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June 1995 - Issue No. #19
The Global Issues N-SIG has been working with JALT officers and chapters to make JALT a more environmentally friendly organization. Here, Kevin Staff talks about the challenges and frustrations of promoting environmental awareness within the language teaching profession.

Time and Life's Heroes

by Kevin Staff (JALT Global Issues SIG Membership Chair)

Some things baffle me: How a 747 gets off the ground, exchange rate fluctuations, hostess bars, and the movie Field of Dreams. Most baffling though, is the seeming reluctance of people to do heroic things unless faced with catastrophe. Why, for example, the reluctance of organizations in general, and this one in particular, to adopt any suggestion that smacks of concern for the environment?

For nominal contributions to GILE (the Global Issues SIG) and my presence on JALT's Executive Board as a chapter president, I'm allowed from time to time to cast my two bits with the in-house rag and let the chips fall where they may. If you can't dig it, you can look the other way, as John Travolta said in Saturday Night Fever.

Around the time Travolta was doing his thing, a U.S. President named Jimmy suggested that the country ought to embark on a project to attain independence from foreign oil with a fervor that would rate as "the moral equivalent of war". People found him depressing, and brought in another fellow whose successor, George, was much renowned for a short time in the early '90s for leading that particular country to victory in a real shooting war over... foreign oil. Sitting in a stuffy room at the UN during TESOL '91 while a teacher from Kuwait expressed her appreciation for it all, I wondered if I too might become hero of the day by doing something analogous, like shoving some kids into the middle of the street and dashing out to save them. Perhaps it would occur to no one that the situation should never have arisen in the first place.

Why do these things happen? I'm a language teacher, but let's face it: I wonder more about this than about whether my cloze tests have a high correlation coefficient... Everybody falls for the "Almost people like cherry blossoms" and "What do you like sport?" test distractors anyway. In fact, such tendencies support the view that a test item, like a social issue, isn't "bad" just because everybody bungles it.

Why Nobody Gives A Sod

Let me go totally out of my field now, speculate wildly, not cite anybody, and just generally flout all the conventions that make Western scholarship so frustrating to anyone who tries to do anything with it. Any amateur psychologist can tell you, and every five year old kid knows intuitively, that people who aren't concerned constantly with the basics of stayin' alive face the dilemma of what to do with time.

People and societies deal with this in different ways. In Japan, a whole class of salaryman has evolved who can turn a couple of hours of work into days of overtime, with no sense of irony. In the U.S., where efficiency is the main concern, many people do feel irony and alienation, and deal with it by becoming addicted to various things; great numbers of them now have no job at all. Some people join religious cults. Some people do aerobics. Some people become JALT officers. Which sort of activity is most productive and least harmful is debatable.

I'm a language teacher, but let's face it: I wonder more about (global issues) than whether my cloze tests have a high correlation coefficient.

At any rate, somewhere along the line concern with the state of the world became an impracticality, reflection a form of sloth, and forward motion a greater value than having somewhere to go. And while "primitive" peoples the world over have looked at industrialized society and shaken their heads, spouting mumbo-jumbo about how unnatural it all is, for the past century or so within those societies two things have consistently happened: (1) The young generation looks at the mess things are in, wonders how the one before horsed it up so badly, and swears to do it all differently, and (2) The young people grow up, start acting like adults, and do things pretty much the same way.

Where The Policy Shoe Pinches

When people like Eisenhower or MacArthur or even David Stockman retire from public life, the first thing they do is tell us that the ideas they made a comfortable living promoting their entire professional lives were really pretty boffo after all. Eisenhower even went as far as saying that the only real hope for future generations would be a basic change in human nature.

Funny what people can and can't find time to do. In the last years of this century, there's been time to form a multinational alliance to go to war over oil, but not to develop a coherent policy toward the environment. JALT, a Gilligan's Island on the world map of life, can dream up all sorts of new things to justify its existence, but gets downright hostile about suggestions for environmental awareness in conference planning and publicity activities. You'd think the suggestions generated by this N-SIG were the cause of desertification, global warming, rainforest depletion, soil erosion, and the hole in the sky, rather than tiny little efforts to address these problems.

When suggestions to promote environmental awareness in JALT were presented last June, one fellow retorted that the matter was just a personal opinion and no concern of a group of language teachers. Trouble is, nobody asks the opinion of a kangaroo sitting on its ass after bumping into a tree trunk because it was blinded from the ozone hole. Nobody asks sheep that are walking off cliffs in Southern Chile for the same reason. I doubt that anyone asked the bear that wandered into Hiroshima last fall, or the wild boar that ran around Hirakata a few years back, what they thought of being driven from their habitats. The latter two seemed to be staging last, desperate protests!

Maybe it's too depressing to think that the things we value are killing us, along with the animals that are going extinct in record numbers. Maybe that's the source of the hostility. Maybe we indeed ought to stick to teaching our students how to order fast food in English and other such constructive things.

Where The Teaching Shoe Might Fit

In some places, it just can't be denied: The environment is a problem, and you have to educate people. But not about preserving it, of course. You educate the primitives in Tierra del Fuego to wear sun hats to prevent skin cancer. You educate kids in my hometown not to exercise strenuously or to swim in the ocean when there's an air or water pollution alert. You send duplicate publicity mailings to teachers' workplaces, telling them about swell new textbooks with modern themes, like the environmental crisis. Addressing the causes of these problems, though, is no business of ours.

To me, that's obscene. Trouble is, no one else in a policymaking position seems to think so. Then when I grumble and say, "Aarrgh, this world is just too f--ked up!...", that's when someone grumbles back about obscenities. Go figure.

Meanwhile, the Teachers' Room has to be heated like a blast furnace in winter and cooled like a freezer chest in summer. Everyone has to go around in a flimsy suit in mid-winter and turn on all the lights and crank up the heater full blast every time they enter a room. Everyone has to make several hundred one-sided copies of every piece of paper they generate, distributing it to students or conferees who often-as-not wonder why you bothered. It's the done thing.

Meanwhile, our JALT '95 conference is due to be held in a space shuttle-like edifice of synthetic materials, where you'd get a headache if you had to breathe with the air conditioning off. Artificial ventilation and synthetics made our Cambodian educator visitors ill last year, but what do they know? They don't even receive multiple publicity mailings! It's the done thing.

Educating people. Nope... As EFL teachers, not our bag at all.

Doing The Right Thing

Whatever one's religion, one has to admit that God takes a pretty laissez faire attitude toward things, leaving people on their own to devise their values and modus operandi. And throughout history it's always come down to that much-maligned field, teaching, to get people on the right track.

Everyone has to make several hundred one-sided copies of every piece of paper they generate, distributing it to students or conferees who often wonder why you bothered. It's the done thing.

Teachers have certainly blown it their share. Look at political correctness. Look at audiolingualism. Look at a Japanese university. Still, we're all we've got.

We can take comfort in knowing that recent events in this part of the world indicate that people aren't totally unconcerned with doing the right thing; it just takes a cataclysmic event to get them off their asses. Face it: Digging your neighbor out of the rubble after the Kobe earthquake is more exciting than recycling garbage, just like watching George Bush mobilize an army is more exciting than listening to Jimmy Carter tell us how to make oil an untempting target for geopolitical maneuverings and a non-issue.

It's almost as if people have to be tricked into doing the right thing. The teacher's trick, it seems, has always been to make our pupils want to emulate us, to set in motion a lasting, positive influence on the lives of others.

The American educator Henry Adams once said that a teacher can never know the extent of his influence. We are a link between generations, between professions, and in our field particularly, between nationalities. On any given day, our work is pretty mundane. Perhaps we underestimate ourselves.

Language teachers and the JALT organization are not major players on the environmental scene, either as polluters or as advocates. Nonetheless, we can do our part.

In most crisis situations (and I don't know what else to call the state of the environment), groups make special efforts to define their roles and become conscious of what actions might even remotely help or hinder the situation. Group norms develop. A couple of years ago, drought in California was coped with in this way, as various groups encouraged water conservation and discouraged waste. For all the talk of American individualism,such forms of cooperation have been cited as that country's greatest source of strength.

In the case of the environmental crisis, however, one encounters defensive and almost frantic efforts to deny that anything can or should be done: It's a matter of opinion; more research is needed; no one has worked out mathematically how much paper would be saved if language teachers and JALT officers did not do so much unnecessary photocopying and commercial interests did not make so many duplicate publicity mailings.

Listening to this sort of thing gives me constipation. Collective consciousness lends a synergy of its own to collective efforts. Attitude is as important as mathematical calculations. This is such a difficult concept for us non-primitives to grasp. Former U.S. Defense Secretary McNamara hinted at it in his recent book on the Viet Nam War, and for once I think he got something right.

This is not to say that fanaticism or wishful thinking make our dreams come true, but that those in positions to lend energy to environmental awareness and other global issues have a responsibility to recognize their role and play their part. Few of us got into EFL for the money to be made or for the fascinating research implications to be discovered; a lot of it is plain old common sense, doing the right thing before little problems become big problems, and striving to make the world a more inhabitable place, as good teachers always have.

Sounds like a great prescription for "Stayin' Alive".


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
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