Matt Smith

Culture in the English speaking world

The problems in developing a university culture course


It has, of late, become my job to develop a course we call ‘Culture in the English Speaking World’ here at the university. This course is standard fare in most English programs – the idea is, previously socio-cultural elements of language were by and large ignored in language-teaching programs, very much to the detriment of the students’ ability to successfully negotiate their way through English-speaking society (or, should I say, very much to the detriment of their ability to optimise their chances in English speaking society). These courses have, subsequently, set forth to rectify the imbalance. I should add here too that we interpret the English-speaking world, at least at my university, to mean the Western English-speaking world, and not places like India and the Philippines; these are fascinating and important areas of said ‘English speaking world’, and we consider it of great value to bring the practices of these places to the attention of our students. However, this course is intended to teach primarily the culture with which the English language co-evolved, as opposed to those that it is presently affecting.

Now I have in front of me here a Culture in the English Speaking World course book that was written by a person with a European name at another university here in Thailand – judging by its overall tone, I would guess that this was in about 1950, and that the author was a Mormon. What the book amounts to, I mean, is this; what it does is point out a number of supposed differences between Thai and Western culture. It then goes on, basically, to justify the things that Western people do in a positive light, while at the same time casting the contrary behaviour – its Thai parallel – in a very negative light indeed. This is one of the standard techniques of marginalisation, or of orientalism – what we do is observe a cultural difference, and then cast our own practice as the ‘norm’, and that of the ‘other’ as an aberrant behaviour (for purposes I began to touch on elsewhere in my articles). Sure enough, in other words, there are times when people in other countries do things differently to the way we do in Australia, and when we indubitably have landed upon a better way of doing things (or so I would tell you, you, obviously, might have your own views) – what makes me very dubious, however, about books like the one I’m holding is that they often overlook the parts of my culture I’m proudest about, or make no mention of rationalist science and the progressive social changes it has wrought; that they’re obviously very proud of the other good things they are left with that the Thais recognise as being good things; that they take things that Thai people see as being bad things (and that are bad things) and cast them too in a positive light; and, that they fail to deeply rationalise any of the different practices Thai people have in ways that truly recognise the benefit of certain cultural strategies Thai people have evolved as a means of navigating our species across time.

Put more simply, that is to say, I find it quite suspicious that a book that purports to teach Thai people about Western culture in a way that is going to leave them empowered to better prosper in an English speaking world should completely avoid any of our enlightened critical traditions, or that it should overlook anything that might create a critical platform from which to look at the rest of its content, especially when so many people’s view of Western culture is one that sees its chief virtue not as being our mainstream Christian traditions, but instead as being the sacking of tradition …I find it very suspicious also that it doesn’t really leave us appreciating anything about Thai culture in terms of the comparisons it draws. And, that it doesn’t cast even the most vexing of Western behaviours in a negative light, and that it prefers instead to consistently leave us with a sense of the righteousness of, by and large, very 1950s and Mormon-ish type behaviours. Just as one example of what I mean, this course book here points initially to why Western people are so ‘jai ron’, or so ‘hot-hearted’ (which, unlike the book suggests, probably isn’t an observation on the Thais’ behalf that sees us as being ‘in a hurry’ so much as that they recognise, like I often feel myself, that a lot of Western people are lazy, cranky, narrow-minded b******s) – it goes on to tell us that Western people value diligence, punctuality, and efficiency (all the while telling us, in the sub-script, that we value things Thai people do not practice), because we see people who do not possess these characteristics as being ‘lazy’ (which is a pretty pointed way of telling students they are, culturally speaking, a bunch of lazy coconuts). If we threw in thrift, I mean, along with the diligence and punctuality, we’d have the triumvirate of Christian Sheeple values, or the things we need to most concentrate on because they are in the best interests of the management (and I would say, again, that it is particularly unfair to suggest that the Western people, the teachers, in the Thais’ experience, are characterised by their diligence and their punctuality) – along with there being no mention of the Western people who stray from these moral principles, or should I say no mention of the natural propensity of all of us Westerners to stray from these moral principles, there is also no mention of any of the possible reasons why Thai people might, traditionally, like to take things a little easy.

It’s just that boring old explanation for why, over the last 4000 years, most hunters and gatherers have been black while most people in agrarian civilisations have tended to be white, because ‘whites are more diligent, more punctual, and, quite obviously, because they were given a soul that leaves them a lot closer to God’. While, on the part of black people, they are ‘lazy and thriftless’ – what this book fails to make mention of, I mean, is that the people who clear the naturally producing fruit orchard of the rainforest in baking tropical weather to grow potatoes all day are quite obviously the idiots, because it is a hot and bothersome waste of time. While the ones who manage it as a natural resource, on the other hand, because it provides an endless supply of very readily accessible foods and materials that can be gathered in a very short time, have obviously got something going for them, because they are going to be left with a lot more time to develop other aspects of their culture (and because they can have a little nap in the hottest part of the day).

Which they did, of course (develop, I mean, not nap, or at least not exclusively) – people in tropical climes didn’t sit around all day in their undies, vacuously swinging in hammocks, as the popular depiction of history likes to put it – they developed extensive environmental and social knowledges that Western culture could really, had interactions not been so absolutely exploitative and one-sided all the time, make use of today. Cantankerous people need an injection of jai-yen-yen philosophy, to cite one trivial example (in fact, I frequently find myself embarrassed by the way I handle things in Thailand, because I am inclined to blow up over things myself). And selfish people too, of course, could really learn from Thai traditions about the nature of sharing. Or, if you need the words of more learned people to sway you, another example I could perhaps offer you is this - something that people like Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute are trying to tell the people of the industrial world these days is that we need more time to relax, because it makes our lives more meaningful – interestingly, centuries of cultural evolution have brought people of this bent to a conclusion that Thai people’s environment very easily allowed them to arrive at.

The other thing I find to be both very predictable about this book, as well as highly annoying, is that unlike my view of my key cultural traditions, which has the West characterised by enlightenment and the attempt to establish true democracy, this book goes to great length to explain our Judaeo-Christian roots (that’s where Western history/civilisation starts in this book), and to conform to the Thai expectation that somewhere, secretly, every ‘normal’ person must be following a religion (or that it naturalises that other old boring assumption that rather than being an unpleasant by-product of civilisation, spirituality was one of its necessary catalysts) – the undue attention given to the subject of religious history in the West (with all-important cultural questions for students to consider like ‘According to the Torah, why must people suffer in this life?’ and ‘How did Jesus change the Jewish religion?’…) – the undue attention given to the subject of religious history in the West, in my interpretation, I’m sure serves to justify to conservative Thai people that religion is, in fact, one of the central pillars of society. Which, if you believe the most scientifically minded people in Western society, isn’t an intention that is going to help them in any conceivable way. And which, if you believe a lot of them, is actually going to set their society back dreadfully. I mean, we all know ethics is important, and that religious morality contains a lot of advice around ethics that science well and truly backs (our project is to pick the best of the past, albeit that we are supposed to throw out the dirty bathwater that comes with it) – rather than being the central characteristic of religion, however, would not a better interpretation be to say that the essential goodness of a lot of things religion tells us to do is really the means by which all the other irrational and slave-like things it commands us to do are sold? Obviously, I don’t think this - of course - but it’s an idea that is certainly worth throwing in the air.

The point is anyway, that when it came to what I had on hand to develop this course, I wasn’t much satisfied with the material we already had on offer – it was, at best, outdated, and in the worst of lights we could easily construe it to be extraordinarily culturally imperialistic. Which raised the question for me then, in view of these developments, of what really should be the best thing for me to teach – it crossed my mind at this point that perhaps I would be best to concentrate on simple contextual examples of language culture in action, or to focus on the importance of ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’, and of saying ‘excuse me’ at the appropriate moment, and other suchlike things (from which I could then move onto an enthralling expose of how while Thai people have Buddhist Lent, we celebrate – wait for it – the mystery of Christmas!). However, quite clearly – and obviously it wasn’t very long at all before this thought washed the previous one away – quite clearly this was hardly going to serve my students best; it takes but a moment’s introspection, I would suggest, to see that what we really need in such a course is to address the following issues. What’s the cultural crisis that confronts Thai people at present, and that in one major respect necessitates them learning English in the first place? Through their control of global capital, and, to a more limited extent these days through their scientific advances, Western people have a great power to sway other people’s culture through practice of their own – Westernisation, as visible as it is in Thailand, is what has the conservatives hopping, and even most of the average people at least a little worried. The central project for Thai people, of course, must on at least one count therefore be to understand this entity that is so influencing the continuum of their own ideas and behaviours – that way, they are going to know what represents the best side of Western culture, and they are going to be able to, of their own accord, reflect on what it means in terms of Thai tradition. At the same time, they might cast a new eye on some of the less progressive sides of Western culture to which they are exposed, and which many of them seem so eager to lap up, or will have a more informed stance from which to sort out what’s really good from what is positively dreadful.

Which raises a very interesting question, doesn’t it – could it be possible in this kind of cultural dynamic, or in this kind of cultural engagement situation, that a conservative influence in the receiving culture could in fact have the consequence of meaning that the conservative part of the transmitting culture is what is taken on board? It certainly crosses my mind at this moment to ask this. But I diverge – quite obviously, if we are counting the directions in which the course in question here should be aimed, the next most important item on the list is the necessity of being able to use the English language with sufficient grasp of its sociocultural elements to be able to optimise your chances of getting along in English-speaking society…as I have been saying all along, and as it initially crossed my mind to, through the aforementioned use of simple contextual examples, do. Which I could immediately see is actually a skill that is derivative more so from a holistic (meta-cultural?) understanding of culture, and of Western culture in particular, than it is from the study of contextual examples (although they still have their place) - crikey, if you know that there are two Western cultures, the conservative and the progressive (the unscientifically and scientifically swayed). And, that hand in hand with these cultures there walks two views of culture, both of which see it as being ideas and behaviour, but one of which sees some behaviours occurring independently of ideas (the ‘nature’ view, I’ve brought this stuff up previously), and the other of which sees culture simply as ideas, or which sees all behaviour as being motivated by ideas…well, if you know this you’d know what old stiffo you have to bide your educated foreign tongue with to get a company job (if that’s your principal ambition in life), you’d know where to avoid regurgitating rote-learnt tradition (or where to speak your own mind) so as not to lose respect in front of the very scientifically-minded people who so often stand at the door of the best places we can head to in life, plus a whole bunch of other such important, shall we say (despite the unsavoury connotations of this word, you know what I mean) ‘manipulative’ skills. At the same time you’d be able to better defend your culture and dignity, because you’d know when people were trying to, in communicative terms, locate you in the racial hierarchy that is an intrinsic part of seeing history and culture in the traditional way – you’d know too that, in a Western society these days, they have absolutely no right to do so, and that in the worst of cases you have recourse to the law.

If, I mean to say, a more holistic understanding of culture, and of Western culture, or a more cultural studies-like model for examining Western culture is to be an essential focus of the course, and if we indeed make it the initial focus of the course, studying specific examples of how to use the English language with different people and in different situations is something that really nestles very nicely into this greater framework. That is, it makes the study of particular contexts and situations, in many cases (stop calling me ‘sir’, Thai dudes), a heck of a lot more meaningful.

Not to mention, of course, that it also paints a much better depiction of the meaning of things like Christmas and Easter, if that is what the student has set forth to understand, than the other example I mentioned earlier – they’d be able to see, for instance, that in the absence of the ritual significance of Christmas and Easter that religious thinking demands, why a lot of Western people simply see it as a chance to hang out with their family or friends. Or, even, why a lot of Western people are turned off these celebrations altogether, on account of their rampant commercialism.

To cut what could turn into an otherwise very long story short, in other words, I’ve decided to take this tack – that is, to teach some of the central (sensible, I’ve talked about the try-hards elsewhere on this site as well) ideas of cultural studies, namely with reference to arguments around what culture is in the first place and what it all means in terms of the interpretation of Western history and society, and then to locate my contextual examples in this mould (and don’t worry, while I obviously have my own views, one thing grappling with the opposing viewpoint has given me is a fair capacity to render for inspection the ideas it rests on for objective perusal – that‘s all you need to do, have an objective look at what both sides reckon, to see the ludicrousness of certain aspects of tradition, and so I try not to go overly flogging the donkey). I’ve also decided to focus on cultural change, and the theories and evidence we have by which to interpret it (which are again, at least in the former case, derivative from the two main understandings of culture, adding further to the value of examining them) - I reasoned that, as well as giving us the chance to look at some interesting contemporary Western cultures, and to look at their interesting contemporary language products (to check out what young people, and not Mormons, are up to in the West), this is where the students can learn how to differentiate for themselves, in an informed fashion, what part of Western culture they’d like to emulate, and what part they might be inclined to reject. Quite naturally, too, because in this course is obviously the requisite place that this should be included, I’m going to throw in a bit of a Bryson/Bragg fusion of English-language history – where, after all, would one’s English language knowledge be if we didn’t have these writers to entertain us?

It’s just an experiment, built on the rationale I put forward, and I’ll see how it goes – there seems to be a positive response so far, but as it is with teaching things like feminism, of course, you have to be careful you don’t, as I saw one commentator put it on the ABC website recently, ‘end up betrayed by the very people the theory sets forth to assist’. Basically, I guess the biggest dilemma with which I am confronted is getting the students to understand the importance of asking why (or at least getting them to ask themselves this without being poked) – before anyone goes accusing me of stereotyping Asians as incapable of critical thinking, however, I would add that the thought that has stemmed from that observation is that again, when you think about it, Australia isn’t that different a country to Thailand, teachers there lament the very same thing (Ryuku Kubota has many interesting things worth reading on this subject too). I’m certainly enjoying myself anyway, as I said teaching this course provides the opportunity to merge all sorts of very entertaining cultural products, like movies and songs and so forth, into the syllabus - it’s fairly cool, I mean, to be able to have serious discussions with the students about movies like Apocalypso or V for Vendetta, and to get them past the boy-band thing and to really understand songs, like Tata Young’s (is that her name?) or the System of the Downed’s (obviously for completely different reasons), that they like listening to, and that have interesting lyrical content. I’ll see how I go, and might even keep you posted (if it’s well, and not something I want to forget about)




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