Monday, January 14, 2008

Political Correctness in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)

"Write this down, class. Conservatives are bad people who want to starve little children and pollute the environment."

As a teacher of English as a Second Language at the University of California at Irvine, I had a chance today to check out the brochure for the annual conference of Catesol (California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). For ESL teachers, there is a national organization (Tesol) and various regional organizations. (I belong to none of them.) This year's conference will be in Sacramento in April of this year. The conferences give ESL teachers a chance to attend in-service training classes, make presentations, attend job fairs and network. Since I have never attended one of these conferences, I assumed that the in-service classes were centered around teaching techniques and ways to teach English more effectively to foreign students. Apparently, this is not always the case.

In looking over the schedule for the Sacramento conference, I discovered the following:

Opening plenary speaker will be State Senator Darrell Steinberg (D)

Here are some of the scheduled presentations:

Heterosexism and Homophobia 101

" Confused about heterosexism? Not sure what it is or how to fight it? This interactive workshop will introduce participants to basic concepts related to heterosexism-what is it, how does it affect us, and what we can do about it? Sample ESL lesson plans and numerous handouts will be provided."

Comment: We have a new word-heterosexism! But seriously, what does this have to do with teaching a foreign language?

Government Funding for Workplace Language Training

"A panel of government representatives, union training directors and workplace ESL teachers will present information about successful grant-funded, vocational English programs for immigrant workers. Participants will learn how ESL teachers, employers, and unions can collaborate to apply for government funding for workplace training programs."

Comment: Is this something that government should fund using tax-payer dollars? If you are wondering, "immigrant workers" does translate into illegal aliens. And yes, California tax dollars are indeed going to provide them with English lessons.

Is Freedom of Speech for All?

"Do all students have the freedom to be heard, to be seen and to have all of their identities recognized and validated? In this colloquium, we will explore issues of identity from multiple perspectives and discuss implications of the recent clashes between immigrant groups and sexual minorities in California."

Comment: What does this have to do with teaching English? Also, ESL teachers, by their very nature, have experience with and enjoy working with different nationalities. Do we need a lecture on this topic?

I chose these topics out of several others which are being presented and which are certainly relevant to teaching a foreign language. However, I question the relevance of the above topics, which have a political agenda.

Teaching a foreign language should not involve political indoctrination, which is irrelevant to the topic. My students have absolutely no idea what my personal views are. Nevertheless, many of our textbooks are riddled with liberal, politically-correct dogma. I have seen texts where virtually every chapter is devoted to The Environment. Currently, I am using an assigned text in my reading class that contains an article about the building of the railroads in the West in the 1800s. In one passage, the book describes the hardships endured by the workers, including bad weather, sickness and "attacks by violent groups of people". Now who were those "violent groups of people"- skinheads, drug addicts, conservatives, Young Republicans maybe? The book doesn't say. (Maybe I should write to the author and ask for more specific information......)

Sadly, California regulations on textbooks have standards for political correctness. That means if you are a text-book publishing company and want to sell your books to California, the books have to pass political muster.

Now I know why I never joined this outfit.


Anonymous said...

As a teacher myself, I usually avoid these sorts of things as well. I agree that the meetings that you mentioned seemed a little bit odd.

Heterosexism? Now, you know that I'm a believer in equal rights for gay people, gay marriage, etc., but I can't imagine what that's all about. Sure, teachers should be aware that they might have gay students in their classroom, and I know that I need to be sensitive to that. Still, that term seems a bit odd, and a bit over-the-top. I don't want to criticize it too much considering that I didn't experience it for myself, but I've been to enough of these types of things on topics that actually sounded relevant to what I was doing to believe that there is any merit to it.

As for textbook bias, what you say is interesting. From what I see as an English teacher, there is far too much of a conservative bias in the textbooks that my district pushes on us.

Well, that might be a little bit unfair, as the problem is that they want us to teach excerpts of stories instead of entire novels. (The textbooks do include a few complete texts, but for the most part, it's all short stories and excerpts of novels. What's next? Just going to show the nose of the Mona Lisa in art class?)

Anyway, the conservative influence seems to come in with what they choose to leave out. Pretty much anything that might be somewhat risque or controversial is removed. The violence that Odysseus inflicts upon the suitors is removed; the seduction of Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn't even get a mention, and what's even worse, the part about civil disobedience is completely left out of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"! They even give a ridiculously truncated version of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount".

It only bothers me so much, as I fill in the gaps for them. I read out loud all the violent bits from The Odyssey that are left out. It's not so much that I enjoy reading gruesome acts of maiming in front of a bunch of fifteen year olds (although I'll admit that I do delight in it to some degree) but I tell them that I don't want them to get the wrong idea that some people want to give that violence in entertainment is something new.

Don't get me wrong, I also read out loud some really touching scenes that were removed as well, like when Odysseus speaks to his mother in the underworld.

I also give them the full "Sermon on the Mount." (Which always makes me laugh when I hear conservatives complain that you supposedly can't even mention The Bible in public school. Mention it? Heck, I teach it!)

Gary Fouse said...

This might surprise you Lance, but I am so much into reading history that I don't even know the classics. Maybe there is a difference between college books and lower level, but I think if a teacher is going to assign reading books that are based on opinion, there should be some sort of a balance.

I don't get to choose the books I use in class, but if the texts have opinions about issues in them, I always tell the students that they are free to agree or disagree. My job is not to tell them what they should believe about the world. They should be exposed to differing view points, but they decide what they think is right.

When I was a kid in school (until college) I was taught that America was the greatest country in the world. In spite of our many shortcomings, I still believe it (even if we don't have the best beer or cuisine). It seems now that the mission of so many college teachers is to teach students that this is a bad country. That I reject.

Anonymous said...

Any work of literature is going to have some sort of point of view to it, and it's hard for me to teach without my own biases coming out. However, the phrase, "That's just my opinion, feel free to disagree" is practically a mantra.

Gary Fouse said...

True, many teachers advance their opinion, but let the students disagree. Yet, many belittle their opposing students when they speak out in class and worse yet, penalize them in grading. That is not only unprofessional, it is unconsciencable.

Anonymous said...

Shoot, I once gave an A to a girl who wrote a paper that had a totally racist message to it. Still, she followed the instructions of the assignment, and it was well-written. (She didn't use any racial epithets or anything like that. It basically just said things like, "I don't like black people.")

I did write her a really long note telling her why I thought that her conclusion was completely off-base though.

Gary Fouse said...


I'd say you handled it properly.