Can TESOL Save the World?

As a youth, and particularly in university, I had high hopes that I would somehow save the world. If not outright save it, then contribute something that made a great impact on the Earth and it’s people. I wanted to have a job that did some good. As an undergraduate, I majored in anthropology in hopes of understanding the issues that affected humanity and developing ways to address them. As a young anthropology graduate, I was an idealist.

Anthropology, however, is not a way to save the world. Social sciences are considered soft sciences for a reason. If they do have any impact on the future of our planet, they are indeed soft. The hard sciences or STEM, however, do have an immediate and noticeable impact. Unfortunately, most of these impacts are negative. But, major environmental, technological, and cultural changes have come mostly from this area. Another field in which they have come is education.

I find myself in this field currently. I truly enjoy education. I love the cognitive and behavioral sciences, the learning theories, linguistics, the pedagogies. All of it, sitting at the crossroads of art and science, is extremely interesting to me. Education is a world changer, but is TESOL an accessory to this change?

Others would argue that TESOL does have a noticeable impact on the world – a very negative one. We are the handmaidens of linguistic hegemony, spreading the gospel of not only English but capitalism and Americana – and we do this at the expense of local identity and even the deaths of numerous languages. Unsuspecting college grads teaching English abroad for a year are just as guilty as long-term expats with degrees, experience, and skill.

This is only partly true. Though the death of languages and loss of identity is not unique to the spread of English, it seems that English does it with the most efficiency. At the same time, however, English gives voice to a number of people who would otherwise not be known. Through English, people appeal to the world. English is the language the world speaks. Just look at protest signs in the Middle East or South America. What languages are they in? English also gives the world a channel for the exchange of ideas and information. Information and knowledge are now open source and user created, mostly for the better. Never before has the world been as informed as today. English seems to be like the resurrected language of the builders of Babel – we are again able to communicate together and can continue as one on whatever grand project we are working on, whether that is to touch god, or more likely to touch Mars.

The argument goes that English language education does have a great impact on the world. By teaching students English, we are affecting the very people who will one day cure diseases, develop far-reaching political policies, or create the next big invention.

Is this true? Possibly. But it doesn’t feel like it. No matter how meaningful or communicative you make the teaching of the third conditional, it doesn’t feel like it will stop the Amazon from being logged. No matter how often you drill the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds, it doesn’t feel like it will curtail human trafficking. The former optimist in me is screaming: “incremental effects – they add up over time!” The present pessimist in me is just sighing.

Don’t like focusing on linguistic elements of language in your teaching? Believe in writing across the disciplines? Prefer a methodology that is topic-based or subject-based and takes language as ancillary? Smuggling in subversive material as authentic material? In the end, you are still teaching a language class. How deep can you really get into the material you are actually teaching? Do you have subject mastery of that field, or just an informed opinion? In the end, the best we can do is prepare students to think and argue about those subjects through English and hope that we are instilling some critical thinking skills. That’s good enough, right?

Some would say that critical thinking skills are taught at a younger age, and therefore ESL or EFL education is more impactful. ESL education in the States is a can of worms. It definitely has impact but not always for the good. EFL is so various that its hard to say what impact it has on children’s world view. In either case, younger students are so far removed from their adulthood that teachers can never see the payoff. They can only relish in optimistic hypotheticals. Faith, really. I’m more positivist than that. I want to see evidence. And I want to see immediate payoff. Besides, university is the oft-cited time when students begin to expand (and alter) their mind. Perhaps I am in the better position after all.

The cliche about hindsight is true. Had I known what I know now, I would have majored in a STEM field and minored in language education. I would have a better (paying) job and maybe I would be making the changes I wish to see in the world. But this thought experiment can only end in futility. I am in the here and now with the past frozen solid but the future so bright, I might have to wear shades. Who is right, the optimist or the pessimist? Can TESOL save the world?