I started thinking about the topic of this post last Thursday, when I read Lindsay Clandfield’s article on course books and the curse of celebrity in the Guardian Weekly online. The article reminded me (because my brain works in chaotic ways) of Scott Thornbury’s Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture, published more than ten years ago, but still relevamt and easily accessible via Scott’s website. And that in turn reminded me of Althusser’s seminal essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, which I keep returning to ever since I first read it in my early twenties.
The topic is, of course, the subject-matter of English Language Teaching materials, and more specifically, the ideological content of such materials. Lindsay writes about how international celebrities have permeated the world of ELT course books in the last 20 years or so and makes the valid point that this kind of material does not conform to many educators’ ideas of what education is about; clearly, he is thinking about educators with a more critical attitude to what education should be about, and in fact implies, in his last paragrpah, that he believes education is about thinking critically about the world we live in and making more sense of it. Lindsay is, of course, right: the inclusion of international celebrity culture in teaching materials may be motivating in some contexts, appreciated even, on a superficial level, by many learners, expedient insofar it makes it easy to present and practise language based on a common core of shared (albeit stereotypical) cultural knowledge, but the inclusion of and constant allusion to celebrity culture is also an ideological statement that the course book writers, editors and publishers are not just making but also imposing upon the users of the course book (teachers and students), who may not necessarily consciously subscribe to the underlying ideology.
However, as Scott Thornbury put it 11 years ago, ideology is not just present in the content that is included in course books, but also in the content that is, conspicuously or surreptitiously, excluded from them. Scott’s point is that the total absence of any allusion to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans) culture in coursebooks is also ideological, especially given the fact that a lot of ELT practitioners, including publishers, authors, teacher educators and teachers, are in fact members of the GLBT community. The forced invisibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people in ELT materials is still evident 10+ years later, even though GLBT professionals in the ELT world are now a lot more visible, as are GLBT people in general in most of the countries where these materials are used. I am not saying (and nor was Scott) that it is easy to include GLBT role models in ELT materials (although it is clearly easy to include characters that might be GLBT); but I am saying that the reason why most course book content is bland, vapid, uncontroversial is because publishers cannot afford to have absolutely anyone object to their content (there are, for instance, at least two publishers’ guidelines that state the word bacon cannot be included in any ELT material, lest teachers and students in Moslem countries be offended) and, at the end of the day, the educational value of course books is indeed subordinate to their market value, as far as publishers are concerned.
Which brings me back to Althusser’s views on ideology and the ideological apparatuses of the state. In brief, Althusser holds that the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. the capitalist relations of exploitation, is achieved via the Repressive State Apparatus (the legislature, the police, the army, etc) as well as the Ideological State Apparatuses (communications, culture, religion, school, etc), both of which function both by repression and by ideology. The dominant Ideological State Apparatus is, of course, the educational state apparatus. The ideological manner in which education works to reproduce the given relations of production is, in Althusser’s words, via
an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is …lay), where teachers respectful of the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of the children who are entrusted to them (in complete confidence) by their ‘parents’ (who are free, too, i.e. the owners of their children) open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of adults by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their ‘liberating’ virtues.
In this light, the ideological nature of the ELT materials I have been talking about becomes clearer:
- Nothing can be included that could be considered ideologically or culturally sensitive, because ELT materials must appear to be non-ideological; however, the appearance of non-ideologicalness is, in actual fact, merely the perpetuation of the ruling ideology which typically masquerades as a non-ideological norm.
- Content that is included must be harmless; but by “harmless” is meant harmless to the ruling ideology. Thus, the life of David Beckham is perfectly accaptable content; so are Madonna’s charitable acts; so is universally recognised “high culture,” such as Victorian literature or the paintings of the Great Masters. But nothing that is remotely critical of the supposedly non-ideological ruling ideology, whether in terms of discourse (e.g. atheist views) or of action (e.g. gay “families”), can even be alluded to, on the grounds that ELT materials must be neutral, must not take sides!
The practical reasons why non-harmless material simply does not make it to the course books that are published are an excellent illustration of how this particular ideological apparatus, ELT publishing, functions both by ideology and by repression. Publishers will simply censor any material that is culturally or ideologically powerful: this is a repressive mechanism that has been put into place precisely so that the ideological content of ELT materials can be controlled. The market (the people who will consume the books, i.e. directors of studies and teachers with decision-making powers) will reward, and therefore reproduce, these ideological choices precisely because they appear to be non-ideological. Thus, nothing is problematised, the process of reproducing the relations of production continues stronger, and educators are reduced to mere agents of an ideological struggle they may not even be consciously aware of.