Activism & TEFL?

As a business English teacher, I have to question the ‘grand-narrative’ under which I work when it legitimizes and promotes a global, exploitative capitalism of unequal access to the planet’s resources.  That’s not why I initially entered the TEFL profession. Previous blogs of mine have explored this in detail.  Professor John Grey has been quoted with reference to the hand-in-glove relationship of business English teaching to the promotion of capitalist enterprises. The general thrust of postmodernism, and its critical theory counterpart, criticizing our current neo-liberal capitalism for its pervasive, dominating and clouding of the individual human spirit, has been approached from numerous angles (e.g. Foucault, M).  Again, I spell this out.

Throughout history, dissenting voices have counter-balanced ruling voices in the attempts to restore balances of power; often at great, mortal risk to themselves. Many individuals have suffered through speaking out and opposing dominant regimes. Dissent is not welcomed by the ‘powers that be’.

Today, in TEFL, a counter-balance to the ills of capitalism is being offered (not everything about capitalism is unhealthy!). Social reform discussions (internal and external to the industry) are appearing on the TEFL pages and at TEFL conferences.  But these are still very marginal.  Meanwhile, publishers and language centre institutions are particularly slow to challenge established narratives – for their own commercial reasons. That’s a shame, for paradoxically, their voices could have great effects in presenting alternative visions.  On the contrary, the counter-balance is being provided by individuals and niche TEFL groups.  This is not enough.  The balance needs to tip.  Corporate responsibility in all business sectors needs to take social reform seriously – TEFL included.  TEFL cannot be seen as a hand-maiden to exploitation – of people or the environment.  “Making globalization work” (Stiglitz, J. 2006) is a project in which the world of TEFL could play a more important role.

The world of TEFL, with ‘dendrites’ spreading throughout the world, can do far more.  This means ‘changing its way of thinking, getting itself a different set of rules’ (Bob Dylan).  This would be a postmodern TEFL, responding positively and altruistically to the needs of today.  The false logic of eighteen century economist Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand of the market benefitting society through individual selfish interest’ is evidenced through increased disparity between rich and poor, first and third world economies – the latter becoming both the resources provider and trash can of the former.  For the world’s majority, this is obviously not the fair way to go.


A sit-down blockade at RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire (1986) – protesting against the deployment of American (USAAF) nuclear-armed cruise missiles on British soil.   This was an event I attended one freezing February day over thirty years ago.

Activism has a long history in Britain.  Relatively speaking – this was a recent event.

More recently: Newbury, Southern England 1993.  A dual-carriageway/by-pass was built on Twyford Down – an area of ‘outstanding natural beauty’ and ‘site of special scientific interest’.  The road construction was strongly contested. Hundreds of protesters camped on the site, built tunnels, lived in tree houses, and chained themselves to construction equipment.  The protest was given large t.v. coverage and some protesters (e.g. ‘Swampy’) became household names.

The road construction companies employed private security companies to ensure the road building project went ahead. Violence resulted – leading to legal cases, publicity and greater support for the campaigners; a group of whom began researching the construction companies. They then squatted the construction company’s headquarters. The fight had moved from the front.

The battle to prevent the by-pass lost.  However, the war against corporations was begun as the protest brought campaigners together from a variety of backgrounds (e.g. anti-capitalist, environmental, peace campaigners).  Publishing a magazine under the name ‘Corporate Watch’ briefs were expanded.  In addition to articles criticizing road construction companies, the McLibel case against McDonalds, Rio Tinto and British Aerospace were also reported on.  Originally operating from a small base in East Oxford, research then spread into other industries (oil, genetic engineering, food, toxic chemicals, finance etc.) to inform and empower other campaigners against the work of multinationals.  (see here and here).

Activism is still alive-and-kicking in Britain; from the large, well-known groups such as Green Peace to smaller groups such as the Faslane Peace camp campaigning in Scotland since 1982 (see here).  Within TEFL and its recent upsurge in interest in global issues, greater links should be forged with groups active in social reform, at home and abroad, without simply feeding the capitalist, neo-liberal fire. To a degree, this is happening. More is yet to be done.


In Britain, men and women get the vote at eighteen years of age.  Universal suffrage came late in our history (1928), a full century after the ‘Chartists’ initially campaigned for the vote for all; although not as late as in some other countries! (see here).  Gaining equal rights for all has been a long battle. Slavery was pre-Roman and the Doomsday book (1086) recorded that 10% of Britain’s population were slaves.  Then we have the disputes between Saxons and Normans, as portrayed in such stories as ‘Robin Hood’ and Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’, in which the Saxons were considered by the Norman ruling class as inferior secondary citizens to be exploited and enforced as soldiers into their battles.

To re-iterate, fighting for ‘peoples’ rights’ and pushing for social reforms goes back a long way.  In the 14th century, protestant reformation precursor John Wycliffe argued for a translation of the bible in the English vernacular so that the ‘common’ man could read the bible’s stories and messages for himself. As a result, he was declared a heretic, his (dead) body burned, and his ashes thrown into a local river.  Fighting for social reforms frequently antagonizes those with the power.

Numerous dissenting organizations (political and religious) arose through the following centuries to challenge inequalities. As great demographic change accompanied the industrial revolution, with the enclosures act forcing ‘common people’ off ‘common land’ and into growing urban, industrialized cites – squalid, over-crowded conditions resulted. Social reformers arose and reacted. Acts were passed in parliament forbidding child labour; prison reforms made the treatment of prisoners more humane; and there was educational reform, sanitation reform, women’ rights reforms…etc. The 19th century saw social reforms across the whole broad spectrum of public lives – in Britain and elsewhere.

Such progress in social reform continued through the twentieth century, from the early suffragette’s campaigning for women’s voting rights to campaigns against racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and supporting disadvantaged peoples from the homeless to the handicapped.  Undoubtedly, progress has been made in all these sphere. Yet, still we see the deleterious effects of global capitalism working against this forward trend.  Child-labour/slavery exists for 2 million children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast on cocoa plantations (see here).  Corrupt financiers continue to operate in ways to further their own selfish ends (see here).

I’m sure there is no need here to enlarge the list. We all know it is long.  The business world too often puts self-interest ahead of social or environmental responsibility.  And yet I, along with many other EFL teachers, work to support this business world – which present an ethical dilemma:  How to ethically develop professional individuals’ English language needs, and international business communication needs, whilst also respecting (or even promoting) corporate social responsibility?

These questions are (finally) being addressed.  The IATEFL Global Interests Special interest Group (GISIG) and TaWSIG are two previously referenced groups raising awareness on these issues whilst Julie Kacmaz continues to create a social space for “like-minded people who are committed to making sustainability, ethics and social justice part of their daily work” (see here).

Meanwhile, Corporate watch (American cousin of the Oxford group) continues to report on the nefarious dealings of the big corporations, Avaaz (a campaigning community of 43 million member) is actively influencing international policies, and Somofus (ten million member) is fighting to “curb the power of corporations”.  In fact, activism now features on numerous web sites, becoming a sexy, marketable buzz-word for any commercial organization; the twist being that activism itself becomes commercialized with organizations offering training in activism promotion and fund-raising.  Capitalism’s tentacles wrap around all in its sights – if allowed to.  Being ‘a cool campaigner’ has become a marketable, professional development asset.

Nevertheless, on-line campaigning does work and TEFL teachers around the world present an enormous opportunity for such campaigns.  Encouraging TEFL teachers to connect with movements aides the spread of their messages around the world and into in a wide variety of teaching contexts. There are millions of us in all corners of the globe.  The hope is that the campaigning TEFL groups, by the on-line raising of awareness of social/corporate responsibility issues, reach the global resource of TEFL teachers. Increased involvement and a greater range of exchanges within the global business community, may then lead to a more equitable world.  This is not an unrealistic utopian ideal. It is following the paths of leading economists (e.g. Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz – previously mentioned) and environmentalists (e.g. Naomi Klein- mentioned in previous blog).

The passion, energy and commitment of the Twyford Down campaigners, in joining forces to fight unethical/anti-environmental corporations, was highly impressive.  It began a movement. A new generation of active social reformers was born.  Can TEFL teachers equal this? Yes, they can.

But, perhaps more to the point, what about TEFL institutions – the publishing companies, international TEFL associations and language schools? On which side of the corporate responsibility/social reform line do they lie? Profit margins and market share, or social reform and humanitarian care?  They’re not strictly mutually exclusive, you know.  So, are the TEFL institutions prepared to stick out their necks and speak out against unfair, exploitative actions (of land and people) around the world?  It would be a real coup for social reformers if they would, for they have the respected, authorative voices that get listened to.  As Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) recently discovered through following in other celebrities’ footsteps and seeing the  commercial value of humanitarian aid work (see here) – ‘doing good’ is not necessarily contrary to achieving business objectives; it can help. Supporting causes is good for company image.

For the individual (business or general) English language teacher – to supplement those ‘safe’ areas of discussion, why not introduce more controversial topics that challenge students to think more about the current global issues, develop their own stances, and even sow seeds of dissent. There is plenty of material on the net to be adapted for lesson use – if you don’t mind the DIY approach to lesson planning/materials creation. (see here)

Dissent is not a dirty word – not when the subject of dissent is injustice and acts of gross selfishness to the detriment of our planet and our global community.  In which case, dissent leads to social reform; reform leading to a better world, and the world needs that!

Postmodernism stems from a critical reaction of the form of rationalism, brought about by ‘The Enlightenment’, which kick-started the Industrial revolution and led to adverse effects for a large percentage of the world’s populace.

Different branches of postmodernism exist. ‘Critical theorists’ (i.e. ‘The Frankfurt school’ proponents) continue in this Marxist-based, anti-capitalist theme in being dismissive of imposed dominant narratives. In this respect,  Jorgen Habermas (mentioned in previous blogs) argues for a communicative, community-based ‘life-world’ to reach rational consensus free from outside dominance. Postmodern purists, on the other hand, following in the Jean-François Lyotard (mentioned in previous blogs) mould, argue against any ‘grand narrative’ that seek to explain all. Theirs is a philosophy of pluralism and micro-politics.

To this ‘postmodern mix’ I inject the four principles of the Green party, as first enunciated by the birth of the Green party (die Grünen) in Germany, 1983. That is to say, the principles of – ecology, social responsibility, grassroots democracy and nonviolence.

If arguing the case for postmodernism or green politics entails being a dissenting activist – then so be it.  I join the cause for a better world.  May the world of TEFL continue to veer in the same direction.

This is green, postmodern TEFL.



Phil. Dec. 2016.