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“Only the educated are free.”
—Epictetus (55-135), Greek philosopher
Over the years, many English teachers have asked if I plan a “global” version of Compelling Conversations so it can be used everywhere, including closed countries like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. What does this mean? What practical changes would this one-size-fits-all approach require?
The tyranny of censorship
As in most industries, the largest customers have the loudest voices. China, home to an estimated 1.4 billion customers, remains a very attractive, lucrative market. However, China censors not only their classrooms, but it has also created a great electronic firewall. As such, search results on topics related to Tibet, Taiwan, homosexuality, democracy, or the cultural revolution are strictly prohibited. The educational leaders, the central market for many English language programs and books, simply want “harmonious communication”– or so the official line goes.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia – a nation living under strict Islamic laws where women must wear hijabs (but will soon be allowed to drive cars!) – imposes many content restrictions. Nearby, the Islamic Republic of Iran now allows English to be taught, but the national English textbooks promote religious dogma as much teaching English skills. (The theocratic dictatorship still executes homosexuals and sponsors chants of “death to America” to open soccer matches.) Other national traditions and religious laws generate additional taboo subjects across the globe. The list grows longer and longer.
A “sad status-quo”
Faced with these numerous restrictions, many companies (including educational publishers) choose to accommodate the local rulers. The major EFL publishers in London and New York have chosen to listen closely to their concerns of various dictatorships, accepted the red lines of their major customers (China, Saudi Arabia, etc), and created safe, one-size-fits-all global editions. These sanitized EFL textbooks – stripped of topics of possible controversy – are often bland and boring. They are also used by English language learners across the globe, from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and France to China, Japan, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. Passive skills are also often prioritized. So English language learners are taught to listen more than speak and read more than write. Topics are avoided; questions often discouraged. Many English students become demotivated too. That’s the sad status quo in far too many EFL and ESL classrooms.
“Live and let live, speak and let speak”
Do I really want to make my own conversation books just as bland and dull? No doubt, some international sales would increase if I dropped controversial topics like elections, personal relationships, and human rights. Yet I created the conversation lessons and materials for Compelling Conversations while teaching at Santa Monica Community College in the United States. Originally written for immigrants and refugees coming into the United States, the original Compelling Conversations allows students to candidly share their personal stories, experiences, and opinions. Some ESL students fled persecution, some ESL students escaped civil wars and economic poverty, and some ESL students sought more freedom to be themselves. All the ESL students wished to create a new, usually better life as Americans by choice.
So I feel fine if my conversation books reflect an American perspective. I prefer not to censor myself or restrict my students’ curiosity. Consider me a “live and let live, speak and let speak” American English teacher. As Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence attested, “resistance to tyranny is obedience to God”. Asking simple questions and sharing personal experiences, without worrying about what some government officials might think, seems reasonable – at least in California.
My default remains celebrating free speech, open minds and Western enlightenment values. Consider me flattered that a few censor-happy governments have blocked my tiny little website. Conversation matters, especially during times of war, intolerance, and hysteria. For my own American university classes, I’m trying to help English language learners develop their conversation skills, reflect on their experiences, and exchange insights with other fellow human beings. The same principle applies to my fluency-focused books.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people when powerful folks abuse their authority. If some government or official feels that the questions in Compelling Conversations are too dangerous, impolite, or uncomfortable, then so be it.
Ask more, know more, share more
Asking questions in simple conversations helps us clarify and understand our world. I’m perfectly comfortable with every question that is asked in this book. However, I emphasize many times that students can just decline to respond if they feel less comfortable. (Learning how to say “no” is also a good conversation skill to master!) Yet it’s a very different situation for a student – an individual – choosing to pass over a question, and for a govenrment censor to block a website, ban a book, or prohibit a question. I prefer to treat all adults as free adults.
So that’s why I have declined to create a safe, one-size-fits-all “globalized version” for all English language learners. I refuse to eliminate questions of elections, corruption, women’s rights, or double standards. Let China be China, Iran be Iran, and Saudi Arabia be Saudi Arabia. But let’s also allow let Brazil to be Brazil, Japan to be Japan, and France to be France. Let’s make sure that adults in the United States remain free to ask the questions they want to ask in English. Freedom, including the freedom to ask simple questions, still seems like a good idea to me.
What about you?