Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Imperialism Through English?

I generally don’t comment on the issues that face English teachers here in Korea, but then someone just had to go and write something beyond the pale (and in a major English daily at that). The piece in question is by Steve Schertzer, who seems to be one of those ESL teachers the nationalist media in Korea loves to give a platform to: the one that claims Korea is a utopia that is being ruined by drug induced, sex crazed foreigners from the west. Steve Schertzer writes at the Korea Times:
“It is no secret that many of the foreign English teachers come here with an agenda.”
Holy shit! I had no idea that "many" of the teachers on the Korean peninsula were actually Western agents. Since I am involved in all kinds of conspiracies to undermine society, I am surprised to learn there is an insidious plot operating right under my nose, and no one bothered to even invite me! But what exactly is this secret “agenda” that teachers come to Korea with?
“Like the U.S. government, which unabashedly send troops to different nations to spread democracy, many native English teachers here shamelessly indoctrinate Korean children and adults (especially girls and women), into the Western point-of-view by bringing into the classroom ideas and modes of behavior that should be considered out-of-bounds for a native English teacher in a foreign country.

Examples of this indoctrination are native English teachers in hagwon (private language institutes) and universities "advising'' Korean women on how to leave their husband or boyfriend, to English teachers who brazenly bring feminist writings, revolutionist literature, and material which openly advocates radical social change into a public school classroom with the intention of disseminating this to impressionable 13 and 14 year old boys and girls.”

Oh Steve, the fact that you believe these things says more about your inability to comprehend reality than it does about your insight into foreign teachers.

First of all, I am completely opposed to any teacher forcing their ideas onto their students by way of the classroom. When an educator steps out of line by placing their personal feelings and ideas at the center of a class that never asked for such an admission, it violates basic rules of conduct. I hold opinions on a slew of subjects, but they never make it into my lessons. Teachers should teach what they are paid to teach and not deviate from their responsibilities by using the classroom as a pulpit.

Having said that, I have a hard time believing any foreign teacher is using revolutionary feminist literature in a classroom. Even my most gifted 13 year old students are nowhere near ready to delve into philosophical works, not because they are emotionally immature, but because that level of English comprehension has not been grasped. Perhaps one of my pupils will surprise me one day by espousing their personal views on dialectical materialism in perfect English, but until that day, I am content to review basic conversational phrases. I find it highly unlikely that middle and high school students in Korea are reading Jane Eyre or Rosa Luxemburg, but if they are, those must be some dazzling ESL teachers with some brilliant pupils.

As for University students, while I still find preaching to a class or deviating from the core curriculum a violation of a teacher’s responsibility, if a student and a teacher develop a relationship outside of the classroom where the subject of marriage and gender roles comes about, I see no problem with it. If I had a friend who was married to a man that abused her, I would advise her on how to leave their spouse, regardless of her nationality. I guess Steve would rather they tell their female comrades “that wouldn’t be accepted in America, but you’re Korean, so you best put up with it.” He goes on to say:
“Any native English teacher who does this should be considered a missionary and a cultural imperialist who seeks to undermine the values of their host country.

If there is anything to be changed or altered in Korean society or culture, it should left to Koreans themselves as to what, when, and how things should be changed.”
Ah, “cultural imperialism,” the only argument a post-modern Marxist has left to champion. This is where Schertzer really goes off the rails and gallops into territory he clearly doesn’t comprehend. According to people like Steve, the average Korean is no more than a noble savage. They are but a group of people too stupid and insipid to make logical choices on their own, and so any changes in Korean society must be the product of some evil “cultural imperialist” who has deceived the populace. Steve Schertzer clearly sees himself as Korea’s great protector, but he perceives them to be a people that lack the ability to make rational choices for themselves. It is impossible to believe in cultural imperialism, and also believe grown individuals have a right to make decisions for themselves, so Steve has opted to believing Koreans are no better than children. If McDonald’s becomes popular, it is because some evil trans-national corporation forced itself on a populace that was unwilling to make informed decisions on its own, not because people like McDonalds. Or if Korean women decide they want to be treated differently, it must be malevolent outsider influence, not a rational desire to live better. This ideological persuasion treats people like dogs, and it should be repudiated any chance it’s offered as intellect.

Feminism and women’s rights are not forced upon the women who embrace them; they are adopted because an individual finds truth and meaning in it. The same goes for any other idea that you may claim is being “forced” on the Korean people. (I should note that feminism is not necessarily a “new” idea in Korea.)

Individuals like Steve, and the forces of cultural conservatism as a whole, will claim that personal liberty and liberation are “foreign” ideas, but they do so simply because they know they back a losing ideology; one that when placed beside the merits of freedom and personal choice, will certainly lose in the minds of most. Schertzer has backed a losing pony, and the only way it wins the race is if it competes alone.

The fact that he made the issue of women’s rights his point of repugnance says a lot about this chap. I wouldn’t doubt if this was just some bitter divorced guy, who came to Korea because he heard their women were repressed and subservient to men, and received a rude awakening when he found women’s rights being advanced. Having Korean women treated as equals among their male counterparts: how unfortunate for old Steve.

I wonder if Schertzer finds it ironic in that he speaks scornfully of America using its military to enforce and encourage democracy, and yet works in a nation that has so clearly benefited from it? Let alone the fact that he is an English teacher himself, and is therefore just another front for this “cultural imperialism” he so passionately condemns. Funny how those facts escaped him.

Oh Steve Schertzer: please stop writing this nonsense, as it only makes you look like the fool you apparently are. (I should make it clear that this picture is from the Korea Times piece I dissected, and not some stock shot I dug up. I should also give Steve a little credit; he has written a few things over the years on classroom management that I think are dead on and worth reading. This piece on the other hand...)
(Hat tip Rok Drop)


jams o donnell said...

Great post Roland. It sounds like he's pandering to some ugly nationalist sentiments there

Roland Dodds said...

Thanks Jams. The thing is, I often find myself on the other side of this debate, in that I think many ESL teachers in Korea do their job poorly, and lack the diplomatic skills to be cultural ambassadors for their people. But the Korean news media is so over the top when it comes to its reporting on English education that I think they need to be called on these fallacies mischaracterizations; when ESL gets reported on, the story almost always ends up focusing on a few teachers that do drugs, act like frat boys, and operate irresponsibly.

Anonymous said...

Nice job. I have met this guy in Busan, and he really is as stupid as his article.