Alex Tabisher writes that our acquisition of expertise is often just a preparation to perpetuate something that doesn’t work. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)
Alex Tabisher writes that our acquisition of expertise is often just a preparation to perpetuate something that doesn’t work. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

'Mostly, we teach English to perpetuate the little lies about colonialism'

By Alex Tabisher Time of article published Sep 9, 2021

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Serendipity is when a random search leads to an interesting, if unintended, discovery. The act of random searches was first mooted by Horace Walpole in 1754.

He had borrowed the technique from Ceylon (1815 to 1948) which eventually became Sri Lanka. The original story is called The Three Princes of Serendip, the original name for the island.

I want to highlight some gems that I discovered while reading the Cape Argus for the past six days. As a rule, I do not spend too much time on the predictable but now and again something jumps out at me and I linger.

A fellow columnist wrote a brilliant piece called “The Colour of my Pained Soul”. The issues he raises resonate with me in a very real way, especially in the genius of his postulate that we are not who others say we are.

Nor do we have to behave like the colonial constructs we are said to be. His plaint is lyrical, impassioned, pained and driven by pure integrity.

The Sunday paper covered an award ceremony for excellence in teaching among the educators working in the Western Cape Education Department. How was this serendipity?

To start with, teachers are not the happiest campers in this neck of the woods. Nor anywhere else, if one takes a survey. But the headlines said (and I paraphrase) “a pupil shines at teachers’ award ceremony”.

Three things jumped out at me. The learner angle was simplicity itself. A learner won the prize in a new category added to the ones for teachers. To me, this made a lot of sense. Often, we read about teachers who win national “best teacher” awards.

How they arrive at that accolade from the hundreds of thousands of hard-working, hardpressed, harassed teaching corps I fail to see. But it was refreshing to see a product, that is, a learner, who shone under the tutelage of a teacher who saw his potential.

My thoughts immediately processed the dire need for a wider base for recognition, affirmation and appreciation of the hundreds of teachers who were overlooked.

Do not fear that I am waving a flag for higher salaries. I am merely reaffirming the basic truth that a teacher cannot be calibrated as excellent unless they get a reciprocal response from the learners.

Recently, I stated clearly that a teacher is born. I also added a great teacher is a product of his wards. Learners inspire teachers to range, indeed, go serendipity in a colourless curriculum that seems to reward memory rather than creative and critical thinking.

Which took me to an account of a South African teacher’s experience of teaching English in Korea (Teaching English in South Korea – a South African’s journey). My readers will know that English is my language of choice.

The serendipity find was the teacher’s account that included life as a non-Korean-speaking educator who had to teach English to non-speakers of the language. I have certification in Tesol and Tefol, and know that the Korean experience is more harrowing. The language gulch is wider, and includes the teachers learning to sleep on the floor, the way Koreans do.

In a word, the account was fascinating because of his closing sentence, which I quote in full: It’s all about living with the locals, embracing their culture and getting used to the life that they live, and not trying to be a South African in South Korea.

And there is my great serendipity discovery: that our acquisition of expertise is often just a preparation to perpetuate something that doesn’t work.

Mostly, we teach English to perpetuate the little lies about colonialism. My little sortie through the papers made me realign my agenda. It made me redefine the need for a changed curriculum that isn’t examination or reward-based.

It should be an act of globalisation and integration where knowledge doesn’t drive hegemony or ideology. Just use the language for the purpose it was created: communicate.

* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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