Matt Smith

Sick of eating white bread?

ESL theory and the framework it revolves around

It seems to me that my ESL immersion has been whitebread all the way. Actually, I realise now that ESL theory rests on some very interesting theoretical frameworks that, were they given the introspection they deserve, would not only vastly illuminate teachers’ perspectives on language and on learning, but would also contribute greatly to creating a more enlightened global society. Unfortunately, however, the platforms for understanding the things regularly talked about in ESL literature I have rarely seen spelled out in any way in journal articles, and were certainly never a feature of my textbooks at university. What we’re too often left to infer instead, I would now point out – and I repeat again this is in the absence of the wonderfully illustrative analogies and plain logic of an enlightened explanation – is that traditional views around human nature, and around language, culture and society, are somehow the best explanation on offer; hence of course, the employment here of the term ‘whitebread’, there’s been very little of either the critical tradition, or of the science that supports it, in my experience to date.

All I ever wanted to see, really, and at first I kept expecting to come across these words at any moment, was the sort of explanation that follows. Humans evolved. They evolved a brain that mapped out, or that made a working model of, themselves and their universe as a means of coordinating their behaviours, or of navigating the species across space and time. Language must be examined in this context. Specifically, it is a way of mechanically broadcasting data, and the knowledge structures that data is used to build, from one brain to another, or of shuffling it about the infosphere; at the same time, because words and numbers stand for things and the relationships between things that are represented by massive amounts of data in the brain, or because they recognise consistencies in our internalised data…well, surely they must be a simpler thing to manipulate than the entirety of the data that defines them, or a very useful software shortcut for our mind.

What I would then really have liked to turn the page and see, of course, being these words – it makes great sense to imagine that everyone has the same brain. Or, that if we were to expect any evolutionary outcome, in view of what makes the human species successful this one, which is so robustly supported by the evidence, is where we could have expected our species to have arrived. What makes our species so successful, furthermore, is the other evolutionary outcome we should anticipate – to make us increasingly successful as a species our brains increasingly freed us from having to rely on mechanistic mechanisms for behaviour (which ones we might have had being a really very arbitrary thing to guess at anyway), and gave us increasing power to rely on, and to develop and manipulate in ever improving ways, our working model of the world as the determinant of our behaviours. To the point, in fact, and again this is a view that is very robustly supported by the evidence, where there was really no clockwork element to our behaviours, or to the point where some sort of knowledge(what you could acquire and what you put in place) or conscious decision-making apparatus bridged the gap between mechanistic inputs and stimuli to behaviour and outcomes in terms of action. I kept expecting to turn the page and read, in other words, that the established wisdom, in the twenty-first century, is that humans were a kind of machine and that their brains and personalities were its navigational equipment, and that from this there were two inferences we could draw – firstly, as mentioned, that language represented the construction of knowledge, and that as such it reflected the brain’s computational ambition to realistically analogise the real nature and function of the universe. And secondly, that when we looked at our students, what was different about them was purely what sort of software was dancing about in their brains, and that it was our job to help in providing the data, and to also help in shaping the data, from which the brain’s natural affinity to build a realistic simulation of its universe could proceed. Alas, however, while in my encounters with ESL theory I have seen some hint of this from time to time, as anyone else with such expectations would only be too acutely aware of I have for the most part been disappointed.

I wouldn’t even mind, you know, if the inference has to be made that we are instinctive or innately-driven creatures, if this idea was articulated to the degree that it deserves – there is certainly a lot of reason to suppose that the shape of knowledge is influenced by one desire, the desire to, as I understand it, maximise one’s emotional positivity. Again, however, things are never fully spelled out here – needless to say, what is never dispelled in any way, or even discouraged, are the traditional views propagated in stratified agrarian societies that there’s either a clockwork mechanism behind human behaviour, or that there are differences in the brain’s biological construction, that have led to the consistencies in the shape and function of these societies throughout the historical period.

So there’s something problematic here, isn’t there? Either I’ve been reading the wrong books or talking to the wrong people. Or, the world of ESL is somewhat more white-washed than (or, to stick to the previous analogy, ‘white-breaded’), or whitewashed well beyond the point of, the simple prevention of a teacher who first had ESL served up to him in Queensland, who has since had to stick to mainly the textbooks you find lying around ESL resource libraries and free articles on the internet, and who has talked about teaching mainly with the kinds of ESL teachers you meet abroad, from encountering any less ‘McArthyised’ viewpoints. Of course, imagining that equality has a biological basis could be a pipedream. Or, there might be no reason whatsoever to feel guilty about living in a society where inequality is evident, or to, in more specific teaching terms, worry about either trying to propagate principles of enlightenment in one’s students, or, if dogmatism isn’t the problem, to rescue them from whatever informational desert it is in which society has landed them - before I take such a drastic route, however, I would at least like to stick the scientific understanding of human nature it seems to me underpins our critical traditions, in a teacher’s words, out here in the ESL forum to, as we say in Australia, see what everyone else ‘reckons’. After growing up in an era in Australia (I was born in 1971) where boys and girls studied the same things at school (a new thing at the time); after going to school together with Aboriginal and South Sea Islander people in a period in which the traditional social category of race had been officially discarded (also a new thing); after learning to speak other languages myself; after spending so much time immersed in other cultures; after becoming a teacher; and because I am convinced by the theory of evolution and like to read literature about it; this is how I, personally, have come to understand what people are, and how they function.

I think it auspicious here, or that it is in keeping with the order in which things have been discussed here thus far, to begin with what makes humans, as a species, successful. At first, we would have been a much simpler organism, or one that behaved in this way – we might have been some sort of simple worm, I mean, that had a temperature sensor in its nose that, when it was too hot or cold, by means of a direct connection caused the worm to recoil from heading in that direction. And, it might have had a moisture-meter similarly located on its head that, when things were too dry, made the worm dig deeper. Then, a kind of intermediary mechanism would have developed – the worm would have developed a memory bank and primitive neural processing system that allowed it to store information received from its temperature and moisture sensors, and to arrive at the following appraisals. It would realise that consistent increases, because it would now have an internal map of these things created from past experiences, in temperature mean that eventually things would get either too hot or too cold in that direction, and so would much earlier shy away from such directions. Similarly speaking, it would realise that incremental disparities in moisture content in the earth around it meant that things were getting either too wet or too dry, and would similarly head back from treacherous worm-paths that started providing it these signals. Part and parcel of being able to turn back before things did get too treacherous, of course, was that control over the worm’s behaviour would have been wrested from the direct mechanisms, and given to the informational construct that analysed them – of course the mutations that led in these directions would have been greatly preferred by natural selection because they obviously made worm lives much safer.

The obvious follow-up on this, of course, being that the worm would then have evolved the capacity to relate its perceptions of temperature with its perceptions of moisture; it would have realised that increases in temperature meant increases in dryness, and that decreases in temperature, because of freezing, similarly led to these conditions. Which was another great advance – the correct permutations of moisture and temperature to seek out, and thus an even more exactly safer life, would have been placed within its grasp.

Now as our worm evolved, of course – let’s say, into something like a hamster – it would have ended up with this kind of mechanism. It would have had sensory apparatus to detect physical features of its environment – eyes to detect light, ears to detect sound, and so on. These would have been hooked up to feelings – there wasn’t enough brainpower for our proto-human hamster to figure out why it should do things, and so to steer it in advantageous directions it would have evolved a more primitive means of differentiating between advantageous and non-advantageous plans of action. Or, would have evolved a mechanism that made it feel good when it did things that were beneficial to its existence (like eating delicious food and having sex), and that would have made it feel bad if it planned to do things (for example, jumping in a fire) that weren’t. Feelings, in fact, would probably have been something the worm evolved – as the brain’s capacity to model its environment became more sophisticated, however, they would have played a lesser and lesser role in dictating behaviour, and a greater and greater role in becoming an input for behaviour. That is to say, our conceptualisations of the world, as we became even more human yet, would have been composed of empirical data, as well as a matrix of information that related to how our physical experiences had made us, or might be figured out to make us, feel. Which, by the time we became the humans we are now, it seems had become a fairly handy mechanism – when we were low on knowledge to figure out what was good for us, feelings could step in. When we were rich in knowledge, this could thwart our feelings to take us in detectably advantageous directions.

Bringing us, of course, to the point made earlier, that when you think about what evolution leads us to expect, this is the reality – the better the ways in which organisms are able to informationally model their universe, or the more realistically they can do it, and the better the ways of playing things out against each other become, then so too the more advantageous this method of determining behaviour becomes when compared to the more mechanistic means. So, the alien anthropologist might say, for example, that a pre-eminent ability to base behaviours on knowledge, or the ability to do that exclusively, was where evolution was going, and that to find it we should look at the most sophisticated species on any planet. The alien might then go on to say that such species should be tested to see if they have reached this penultimate evolutionary point – and like I also said earlier, is there really any reason to suggest that human beings would fail such a test? Certainly, the observation would have to be made that imagining that evolution would prefer to build organisms over the long term that were restricted in their behaviours, and furthermore that exhibited such restrictions in variable ways; and, that this was what we expected a species that was as far ahead as all others on this planet as humans are to be like; is something of a long shot.

Although our alien anthropologist would then indubitably proceed to note that, in humanity’s case, things are far from perfect, or that our adaptation isn’t working altogether to our advantage – it would then say that the obvious spanners in the works are that low levels of knowledge lead to more impulsive ways of planning one’s behaviours, and that, because feelings were the precursor mechanism, it is to feel good and not necessarily to correctly analogise the universe that we form the knowledge that actualises our behaviours. Which is where the debate becomes the critical tradition proper – our anthropologist would say that knowledge can consciously be aligned to prevent feelings from controlling our lives, and that the possibility of animosity towards each other (if you go ‘down a bad road’ and can’t get a grasp of the enormous rewards of rationalism, or if stupidity doesn’t get you another way first) has always been a very good mechanism for preventing this from happening. But, that through a sequence of historical circumstances, this mechanism became in the historical period defused.

At any rate, it follows on from this, or if we are to say that nurture, and by no means nature, is the state of the human condition, that you can see why the idea of evolution would also cause us to believe that, short of very rare dysfunctions, humans would all have the same brain. What you expect, in other words, is this – it is a combination of a brain that allows us to model our universe, and a set of biological moving parts that best augment this precipitant of behaviour, that give us our vast capacity for evolutionary success. In other words, to replicate itself human DNA builds a robot that has, along with essential ‘life support’ mechanisms, a certain set of features to sense and manipulate its environment, and a super-powered computer brain that uses these features to enure the organism’s prosperity – the brain’s what makes the species successful, and so it makes sense for every organism in the breeding population to be possessed of the best one that human DNA can pump out. Put another way, of course, we could explain it like this – at a more mechanistic stage of our evolution, or when a single appendage could only be used in a limited fashion, changes to the construction of that appendage would have been very useful. But as intelligence took over, changes to any appendage would have been restricted to changes that complemented the now mutable ways in which limbs could be employed. There’s a set of basic appendages for human beings that represents the best complement we’ve been able to come up with so far from what we started out with – as well as expecting humans to all have the best brain on offer within the species, it also makes sense for them to be equipped with this basic set of features.

Indeed, we can take humanity’s intrinsic homogeneity, if I more directly fulfil my earlier promise of putting forward a model, per se, of human nature, rather than just discussing it, to a whole new level – what we might say in the human case is that we are the product of a very special replicator. It’s a cell, firstly, that is equipped with a DNA resource. And, there is a juxtaposition of genetic material within this resource – let’s call it humanity’s ‘genetic essence’ - that, to reproduce itself, has caused cells in the human case to behave in very ingenious ways. It makes cells copy themselves to make human bodies. The purpose of these bodies being to, in a step of logic that transcends the levels to which most people’s thinking seems to be confined, create a huge replication factory composed of autonomous units of plant equipment (said bodies) that interact with one another to reproduce this genetic essence. Since it’s building all of us, of course, it’s only too convenient that the chief purpose of the production line is to homogenise the units it churns out, or to equip each one with the same navigational computer and basic set of features – even the essential differences, like the development of the different types of apparatus necessary for sexual reproduction, become manifest from identical beginnings, and develop in very production efficient ways. Furthermore, in the leeway for difference the idea of being possessed of a basic set of features (a basic complement to our intelligence) allows, it looks like we’ve been homogeneously equipped with another survival mechanism – we can change colour and shape somewhat over the generations when we’re stuck in different environments.

The inconsequential degree of genetic difference we do show, needless to say, being very easy to explain in reference to this model; when we say our genetic essence is a juxtaposition of genetic material, we are not precluding either that some essential elements of it, like genuine and non-factory parts in cars, produce identical outcomes from somewhat different beginnings. Or, that there would not indeed be advantages from such variability, like the resistance it would give our species to viruses keyed to the factory, as opposed to non-factory, spares. Or, the ability that this leeway for difference might give us, as mentioned already, to sport different housings for our brains over time in response to environment. So too we can imagine how other types of DNA which don’t affect our capacities for evolutionary success one way or another might benefit from their inclusion in the nucleus of our cell by being replicated along with the working part of our genetic essence – variations in this company of hitch-hikers could develop in different human lineages over time because they would not be acted on by natural selection.

And it’s still necessary to address too, of course, the argument for intrinsic human difference, or individuality, that burgeons in this context – given that sexual reproduction allows beneficial changes to humanity’s genetic essence to be spread across as well as along lines of genetic inheritance, and that in the moments between when changes such place we expect natural selection to make every individual in the human population representative of an improved version, are we at present at a point where everyone is intrinsically the same, or where we have both new and old versions of our genetic essence in operation? It’s a question for which there is, at present, no definitive answer – how often do changes to humanity’s genetic essence take place, when was the last one etc. But again, I would stress that, in view of the shortcomings of the traditional view (that we are different), there’s no reason to suggest that we fall short of anything we might expect. And, that the evidence, a lot of which is unfortunately very malleable, falls very nicely into place around the principle of intrinsic homogeneity. I won’t elaborate on this evidence here, however, because it just ends up in rather banal argument around twins.

So, just a couple more things to add. Firstly, it occurs to me that perhaps I should explain traditional views around human nature a bit better. Basically, as the neuroscientist Ken Richardson very succinctly points out, when you look at the apparent diversity of theories of human nature on offer, and when you look at the apparent difference between what we uphold in the present day and the thinking that has dominated human society over the last few thousand years, what you see is this – actually, what we see perpetuated are the same essential set of premises. If I could try my hand at sketching those out myself, this is what’s been pushed – there’s the idea, firstly, that people are possessed of, like clockwork workings, an inner template for behaviour (one that is outside of the kind of mechanism I described us as having earlier), and that we either collectively possess certain compulsions (like the desire to breed, to compete, and so on). Or, that we possess group templates (race and gender), or individual templates for behaviour. On the other hand, or should I say hand in hand with this view, there is the idea, already mentioned here, that knowledge is at the helm of the human ship, but that people have different biological capacities for acquiring and using knowledge – here again this variability is presumed to exist between groups and individuals. Stephen Pinker is a champion of the cause, and if you want to get a grasp of the kind of ‘old wives tales’ from which these premises so often derive you could pick up near anything he’s written.

What it’s then salient to note about these premises being that when it came to dominant explanations for how we happened to become the way we were professed to be, or of the causality of our human nature, metaphysical ones reigned supreme; for a long time, and continuing for many people in the present, the Western world, for example, was led to believe that God made us that way. There came a time, however, when the idea of God, even after He had been revised to have blessed not just the nobility but also the nouveaux rich, started to, in the wake of the theory of evolution, still look unwaveringly dodgy – there was a lot of disequilibrium in Western society as people struggled to find a new explanation for why traditional understandings of human nature, and thus the social structures they were either desperate to propagate, or used to, should remain valid – the panic ceased (McArthyism slacked off) when it was realised that you could show that less sophisticated organisms on this planet showed intra-species variability in their construction and propensities for behaviour, and when it was realised you could say that humans yet possessed such variability themselves, and that particular variations were the product of natural selection. We ended up, you know, with the view that humans are biologically compelled to reproduce, in as many surviving-to-a-breeding-age-themselves offspring as possible, whatever part of their genes it is they pass on to offspring (which kind of ignores that replication is a natural event, and that there are possibly other ways to conform to its manifestation than being focussed on conforming) – this is just another way of giving validity to the ideas that, among others, women have that ol’ ‘biological clock’ ticking away inside, or that competition is an inevitable state of human affairs. This gives rise to that whole mythology about how to fulfil this imperative, men have evolved to be more aggressive, and to be promiscuous, and women have evolved to be gold-diggers and proponents of marriage – these too, of course, are folk tales given a pseudo-scientific backing. And so it goes on, you know, the field of so-called ‘evolutionary psychology’ is rife with this type of rubric.

The other observation we should make in respect to these premises now being that, as well as being an unlikely evolutionary outcome for the most advanced species on this planet, the view of human nature that they in combination illustrate is suspiciously very like the view of human nature that one would design if one wanted to perpetuate the historical structure of Western society. I’m not crying conspiracy, of course, because it is very easy to imagine how, with a lateral nudge in the right directions here and there, things could have by and large biocomputed to be this way (although I am not precluding a certain degree of conspiracy either). But what I am saying, is that perhaps the principle reason to be a bit stand-offish about it is that it is so damn socially convenient. Our society is, and has throughout the historical period always been, a stratified one, right? Or, we might fairly say, a ‘people farm’, in which there are the husbanders and the herders. And so if you wanted to do things that perpetuated inequality, you could easily agree that inequality was a bad thing without being criticised for not doing anything about it because you could say that it was inevitable. On the other hand, if you were being oppressed, you could avoid killing yourself from despair, or having to gnash your teeth to stubs, because you could at least seriously consider the possibility that it was inevitable. Heck with it, if the lifestyle to which society had confined you made you lazy to get out of bed in the morning, you could avoid feeling too bad about that too because you could blame it on your biology – the traditional explanation of human nature has to be, I mean to say, the world’s most universally socially convenient concept. Imagine too how much it would rock the boat to have too much of a social emphasis on intrinsic homogeneity – if we’re looking for reasons why people would in this case be emotionally steadfast about promoting something that seems to so obviously fly in the face of reason, it seems there’s no necessity in this case to be making any guesses.

The next thing I’d like to add here being now that, in relation to the evolution of intelligence as we described it earlier, it seems easy to see how we ended up with more computing power than we use, and why language is so important – before language evolved as the aforementioned software shortcut for our brain, much larger quantities of data would have had to be manipulated when thinking – instead of being able to think simply that ‘oh, it’s autumn, the fish are biting in the sea’ and going there, we would have had to invoke the full set of data of which ‘autumn’ is composed, and then mesh it with the full set of data that comprised the ideas of ‘fish’ and ‘sea’. This is nothing more than wild theorising on my behalf, needless to say, or even wilder theorising than I’ve come up with here so far because there’s not much I know about brain science – nonetheless, perhaps there’s something to this. It certainly seems to make sense to imagine, at any rate, if language did provide a computing shortcut using existing equipment, that we might suddenly get smarter very rapidly without noticeable biological change, and that this would land us with a lot of extra computing power.

The last thing to add here, and perhaps the most significant addition to make, being that we might actually articulate a limit to which biological difference can exist between us – such biological difference would be acceptable, in evolutionary terms, to the point at which it started to contravene the success that the possession of our intelligence and the basic set of features that complemented it allows, or to the point where it started to affect the success of the giant replication factory we are, because beyond that it would be start to be acted on by natural selection. Which, as has been discussed here already, leaves considerable leeway for difference, or perhaps I should more properly say sufficient leeway for some ostensibly very distinctive differences to show – we can still be possessed of the different halves of the species’ reproductive mechanism, we can grow to difference sizes in response to changes in environment, and we can sport different hair, eye, nose, and skin types to even better adapt us to the environmental locales to which our part of the overall reproduction factory has been dispersed. The point here is, though, that these ‘ostensibly very distinctive features’ are actually only popping up in a tiny little window of opportunity – saying they can only exist to the aforementioned degree is the same as saying there is no biological difference between us that contravenes the homogeneous rulership of our consciousnesses. This, I know, is for a lot of people particularly hard to swallow – the tremendous pressure acting against this suggestion is that you’re kicking out one of the most important crutches people rely on in the, when you think of the wondrousness of what our collectively possessed intelligence actually makes us able, what we could only say are the rather miserable lives to which a society that complements the traditional views around human nature consigns them.

So, like I say, to be a teacher you have to have an ontological and epistemological perspective, right? You have to have a grasp of the nature of our universe, and of what knowledge is and how it operates in human terms. Is this not, I mean, one of the most integral platforms from which your practice – course and material design, and methods of instruction and evaluation - will arise? If I’m correct in saying that it is, then it’s a great shame that the literature chosen as the key source material for my ESL education (Littlewood, who was once included as additional reading material – i.e. material most students never bother to read – being an exception), and that floats around the depths of the ESL world that I penetrate, was absolutely bereft of the ideas of people like Richardson, Stephen J. Gould, Howard Zinn, Jared Diamond, and all the other respected scholars who put forward ideas along the lines of the ones I’ve just sketched out here. I mean, when you consider how different conservative and progressive theories are, or think about it in the light of what the progressive theory actually is, do these things not deserve some very close and direct scrutiny? There’s also the dimension too, as I also started out here, that when the academy fails (and is it out of ignorance, or is it out of commercial imperative, or because the sites of information production have been ‘imperialised’?) to engage with the basest levels of theoretical reasoning, or to get students to consider them appropriately, it has really failed in what, in the West, has been supposed to for some time now be its mission – that is, to promote enlightenment. A wonderful opportunity has, in other words, been lost, because what is so important here to educational theory is also highly important in terms of any other theory (and at the end of the day in fact the shape of society) that invokes human nature.


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