The Sahib Syndrome

Posted July 23, 2017 4:20 am by Steve Roney

The Sahib Syndrome

What do you do? 

I’m a teacher. 

What do you teach? 


What do you teach them? 


You mean grammar, verbs, nouns, pronunciation, conjugation, articles and particles, negatives and interrogatives …? 

That too. 

What do you mean, ‘that too’? 

Well, I also try to teach them how to think, and feel – show them inspiration, aspiration, cooperation, participation, consolation, innovation, … help them think about globalization, exploitation, confrontation, incarceration, discrimination, degradation, subjugation, …how inequality brings poverty, how intolerance brings violence, how need is denied by greed, how –isms become prisons, how thinking and feeling can bring about healing. 

Well I don’t know about that. Maybe you should stick to language, forget about anguish. You can’t change the world. 

But if I did that, I’d be a cheater, not a teacher.

This is the introduction to a new book on teaching English put out by the British Council. This is an attitude we are commonly up against in ESL.

Too many teachers of all sorts believe their main task is to teach their charges to have specific views on specific issues; rather than to teach their nominal subjects. It seems that the British Council, which is to say the British government, agrees.

One bit of subterfuge must immediately be addressed: Mr. Maley, the author, an acquaintance of mine, claims he is teaching his students “how to think and feel.” Of course, he is not. He is doing roughly the opposite of this. There is an academic field that teaches how to think. It is called philosophy. There is no trace of it here. The students are being told what to think, not how—their own capacity for thought is being short-circuited.

There is also an academic discipline for teaching people how to feel—although is is commonly considered rather tawdry, less legitimate. That would be rhetoric. No trace of that here either. though. It is all about teaching people what to feel, not how.

This lie at the very beginning of the arguments a red flag. It is proof that the author himself knows he is doing a con. And, obviously, it is a con: you are advertising your services as a teacher of English, and then, instead of teaching English, you are teaching something else. It does not matter whether the ideas you want to promote are good ideas: you are still defrauding the customer. But then, if you yourself believed they were good ideas, you would not see the need to resort to fraud to advance them.

So, as they are bad ideas, any altruistic motive can be eliminated. The obvious question then is, cui bono? What is the teacher’s, or the British Council’s, payoff?

When this sort of thing is done in public schools and universities in Canada or Britain, one motive is obvious: you want voters to support your political party, which then runs the government, which employs you. Ideally, you and teachers like you then get to write your own ticket.

It is less clear in ESL. 

The most obvious explanation is a colonialist agenda. The poor unwashed primitives are expected to look upon the foreign expert and his class as the fount of wisdom. And maybe put him in charge of stuff.

It seemed like a good line to many Europeans of an earlier generation. So perhaps we should not be surprised.

And there is another, natural human motive. One tends, if one does not oneself like to think, to lean heavily on prejudice, on “the way things are done.” For a person like that, life in a foreign country can be a strain: these people, not knowing “the way things are done,” are obviously all idiots, or malicious recalcitrants.
By God, let’s whip these wogs into shape, shall we?

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