Geoff’s recent post got me thinking about my time in Japan trying to teach against or around a system that saw English as one of many quantified and commodified skills to sell. Like a lot of discussions involving Japan, it triggered some vestigial indignation somewhere in my gut which had to be purged.
The process of quantification of the skill we call “English” for the purpose of rational allocation of workers to jobs has proceeded to an extreme level in Korea and Japan, who may represent the high-water mark among numerous other societies where English skill as represented by a single number or a blank space on a resumé is a matter of life and death for millions of test takers and job seekers.
As you might expect given the overwhelming importance of that blank space, the skill that it is supposed to represent often gets relegated to the background in favor of easily understood and common-currency heuristics like a TOEIC score or a university degree. Tricks for gaming that number or raising it through brute force proliferate. “English teaching” at least in Japan and Korea is widely understood to be synonymous with standardized test preparation, and “washback” with connotations of dutiful responsibility rather than regrettable side effect. Because the blank space for “English skill” is of extreme importance while there are no corresponding spaces for “average hours of sleep” or “happy childhood”, young people spend much of their adolescence in classrooms preparing to give the market what it wants. This video brought back a lot of memories for me, including the sight of bicycles outside cram schools that I passed on my way home from work at 10:30 pm.
Geoff winds up concluding that because English teachers will find themselves serving this inhumane system, they should not go to work in Korea. I disagreed with this point at first, mostly because it’s exactly the countries with these hegemonic, neo-liberal (two words I never thought I’d use after finishing my BA) English testing regimes that seem to have jobs for English teachers without MAs; that is, a lot of good teachers’ careers wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t gone to work in one of these countries in their 20s. Therefore, I thought, these systems actually end up contributing a lot indirectly to global ELT. Also, I believed that good teachers doing honest work within those systems could still have positive effects on students’ lives beyond tests. My conspiratorial brain and my fondly-remembering brain disagree on this point.
A decent metaphor for the role of an anti-establishment English teacher in such a system is Daniel Kaluuya’s character from the 2nd episode of Black Mirror. This character similarly feels righteously indignant and rebellious in an inhuman system, but sees that rebellious energy coopted and ultimately used as a piece of the same system. If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, Kaluuya’s character Bing has a musically gifted coworker at their grind of a job (hilariously, pedalling stationary bikes) in a vaguely dystopia future society where intrusive attention merchant-style media is omnipresent. This coworker takes a chance at using her genuine, pristine vocal talent to audition for a TV talent show. At her audition, instead of being made a popstar, she is coercively recruited to act in adult films instead, in a grotesque example of matching talent to market. Bing, distraught, returns to the talent show later under the pretense of auditioning, and in the midst of a seeming dance routine he suddenly holds a shard of glass to his own throat and uses the captive TV cameras to deliver a searing, authentically emotional speech into the TV cameras. The judges, suitably moved, declare his performance extraordinary and proceed to give him his own show where he delivers regular similar speeches, always with his signature shard of glass, for a devoted fanbase (still pedalling their bikes). The episode ends with Bing living the high life thanks to having found a market for his talent due to his successful “audition”.
To give my Black Mirror-like take first, even with the most stridently anti-test, integrative, teaching-the-whole-person way it can possibly be practiced, ELT in Japan or Korea ends up feeding the system of commodification, just stuffing it with ever-more-valuable commodities. Any attempts to break out of that single space just end up putting something all the more precious in it, as truly sincere and irreplaceable things are, like Bing’s speech, ultimately just rarer and accordingly more valuable products. Those “genuine articles” in our case can include communicative competence, international perspective, study abroad experience, and above all, a real feel for English not only as an academic subject but as a living tool of communication. All of these signify a truly high-quality English education, and to an HR office, a superior version of an in-demand skill. A sincere and genuine English education also raises the mean on everyone else, making still more inhuman grinding necessary from those not lucky enough to have a truly outstanding, break-the-mold teacher or opportunities for international education. A worldly, proactive, SKY’s-the-limit English learner represents inflation from the perspective of hiring or college admission boards. As Bing’s judges declare, That is, without a doubt, the most heartfelt thing I’ve seen on a resumé since ELT began.
That is what I fear my legacy of 12 years of English school ownership will be: a few former students with outstanding enough scores in a saleable skill to get salaries and bonuses 3% higher alongside hundreds more with only a vague memory that they once went to eikaiwa. Premonitions of this fate were common throughout the life of our school, as some of our star students reliably quit every year to devote more time to Center Test studies (our Suneung), made clear their intentions to drop English after getting into college almost as a rite of passage, or visibly stopped caring about any classroom pursuit that didn’t have a clear test payoff. Mind you, it wasn’t every student who gave us this feeling, and we always had enough students to live, but once 2 or 3 of the students that you’d really been seeing bright things in the future for tell you that they’re quitting because their juku (cram school) teacher told them eikaiwa is a waste of time, a bit of the shine starts to come off of every student. Parents even in some of the best cases tended to cement the impression that everything led back to tests – the most heartfelt thanks we usually got from parents was that they really appreciated how our passion and genuine connection to their kids had helped them increase their test scores. The students themselves sometimes echoed these sentiments, which didn’t please us as much as they seemed to think it would. Trying to beat the test or go above and beyond it only made us more successful at teaching the test.
That’s the dark take, and when I need some reason to feel better about my move to the US, it gives me some comfort, grass-isn’t-greener style. On the other hand, if I need to remove the shadow that that view casts over my time in Japan and the genuinely warm memories I have of my students, I need to accept that not everything that is part of a “system” is inhuman or corrupt. My former students making 3% more money doesn’t stop them from being complete individuals or having the same warm memories that I have. In many other circumstances, I would view the reduction of a complicated construct to a single value to be very useful, given of course that no such value will ever be free from questions of validity. A society-wide preference for quantifiable skills to an extent reflects a need to fairly and quickly evaluate millions of people a year, which isn’t a sin in itself. Maybe what is needed is not an end to commodification but more commodification – a line on college applications for “average time spent on non-school pursuits” to be weighed alongside TOEIC scores.