Asian Journal of English Language Teaching Vol. 7, 1997, pp. 21-33
© 1997 CUHK English Lanuage Teaching Unit

The Place of Moral and Political
Issues in Language Pedagogy

H. Douglas Brown
San Francisco State University

In the process of second language learning, must learners inevitably grapple with ethical, moral, and religious issues in the classroom? This essay contains arguments for and against facing such issues in our classrooms and offers a rationale for giving learners an opportunity to engage in critical thinking on questions of global importance, while still respecting learners' own beliefs and attitudes. Practical examples of these critical thinking activities from around the world and across a wide variety of cultural norms are described. Among the topics discussed include peace education, environmental action, human rights, racial and ethnic discrimination, gender equality, and political philosophy.

In recent years the language teaching profession has witnessed a stark increase in the number of articles, chapters, books, and presentations on the "critical" nature of language pedagogy. We language teachers and teacher educators are reminded that we are all driven by convictions about what this world should look like, how its people should behave, how its governments should control that behavior, and how its inhabitants should be partners in the stewardship of the planet. We are told, for example, that we should "embody in our teaching a vision of a better and more humane life" (Giroux & McLaren, 1989, p. xiii). Or, as Alastair Pennycook has stated it, "the crucial issue here is to turn classrooms into places where the accepted canons of knowledge can be challenged and questioned" (1994, p. 298).

But another strand of this genre of research on critical language pedagogy reminds us that our learners of the English language must be free to be themselves, to think for themselves, to behave intellectually without coercion from a powerful elite, to cherish their beliefs and traditions and cultures without the threat of forced change. In our classrooms, where "the dynamics of power and domination...permeate the fabric of classroom life" (Auerbach, 1995, p. 9), we are alerted to a possible "covert political agenda [beneath our] overt technical agenda" (Phillipson, 1992, p. 27).

Is there a middle ground? Can English language teachers facilitate the formation of classroom communities of learners who critically examine moral, ethical, and political issues surrounding them, and do so without pushing a personal subversive agenda? Or must we teachers, in full recognition of the power we wield in the classrooms, refrain from any treatment of critical issues lest we become agents of an "unequal division of power and resources" (Phillipson, 1992, p. 27)? These are the central questions that I will attempt to address.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

The call for teachers to act as agents for change is not a new one. Twenty-eight years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1969) shook some educational foundations with their best seller, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. In their stinging critique of the American educational establishment, they challenged teachers to enable their students to become "crap" detectors:

  1. crap detectors in creating major changes in our social, economic, and political system,
  2. crap detectors who can cut through burgeoning bureaucracies (which, they note, are repositories of conventional assumptions and standard practices), and
  3. crap detectors who can release us from the stranglehold of the communications media, which is creating its own version of censorship.

Those criticisms were printed in 1969. Now, almost 30 years later, isn't it ironic that educational systems around the world are still by and large the voices of bureaucracy? Voices of political and economic status-quo? In Postman and Weingartner's terms, have worldwide educational systems been effectively subverting the attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness?

Is this call for subversive teaching a challenge that English language teachers can and should take up in the present day? Do those of us who teach language have a special responsibility to "subvert" attitudes and beliefs and assumptions? Do we have a responsibility, for example

After all, more than 20 years ago, in 1975, the National Education Association in the USA adopted a code of ethics for educators. The first two principles in this code are stated below:

  1. The educator shall not deny the student access to varying points of view.
  2. The educator shall not deliberately suppress or distort subject matter relevant to the student's progress.

Some Cautionary Observations

What has come to be known as "liberation education," among other terms (see Freire, 1970; Clarke, 1990), must no doubt be termed with some cautionary observations. Some have recently argued that our ostensibly benign assumptions about teaching methodology (see Holliday, 1994) have an element of controversy in them. Why, there's hardly a person in this profession who would not stand up with your hand over your heart to salute "communicative language teaching," or "whole language education," or "learner-centered teaching," or "cooperative learning!" But are all these warm and fuzzy, soft and tender approaches to the classroom universally accepted by all cultures? All educational traditions? Certainly not. In an article titled "Toward Less Humanist English Teaching," Gadd (in press) cautions against viewing ourselves as a "nurturer of souls" because this "inappropriate and oppressive role...does not encourage or permit the students' intellectual and cognitive development." (Arnold's [in press] reply to Gadd in the same issue is worth careful reading.)

The counterpoint to this rallying of teachers to change a world mired in bureaucracies is epitomized, as I see it, in what Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson (1994) have called "linguicism." Phillipson (1992) argues that, historically at least, worldwide English language teaching has served to " unequal division of power and resources," as "the dominant language [English] is glorified, [and] dominated languages are stigmatized" (p. 27). Now, while Adrian Holliday (1994) rightfully argues, I think, that Phillipson's stance "implies a conspiracy view of English language teaching which is over-simplistic and naive" (p. 99), nevertheless I think all of us, if we haven't done so already, need to take heed lest we become the inadvertent perpetuators of a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots. Language is power, and the unequal distribution of language programs across the world surely could contribute to the ultimate unequal distribution of power.

Language policy-making forms another controversial domain which illustrates the tension between the powerful and powerless. Singaporeans, for example, are acutely aware, on a daily basis, of such tensions. In the United States, perhaps one of the most grossly covert movements today is the number of "Official English" initiatives sweeping across the country. English Only advocates prey upon a nation of gullible masses, persuading them that the English Only movement will rescue a country that is ostensibly mired in a multilingual quicksand of "ethic chauvinism," to quote Senator Hayakawa, and "linguistic separatism," to quote a US English publication. Professional organizations like TESOL, MLA, and LSA are hard at work educating the American public on the racist and elitist agenda behind such proposed legislation. Recent research on language policy (e.g., Tollefson, 1995) amply demonstrates, around the world, official language movements are at their core, elitist power struggles.

Covert Grammar

When all the fine points of our teaching philosophy have been defined and argued in forums such as this one and we go back to our English language classrooms, can we in fact ever escape the potential moral and political agendas that sneak their way into our syllabuses and textbooks? Maybe one of the most insidious forms of subversion in this profession is hidden in the English language itself. I cannot even begin to enumerate all those little linguistic tricks that are every day being played on us as we use language, and I'm sure your mind is already racing with things like gender loading ("The nurse did her best." "The car mechanic knew his stuff."); quasi-double negatives ("it would not be implausible to assume"); oxymorons (Doctor to patient: "Your tumor is almost benign." or "zero population growth"), political euphemisms ("collateral damage was minimal" -- meaning deaths). Benjamin Whorf was only just getting started!

Michael Halliday (1993) points out in a recent paper that even such innocent distinctions in English as count and non-count nouns present us with certain predispositions toward our environment. Air, water, soil, rain are cognitively represented as potentially "unbounded" according to Halliday. And so we may ever so subtly think of oil, coal, or water as inexhaustible. He also noted that our distinction between animate objects, with the pronouns he and she, and inanimate it predisposes us to distinguish between conscious beings (that can think, hold opinions, have preferences, etc.) and non-conscious entities, thus imposing "a strict discontinuity between ourselves and the rest of creation, with 'ourselves' including a select bank of...creatures," totally excluding "the concept of Gaia -- of the earth itself as a conscious being. The grammar makes it hard for us to accept the planet earth as a living entity that not only breathes but feels and even thinks" (p. 30).

In an internet survey that I conducted last year, one of my informants recounted to me a problem in teaching English conditional verb forms in a rural region of the Sudan, where the only concept students had of conditionality was the ubiquitous "insha Allah" (if God wills). So the introduction of English conditionals clauses was, to quote the words of my informants, "foreign to traditional ways of understanding, and theologically dubious!"

In a recent lecture at San Francisco State University, Dr. Christina Kakava reminded us that English discourse varies widely from the discourse patterns of Greek in its expressions of disagreement. Transcriptions of Greeks interacting with each other in Greek displayed what in English we would describe as at best impolite discourse if not inflammatory.

So, we can see that within the very forms of the language that we teach, we are surrounded by covert, implicit messages and presuppositions about the universe within which we operate. And upon further reflection, I think it is clear to every English language teacher that even at the very beginning levels of language, certain "messages" will inevitably be delivered through textbooks, exercises, illustrations, linguistic example, and teaching methodology. The moral, ethical, and political nature of these messages is unavoidable.

The Middle Ground?

Earlier, in posing the central questions of my focus in this presentation, I asked if there was a middle ground -- an appropriate point of tension between usurping our positions of power through indoctrination, on the one hand, and meekly avoiding all controversial issues and topics in the classroom. I suggest there is such a middle ground. That middle ground allows us to assume our responsibility as agents of change while at the same time respecting the autonomy of the learner.

First, I would like to suggest four simple principles for dealing with so-called "hot topics" in our classrooms:

  1. Allow students to express themselves openly.
  2. Genuinely respect students' points of view.
  3. Encourage both/many sides of an issue.
  4. Don't force students to think just like you.

Such principles may for some appear to be naive, to ignore the classroom power dynamics referred to earlier. But upon deeper reflection, is it not possible to give them the following interpretation?

  1. In full recognition of the authority and power vested in any teacher, and in full sensitivity to the power relationships as perceived by students, strive for a classroom energy in which students are encouraged to offer candid expressions of critical opinion.
  2. Give, as your feedback to such opinion, validation of the student's point of view; never criticize what you must assume to be the student's genuine understanding of an issue.
  3. Embrace all seriously offered statements, opinions, and beliefs as having at least partial truth value; draw out contrasting viewpoints from others.
  4. In so far as it is possible, withhold your own personal opinion on an issue; if a student directly requests your opinion, offer it as equally worthy to contrasting views.

Activities From Around the World

In preparing for last year's TESOL presentation in Chicago, I sent out a "plea" over various internet connections to teachers around the world to tell me their "stories" about "subversive" activities they have done in their classrooms, particularly in the spirit of Postman and Weingartner's teaching as a subversive activity. I will briefly recount some of these stories as they bring forth certain themes, themes like peace education, conflict resolution, global and environmental issues, women's rights and gender issues, political issues, human rights, religious issues, prejudices and stereotypes, and other social issues. I recount just a few of those responses here as examples. These are your stories from across the globe.

Global issues. From Brazil, Maria Rita Vieira sent me a marvellous set of materials developed by Yazigi Language Schools for teaching children. The "Junior English Program" takes children on an adventure trip searching for "magic glasses" which, they discover, will enable them to see the world as it could be if everyone respected it. The sixty adventures in the program teach appreciation for Native Indians of Brazil, for their culture, their stories, their music; it teaches gender roles, animal rights, and environmental stewardship, all through colorful cartoon characters, exercises, and activities for the English language classroom.

In Japan, Donna McInnis noted that "we are first and foremost teachers of language. But we are also educators with a global responsibility to raise stewards of the planet." One of her research projects is called "Dreams and Dream Makers" in which students choose a person who "worked to make the world a more" Widespread efforts in Japan at "waging peace," the title of one of McInnis's seminars, have gathered momentum.

In Singapore, George Jacobs describes an activity called "stamping out insults," whose purposes are to understand why people insult others and to help students to learn and use kind, affirming words as they disagree with one another.

A teacher from Burma reminded me that starting from colonial days, English teaching was and continues to be powerful force in helping people to understand, as she put it, "the ugliness of war and the value of peace."

Political issues. In Cambodia, I was reminded by teacher trainer Psyche Kennett that the forces of change are slow to gather momentum.

The government and the armed forces still regard education as a power to contain, to maintain the old order by keeping people in their places....Obedience is taught by making students passive learners, copiers of other people's handed down knowledge, empty vessels to be filled. [Here] a teacher's decision to subvert or to retain the traditional ways is not an easy one. The political plight of the trainee uncomfortable. They are being asked to excel at a language that was forbidden until 1990. They are being asked to give authority in the classroom to the very age group that was lethally indoctrinated against teachers two decades ago. They are being asked to conduct classroom research which leads then to question authority and turns on its head the idea that change must come from above. It is not surprising that some of them refuse to learn this sort of "subversion," and it would be foolish of teacher educators to treat their objections lightly.
From China I received some very guarded personal comments from a native Chinese who asked not to be identified. I was told, in fact, that treatment of political issues must be covert, lest one lose more than one's job. He described two approaches that intrigued me. The first he called "point at one but accuse another," through which he has had students study oppression and suppression of free speech in the former Soviet Union, calling for critical analysis of the roots and remedies of such denial of freedom. In another approach, which he called "murder someone with a borrowed knife," he had students criticize Western news reports on Chinese politics. Without espousing any particular point of view himself, and under the guise of offering criticism of the Western bias, students were covertly led to comprehend alternative points of view.

An American in China mused, "I've often wondered if incrementally all the individual English teachers from other countries working in China in the 1980s contributed in some way to what led up to the Tiananmen Square "incident" -- maybe not the most significant influence, but one of them."

Zoltan Dornyei recollected for me what it was like to teach English under communist regimes in Hungary. He described techniques for teaching conflict resolution in English, which has a less direct discourse style than Hungarian for resolving disagreements.

A teacher in Poland taught about non-violent civil disobedience through reference to various sources including Martin Luther King and Ghandi.

Human rights. In Armenia, a teacher has had students share their grandparents' experiences during the 1915 Armenian genocide when more than 1.5 million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Nearly every student had family members who had been killed. Discussions focused on how this kind of tragedy could be avoided in the future and how countries and ethnic groups could overcome such catastrophes and learn to live together as cooperative, peaceful neighbors. The discussions were passionate and emotional.

From the USA came accounts of using such controversial topics as child prostitution, child slave labor, genetic engineering, and bio-ethics as issues for reading, debate, and written expositions.

In a small city in Thailand near the Laotian border, teacher Wasana Thaengthong last December gave me a cassette tape of her own recorded songs, one of which spoke to friction between Thailand and Laos. She uses these songs in her English classes. One verse of that song went like this:

I've been to a sacred tower
And I prefer you all to come with me
Come to see the Phra That Phanom with me
You will be happy to see the holy place.
It's famous for Lord Buddha relics
That can fix Thai-Lao relation
That can fix Thai-Lao relation
For same reason of their belief
They both worship the same Phra That
They both worship the same Phra That
Enlarge their relationship forever!
Religious beliefs. From Japan, a teacher told me how she used an Amy Grant song in her classes to talk about students' religious faith. They were able to share, in the words of the song, times "when I feel afraid, think I've lost my way." Students' follow up journals noted how deeply they were touched by the discussion. "Several even said that if this is what Christianity is all about, they might be interested some day."

From Indonesia, on the other hand, a teacher told me unabashedly that all of his teaching is subversive, because, as a devout Muslim, he is commissioned to spread Allah's message.

Media control. Stuart Carroll, who taught in Israel, tells of a unit in which students had to create their own marketing and advertising campaign for a product. He informed them of the classic cases of Colgate widening the mouth of toothpaste tubes to create more consumption, of Revlon's making the glass on nail polish bottles a little thicker, and from there got students in a creative process of both devising a marketing campaign and discussing ethical questions as well.

In Mexico, a teacher described a unit in which newspaper articles were examined for biases in their so-called objective reporting. I sometimes think of our media culture as rampant with what I like to call "media vaccinations," especially through TV -- vaccinations of violence, abuse, exploitation, given in little daily doses so that we have become "immune" to recognizing an ever-present cultural disease.

Woman's rights and gender issues. In Hong Kong, George Braine, teaching from his book, Writing from Sources, sent me samples of some of his student papers, students not from Hong Kong but from China, who bravely researched topics such as gender imbalance in China, preference for male children, infanticide of female babies, and an excellent critique of the September 1995 World Conference on Women.

From Israel came Penny Ur's account of her teacher training workshops in which she helps teachers to discern underlying messages in English textbooks, messages of sexism, ageism, socioeconomic prejudice, and values.

Some very interesting comments came to me from a teacher in Egypt, where, she notes, the status of women is an integral part of the culture of the country. Nevertheless, in a society where "it is okay for a husband to hit his wife, where men have complete control over women, and where women are submissive...I covertly try to 'preach' here to men in my classes about how women have equal rights...and I try to help women in my classes to adopt a more assertive role." She went on to describe an activity that culminated in the students' writing up a "bill of rights" for women in Egypt. Incidentally, she specially asked me not to identity her for fear of losing her job.

A Universal Moral Philosophy?

In these varied activities from teachers around the world, were the four principles, cited earlier, upheld? I like to think that they were and that they represent a brave new world of teachers out there who are creatively attempting to help students to become crap detectors, to assume their own power in society, and ultimately to make a difference in a world of indifference.

In advocating principles for classroom treatment of moral and political issues, I also cannot help but wonder if in these principles themselves there is a hidden set of moral assumptions about human behavior, assumptions about inquiry, cooperation, and respect (see Edge, 1996), and about the value of diversity, tolerance, and dialogue across international and intercultural boundaries. If one of your students were to embrace terrorist activity, murder, racial or gender superiority, to name a few possibilities, should you, and could you, calmly follow the above four principles, especially the fourth (as reinterpreted)?

I will leave this question unanswered explicitly. Instead, I will offer a list of six "human rights" recently suggested by the United Nations Religious Organization as a declaration of a "global ethic":

  1. global interdependence
  2. humane treatment of every human being
  3. a culture of tolerance
  4. equal rights and partnership between women and men
  5. a just economic order
  6. a commitment to non-violence

Not every person on this planet subscribes to this ethic. Every item is subject to varied interpretation and heated debate. Nevertheless, to make a very, very long philosophical discussion short, I ask you if these six tenets can, in your own interpretation, serve as foundation stones to inform the methodological choices you make in your classrooms? If English language teachers could in some way declare their commitment to these six human rights, then perhaps we can go into our classrooms tomorrow morning and engage in sensitive and sensible treatment of moral and political issues with our students.

Global Interdependence

Nagasaki is one of my favourite Japanese cities. All the advantages of an urban center are present, but one can very quickly escape to its surrounding mountains and look down at the beautiful fjord-like inlets characteristic of the western side of Kyushu Island. It was here that I had the privilege a few years ago of visiting the Nagasaki Peace Museum, commemorating the dreadful event of August 9, 1945. After a sobering walk through three of its five floors, each with vivid depictions of the catastrophic destruction, I asked my gracious hostess to escort me out. I couldn't bear to see the other two floors.

A few years earlier, my family and I visited the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a somber reminder of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Among those touring the site that day were people from many different countries. At the end of the guided tour, as we exited the area, a Japanese couple, obviously profoundly shaken by the experience, turned to us and said, "We are so sorry."

These two incidents are indelibly etched into my memory. Both are dramatic reminders of the consequences of choices that human beings made some five decades ago. But more importantly, both incidents are reminders of the collective sense of community, and therefore, the collective guilt we feel as interdependent human beings inhabiting this globe.

In your classrooms:

This kind of teaching helps our students not just to become aware of information, but to become participants in a global partnership of involvement in seeking solutions. The little difference here and there that teachers make can add up to breaking the perilous momentum of the now worldwide mindset that gives transitory technological progress priority over basic survival. Maybe we are, after all, covert ambassadors of peace who will not rest until the whole world is a world of global non-violent interdependence.


Arnold, J. (in press). Minus aut magis? A reply to Nicolas Gadd. English Language Teaching Journal.

Auearbach, E. (1995). The politics of the ESL classroom: Issues of power in pedagogical choices. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Power and inequality in language education (pp. 9-33). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clarke, M. (1990). Some cautionary observations on liberation education. Language Arts, 67, 388-398.

Edge, J. (1996). Cross-cultural paradoxes in a profession of values. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 9-30.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Gadd, N. (in press). Towards less humanist English teaching. English Language Teaching Journal.

Giroux, H. A., & McLaren, P. L. (1989). Critical pedagogy, the state, and cultural struggle. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1993). Language in a changing world. Occasional Paper #13. Sydney: Linguistics Association of Australia.

Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate methodology and social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English as an international language. Harlow, England: Longman.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Dell Publishing Company.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Phillipson, R. (Eds.). (1994). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic determination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tollefson, J. W. (Ed.). (1995). Power and inequality in language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

H. Douglas Brown is Professor of English (program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language) and Director of the American Language Institute at San Francisco State University. Professor Brown served as the President of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from 1980-1981, and was the editor of Language Learning, a professional journal of applied linguistics and research on second language acquisition, from 1970-1979. Widely published in the area of second language learning and pedagogy, he has given lectures, seminars, and workshops across the USA and in over a dozen foreign countries.