Monthly Archives: November 2006

Reviving literature

The trend today is to teach and learn only the practical. Does this spell the end for the teaching of literature in the langauge classroom?

My teacher in my teaching materials class made a comment about how one of his colleagues is lamenting the lack of literature in langauge teaching today. With the emphasis now on communicative grammar, poetry, short stories and novels have all but disappeared from the langauge classroom.

But only as recent as fifteen years ago it was still different. During my undergraduate years I studied Japanese. It was expected that one studied Japanese literature. It was not because literature would help directly with communication, but rather we were reading what the Japanese were reading. It is was this kind of authenticity which helped us understand the Japanese and their culture. Certainly my Japanese vocabulary is better for it today than if I did not read Japanese novels. Where else would come across words teppatsu (elms bowl for Buddhists teaching exchange for food) or learn about sabi (rusticness. But it means much more than this and as an Japanese cultural aesthetic, inseparable from their identity).

Literature therefore teaches you more than language. It teaches about culture also. And in some ways langauge is culture. How else would I learn these things except for novels. While in this age of fast pace and quick and efficient solutions I still believe the quality of learning gained from just a few pages of hard and studious translation is worth more than, say, a week in Japan observing only and trying to find hints of meanings from gestures and practices. I feel books – any books in the target language – are undervalued as a resource. Books need not be especially designed for language to be useful. If anything they are better because they are authentic.

But coming back to the language teaching, textbook writers and publishers highlight this point. For if ordinary books are seen as good as (or better than) specific-purpose textbooks then these publishers’ and writers’ potential market to sell becomes smaller. In other words there is a hidden agenda to the reasons to promote textbooks in this way.

Twenty years ago still we saw literature as an important part of language learning. But communication was also taught if we were to go into the real world and mingle with real Japanese. However, today you can talk to a non-native speaker of Japanese and he or she will almost know or say nothing of Japanese culture or literature, but talk only about her or his country or about his or her opinion. If this is what internationalization means then I do not want to be part of it.

Since literature is still being read widely today it is not that troubling. Sooner or later the pendulum will swing back and literature will once again become fashionable, that is, until it is overdone, again. Remember this: trends are so predictable in this way, and how we teach is also nothing but a trend.

Will science save the planet?

My father came to visit recently. As a habit we try to see each other once a year. As he works for a multinational company he is always on the move flying around globetrotting to meetings. So getting together for a couple of days is usually all we can manage.

This also means he is very much a person who believes in business as a way of life. His business life is something I am not particularly fond of. Personally I want to be a teacher or academic even though these jobs are not without its own politics. It is really a pick from a bad bunch of livelihoods.

So it is during these couples of days that I get to talk to (read: argue with) him about business ethics and philosophy. This time we talked about the relationship between science and sustainability. We agreed that global warming that is happening right now and that something needs to give. However he believed science will create new technologies which have less impact on the environment, that it will eventually save the planet from death by consumerism.

And it is this belief in science that we differ.

To me there are two types of scientists – Observers and Manipulators. To the Observer science is a tool for investigating the nature of the universe. Observers want to know the fundamental laws of motion. So they invent things like calculus and telescopes to gain this knowledge. The object of their investigation is the world. It is to be looked at, to be learned from and to be understood. Observers do not touch the object that is under investigation. By contrast to the Manipulator science is a tool for tampering with the very nature of the universe. The Manipulator wants to know how much they can get out of the world. So they create things like machines for mass production and the electric light bulb for personal, and often short-term, gain. The objective of their investigation is to find ways to apply their knowledge for gain and to see how efficiently something can be produced for consumption. To the Manipulator the world is to be played with, to be harnessed and harvested, to be made a slave of its technological master.

Observers are the astronomers, the oceanographers, the meteorologists of this world; Manipulators are the research scientists, the inventors, the designers of this same world. So it is really a choice as to how we want to relate to the environment, what we choose to do with it or to do to it.

We need science to solve all the problems we wouldn’t have if there were no science.I believe that much of our problems are from the application of science in the form of technology, and that it has snowballed into something bigger because we have tried to use more science to solve these problems. So the advent of science is akin to opening Pandora’s Box or starting a vicous circle. While both seem to imply we cannot reverse the course, I do not believe science’s blunders are irreversible. It may be difficult but not impossible. And certainly using less technology and reverting to a simpler lifestyle will help.

So whether science will save the environment really depends on when we will listen to the Observers over the Manipulators. By nature Observers are the silent type and Manipulators are the loud type, and so their seems to be only ever one discourse – that of the Manipulator. This seems to mean it is not only important for the Observers to scream their silent scream as loudly as they can, but also for us to be listening for it.

The Earth, its environment and resources

Recently I had to evaluate a writing textbook for my Teaching Writing class. It was a textbook for teaching English writing to second language students for academic purposes. So the articles were all social related.

The chapter I chose to examine was called Our Earth, Our Resources, Our Environment., a chapter obviously about sustainability issues. Yet the title struck me as problematic. Not that the Earth the resources and the environment are unimportant words (they are undoubtedly “trend words” for today) but it was how they were determined. The other three words or to be exact the other word repeated three times – our – was just begging for criticism.

Of the three possessive cases that occurred in this short “punchy” title resources stood out for me. What are resources and who owns them? These are questions I would like to answer here. The Oxford English Minidictionary on my desk defines resource as “a supply of an asset to be used when needed”. A fair and straightforward definition. But what about the assumptions of the word. The use of the words supply and asset are interesting here because they are not words usually associated with the environment, especially the protection of it.

And what about the verb form? It is in the passive. Passive sentences have a feature which make it a favourite of some writers because of what it can hide or ignore – the doer. To complete the definition it omits the doer partly because it is assumed and partly because it wants to obscure its negative impact. Let me put it another way: I do not know of too many animals that see the trees and mountains as “supply”, “asset” or “resource”. These are wholly human terms.

Habitat may be a better word to describe the areas we term resource. But that too has its problems. It is always “the dwarf mongooses’ habitat” or simply “their habitat”. usually it is not an area human inhabit but always a step removed from, or to look at from the outside. In other words, it is the The Other world or place and not ours.

About five minutes drive from my home is a quarry. I literally drive through it almost everyday to get to and from college. Every time I do so I shudder. Slowly what once was a mountain, a forest and habitat for animals is now bare yellow sandy rock. The huge bulldozers power shovels and dump trucks that sit by the roadside has gradually been transported away to some factory somewhere for use, for human consumption. The mountain face that once dominated my peripheral vision as I drive now opens up to a dusty sky. How sad. I wonder if the workers don’t feel any loss by this. I do. But I guess it represents food on the table for them.

Last year I wrote a very short piece about Proudon’s famous statement “property is theft”. In this piece I deconstructed the term property and turned it on to itself, saying we are really stealing from ourselves. I still feel the same way now but I must qualify it. Not that I am an anarchist or believe in anarchy (not in the popular meaning of the word anyway), rather the things in the environment do not belong solely to us, the human species.

Animals, I feel, have the right to the use and protect their home and the place which feeds them. This may be a mountain or a forest, the very place we call a resource, our resource. Yet they literally do not have representation. Animal rights groups may attempt to speak for them but it may seem – to the other on the other side of the fence – futile and naive to try to protect them.

It reminds me of the scene in Seven Years in Tibet where the monks were shown spending an entire week removing all the worms they could find from a plot of land being prepared for a new building. This was so they do not harm life or kill. Jainism, another religion that developed in India practices similarly.

And it is this fundamental respect for life – that is lacking in Western thinking, economy, politics, philosophy, etc – that I would like to point out.

When I was in 21 I became a monk. In preparation for my move I sold everything I had. At first the lack of possession was rather unsettling but I slowly felt liberated by the loss of the burden toward my things. I do not know when but I had come to understand why Buddha taught this way of living and what it means to be living as a monk.

Once I had renounced possessions once I felt I did not need to have more. Nor do I feel nowadays the sense of loss when something is taken or given away. I now question whether it is really necessary for me to have something before I buy or receive it. And I look at the mountains not as something for me to enjoy but that the joy given to me is by its grace and its non-possession of me.