had been vociferously lobbying for such an exam battery to be developed by the government, despite the fact that there was no demand for it (The battery has been commercially unsuccessful so far, which might explain the recently discovered need to integrate it in the education system). We did not get the chance to discuss this further, which is just as well.

So where does that leave me in relation to the students whom I have been entrusted to educate? I cannot answer this with any confidence, except to say that I feel trapped between the awareness of a locus of struggle hiding behind seemingly benign decisions, the understanding of how this struggle is conducted in the context of power inequalities, the ethical imperative that all this be made more transparent, and a sense of indignation that and a sense of indignation that it is deliberately ignored, as the people involved refuse to acknowledge their agency in it.


  • Eljee Javier

    As I’m writing my response I’m acutely aware of the sarcastic and cynical cloud that is gathering in my mind…

    Reality vs. intentions (explicit and hidden) – the eternal tug of war when it comes to curriculum design. Your quote is spot on and yet, to explore who that “someone” may be would take me into those cloudy realms that have gathered. Is it possible for have a curriculum that isn’t tarnished by politics and quasi-morals (such as the one expressed by this senior ELT person…and I did notice the use of “we” and “our”)? I think there is a difference between tarnished and affected. I’m not sure that practically or even realistically there can be a national curriculum implemented that is politically free. However, I do think (rather idealistically) that there can possibly be a curriculum that is affected by political games to the extent that it could actually be for the benefit of the students. And the first steps towards this would be to stop seeing knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold by various distributors. The people involved in the situation you described refuse to acknowledge their agency in the process because it’s not their “product to sell. That role belongs, in their eyes, to you, teacher and therefore “your” responsibility and your fault if the exam battery doesn’t work. “We” only holds together at the level of intentions. When reality hits, it’s “you” at the centre.

    Ok it’s not the best of metaphors but it is something I’ve been muddling over. Some inspiration (loosely related) would be Steve Cobert vs. Wikipedia

    • Lots of food for thought there, Eljee. My thinking is more or less similar: any curriculum must be -in some way- politically affected. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless there is a disconnect between the interests of policy makers (broadly construed), those who implement the policy and those on whom the policy is implemented. What seems to follow from that is an imperative to bring our analytical skills and research efforts to bear so as to make these motives more transparent. Nothing controversial so far.

      But here’s the snag: the ethical guidelines that govern our work operate around principles such as consent and non-malfeasance. Simply put, unlike Julian Assange or Bernstein and Woodward, it is not at all clear that we can publish research that makes people look bad. Yes, one can try and use clever wording to get one’s point across subtly, but (a) that’s just bending the rules and (b) it prevents the findings from being widely disemminated outside the academe. Rather frustrating, really…