I have been back in Canberra for three months now and am still reflecting on my amazing year. Being in Thailand for the last military coup made me abruptly aware of the power structures that exist there and the role of education in their maintenance. I still reel when I remember the regular use of the cane in the poor, rural high school I worked in. Even the kindest teachers felt they needed to cane boys to carry out their jobs and one of the more up-front cane users entered my classroom several times to whack students, usually while my back was turned to the board. My preferred method was to work hard to engage reluctant class members. Some of my best memories are those times when those students succeeded, even in the smallest ways, and smiled with pleasure when they received good feedback. I realise now how lucky we are in Australia that our education system values questioning over subservience, that we can discuss politics openly and safely, and can learn that there are many ways we can view subjects, especially history.
But it is the role of English in keeping social structures intact that troubles me the most. The contrast between middle class, English speaking students and the rest of the population is stark. They, of course, usually get the best education that private wealth can buy, secure the best jobs, make more money and have a better chance of becoming powerful members of society. The same is also evident in India. In Dharamsala, I was lucky enough to attend a premier of the film Vara: a Blessing. From the start of the film, there was a strange dissonance between the setting and the language spoken by the characters, which was English. The audience members were mostly young Indians and the use of English was the subject of the first question asked of the great writer/director Khyentse Norbu following the screening. He openly expressed his own dismay and advised that the choice of English belonged to the producers. I also noticed upper class Indian families who were visiting Dharamsala using English with their young children and, meanwhile, probably ensuring that their offspring lose their parents’ first language. This was a phenomenon I also remember from Indonesia, particularly Jakarta.
So what is the role of an English teacher in countries where the use of English is controversial? I can tell myself that my role is to help the disempowered and then make sure that these are my students. Ironically, I strongly believe that part of the role of English teachers in these situations is also to help students to appreciate the immense value of their mother tongue and do all we can to encourage them to become literate in that as a priority. I found this story, How English Ruined Indian Literature, in the New York Times particularly interesting and hope you do too.