Saturday, August 31, 2013

Is Teaching English a Form of Imperialism?

NOTE: Lizzy is a New Trier American Studies "grad", currently studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina for the semester, trying to become fluent in Spanish through immersion. We are thrilled to have her guest-post [edited for length]. As we have discussed how difficult it is to examine our own society in a critical manner, think about how her experience in another country gives her a novel perspective on the USA (OC and Mr > B). 

Since apparently being bedridden with a strange Argentine flu...I am not going to be allowed to volunteer at an elementary school during my time here....But now I am going to try to tutor some kids in English, as a favor to a friend....

All of the locals seem to want to know more about American culture and they all want to practice their English whenever they talk to me. At the weekly “cultural exchange” night, I am routinely asked if Americans really eat bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning (Nope. I don't, at least.) And if college is really like the movies (usually not, but occasionally yes). And once I got on the wrong bus with a couple of friends around the time that middle schools were letting out, and we ended up hanging out with a bunch of very loud 13 year-olds and being barraged with questions about what different dirty English phrases meant. I assume these questions stemmed from watching TV, YouTube videos, and listening to "Blurred Lines". 

It was pretty funny to be asked these kinds of questions while so far from what I would call “United States culture”. But really, the mass culture of the US is everywhere with[-in] an internet connection. And seeing Walmart and McDonald’s here bothers me. But before, I was always just tickled by hearing peoples’ broken English — it made me feel better about my own Spanish abilities. It did, at least, until a girl from my program (who is American, but whose parents were born in South America) told me that she considers the spread of English to be a spread of American imperialism. Yes, it’s funny that it’s from the “British Council”.

And I have to say that I agree with her. American culture is flashy and it’s easy to get young people from other countries hooked on it. But the opportunity cost is that they have less energy to devote to their own heritage. It’s especially a big issue in places where there are indigenous languages that are dying out because English is perceived as a more worthwhile thing to learn.

The spread of English and the culture of the United States is gobbling up the culture and language of other places. But does this mean that I am not going to teach English? No. Every day, I have people here tell me that I am blessed to be a native English speaker. With English, they say, you can travel anywhere. To be a doctor here, you have to learn English. To be a scientist, you have to learn English. To be a businessperson? English. There are entire majors in the university built around “technical English”. 

And it is not for me to decide that I have the right to know the language, but that, as it is destroying other cultures, I also have the right to try to prevent that by refusing to teach. Practically thinking, there are plenty of other willing English teachers. But also, who am I to tell someone to be content with who they are and that they have the responsibility to preserve their culture for future generations? That is not my decision to make for them. Because for me to make that decision would be just another manner of me imposing my values on others.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"This is Water"

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'"
 David Foster Wallace, Commencement Address at Kenyon College, 2005

Welcome to An American Studies (see post below). Hopefully, the above question is one you will be asking (and attempting to answer) yourself throughout the year and beyond this class. As you embark upon writing for a new medium, the blog, it is your job to identify the "water" in which you live, be it the North Shore "bubble" or the United States at large. For example, look at the following photo:

"The First Adirondack Was Too Big" by John S. O'Connor

Ask yourself how this photo is emblematic of America at the micro or macro level. Like many photos you view, it has been modified from the original snapshot, and could be said to represent a look through the photographer's "window of self-expression", to borrow a phrase from photographer Eikoh Hosoe. So, even though the camera cannot technically depict what isn't there, Hosoe would argue that the photographer can still show us, through this visual medium, "what lies unseen in his memory."

Please join us in our exploration of distinctly American themes and feel free to contribute your own photographs on the Instagram using our hashtag, #anamericanstudies. When you tag the photo, it will automatically appear in the sidebar on this blog. And don't forget to leave your own thoughts below in the comments section of this post regarding the photograph.

Why our blog is called "An American Studies"

We decided on this name because words matter and this blog's title can be read three different ways:
  1. AN American Studies (as opposed to American Studies or THE American Studies) suggests that this just one attempt at making sense of a vast topic...
    Photo by Spiro Bolos, taken at New Trier High School
    ...And anyone who thinks they are covering everything essential to this enormous enterprise in a year long course — or perhaps in over the course of their lives — is just kidding him or herself.
  2. This blog will reflect the "studies" — gathering, questioning, and trading information with a community of scholars — of one American. Millions of people are approaching the topic of "America", but we don't presume to speak for them.
  3. An American [is a person who] studies. While this does not happen always (maybe it is an impossibility), it is necessary for our country to achieve its highest ideal — that all of its citizens can achieve self-fulfillment. Studies — in the broadest possible sense of that word — must be part of this achievement.