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Teaching in 2017 – The Importance of Questioning what is Normal

herd of cows

As teachers, we play a central role in conditioning (or not) our students to be members of society. Even under normal circumstances, I think it is crucial to use this position to build up our students’ ability to question what is normal, and see through the illusions created by our cultural conditioning. The rise of right wing nationalism in 2016 makes it even more essential that we do this.


Paying the Strippers

My first full-time job after university was at a music agency. I’d been employed to take care of rock concerts and similar events at universities around the country, but on my first day I was asked by one of the directors if I could help out that evening by paying the artists at an event arranged by another section of the company. I dutifully turned up at the event to find that the artists were strippers. My job was to receive money from the manager of the club, and pay the girls.


I quickly discovered that my company was only paying the strippers 20% of the fee instead of the 90% that registered agencies were supposed to pay. When I realized what was happening, I talked with the strippers and said I would pay them 90%. They pleaded with me to just pay them 20% and not say anything about what had happened otherwise they wouldn’t get more work from my agency. So there I was on my first day’s work, having a business discussion with three completely naked girls, and faced with a moral dilemma.


It was ‘Normal’ for Nice People to Exploit Others

I did what the strippers asked me to do, but after a few weeks of similar things happening, I could confront my bosses without the blame falling on any particular performers. My bosses told me I was naïve. They said what they were doing was normal in the industry. It was just business. I said I didn’t want any part of it, so they gave me the university section to run and said I could do things my way. After a few months, I left the company and set up on my own. A wonderful group of musicians asked me to represent them, probably mainly because I rejected some ‘normal’ practices.


If you met any of my bosses as individuals, you would think what nice people they were. They were certainly very kind to me, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Yet, when these people got together into a group, they abused their position of power over others. They often didn’t do this intentionally. They just didn’t question the ‘normal’ way enough. This was one of the first times I fully understood how caring human beings in herds can do things to outsiders that many would never do as individuals or to insiders in their herd. I don’t mean to single out my bosses and condemn them. I’m just giving an example of very common human behavior.


The Influence of Herds and the Start of War

There are many kinds of herds – businessmen, soldiers, teachers, the managers, the workers, the company, the nation, the gang, the team, the family, the group of friends … the list is endless. It seems to me that herds develop their own normal ways of doing things, and insiders in the herd partly gain their identity by contrasting themselves with, and often putting down, outsiders. We often believe we have a fixed personality and clear values, but I think we can think and behave quite differently depending on who we are with and which particular herd we identify with at a particular moment in time.


I know from my own experience that if you talked with people in Britain in 1981, you would have found that most people thought the idea of Britain fighting a war unimaginable. Yet, in 1982, we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and many of those who had previously seen themselves as pacifists, and many who wouldn’t hurt a fly in their daily lives, were cheering on the fleet as it sailed to war. I suspect the nationalist herd mentality took over because not enough people had the ability to really question the new ‘normal’ opinion in society. It is quite likely that the same kind of thing has happened again and again just before a war.


As Teachers, we need to Act

As teachers, we are in a position to do something about this. It may seem like too big a task, but we can make a difference one student and one class at a time. I don’t mean we should indoctrinate the students with our political ideas. I am suggesting we  take every opportunity to encourage students to think, to question, and to debate. Instead of focusing on clear or right and wrong answers that often restrict thought and foster simplistic clear opinions, we need to build up our students’ ability to handle confusion and uncertainty. We need to strengthen our students’ ability to see through illusions, to see how we are conditioned by our culture and the media, and to understand the effect that herds have on all of us.



. . . To be continued


‘Communicate / Motivate’ Dialogues

Meanwhile, it’s time for a bit of fun with some of the characters in ‘Motivate’:


Mrs. Shakespeare at the doctor


Language Target: Time clauses


Doctor:How did you burn your ears?
Mrs. Shakespeare:

The telephone rang when I was doing the ironing.

Doctor:But why both your ears?
Mrs. Shakespeare:

As soon as I hung up, the telephone rang again.


Well, you’ll have to keep these bandages on for about two weeks.

Mrs. Shakespeare:When my ears are better, will I be able to listen to rock music?

Yes, of course.

Mrs. Shakespeare:

That’s wonderful! I never could before. 

My husband says it disturbs him when he’s writing.


Glug and Zork meet Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare


Language Target: Reported speech and Tell … to …


Mrs. Shakespeare:How did that thing get into my kitchen?

They said they turned left in the living room.

Mrs. Shakespeare:Well, tell them to park in the parking lot. 
Anyway, who are they?

They said they come from another planet.

Mrs. Shakespeare:

Oh, they’re foreigners.

Zork:She said we are foreigners!  
Do you think they’re intelligent?

I don’t think so.


Ask them a difficult question.


What’s 11 x 7 ÷ 2.5?

Mrs. Shakespeare:

Are you crazy? William, tell them to stay here. 
I’m going to get the police.


Dialogue and illustration from ‘Motivate’ by David Paul (Compass Publishing)


Available in Japan at the ETJ Book Service


Available internationally here


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