The following extract from a coursebook dialogue is fairly typical of the upbeat, self-actualising discourse we’ve come to associate with people in ELT texts. A Western male has re-invented himself as a successful pop star in the East, and is being interviewed:
Q. So, do you think you’ve made the right choices in your life?
A. Absolutely. I’m having a fantastic time in Macau. When you go back home, you see all of your friends doing exactly the same as 10 years ago. I do things and have done things that most people could only dream of doing.
(English Unlimited, Elementary Coursebook, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.159).
Here is another text, along similar lines, except in this case, the direction of migration is from East to West:
My neighbour Dien Tranh was born in 1959 in Vietnam, in the city of Hue. By the time he was 12, he had lost both his parents. Somehow he cared for himself and his younger sister. By the time he was 20 he had arrived in the United States as a refugee, and he had begun working two and sometimes three jobs at a time. Within five years, he had already saved enough money to help bring many of his relatives to the United States, and he had bought a small florist shop. By 1994 – 10 years after he bought that small shop – Tranh had expanded his business to include six stores and more than 30 employees.
(Gaies, S. and Ellis, R. 1999. Impact English. New York: Pearson Longman).
Two recent articles (Chun 2009; Gray 2010) firmly situate this kind of text in the rhetoric of neoliberalism, i.e., the belief in the sanctity and ultimate munificence of an unfettered market economy. As Gray explains, “according to the neoliberal view, the role of government is primarily to guarantee and extend the reach of the market” (p. 717). This agenda, in turn, is associated with such market-friendly practices as ‘customer care’ culture, communication skills training, and what Chun calls “discourses of self-actualisation and entrepreneurial choices” (p. 115).
Gray looks at the way that self-actualisation, by means of work (including, of course, the learning of English) is a theme that permeates many current ELT materials. This goes hand-in-hand with an obsession with celebrity, one of the more overt consequences of self-actualisation in the (media) marketplace, and a familiar motif in most coursebooks. One coursebook that Gray analyses, for example, “includes a reading in which our (assumed) interest in celebrity is seen as inevitable, if not altogether healthy, and at the same time asks students to work in small groups and decide on ways of becoming an A-list celebrity” (p.728).
This “neoliberal discursive positioning of students as consumers and entrepreneurs of self and others” (Chun, op. cit. p. 118) is, of course, attributable to the fact that English, as a global language, is well-placed to serve the interests of a globalised market economy, and thereby to act as a vehicle for the fulfillment of learners’ aspirations. Coursebooks, like other forms of aspirational literature, such as self-help guides and travel brochures, project a typically upbeat and well-heeled lifestyle. Not only is the work-ethic celebrated, but so too are its rewards, in the form of leisure, travel and shopping. Seldom, if ever, are such practices problematised, or critiqued, although Chun reports ways that classroom discussions might be set up so as to subvert some of the more conspicuous neoliberal values that coursebooks enshrine.
But I suspect there may be another reason why self-actualisation is a dominant theme in coursebooks, and that is that ELT itself is increasingly seen, by its practitioners, as an entrepreneurial culture, offering plentiful opportunities for self-realisation and, even, fame. Gone are the days of the doughty, do-gooder, internationalist English teacher working tirelessly in a shed in East Africa. He or she has long since been replaced, either by the gap-year, pleasure-seeking, backpacker, or by the disaffected professional (lawyer, stockbroker, school teacher, etc) who has downsized and embraced otherness, as part of an ambitious self-branding project. When this palls, an obvious outlet is coursebook writing itself – offering an escape from the insecurity and tedium of day-to-day teaching – not to mention the low pay!
Even now EFL still has something of the feel of a ‘frontier’ culture about it – largely unregulated, somewhat disreputable, and inherently unstable – but where rich pickings might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays – an app. So, is the coursebook celebrity, toasting his self-actualisation in Macau, perhaps a projection of the coursebook writer’s own not-so-covert aspirations?
Chun, C. 2009. Contesting neo-liberal discourses in EAP: critical praxis in an IEP classroom. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8.
Gray, J. 2010. The branding of English and the culture of the new capitalism: representations of the world of work in English language textbooks. Applied Linguistics, 2010, 31/5.