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Monday, December 10, 2012

A critical review of Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, Volume 6 Issue 2, 2012, Guest Editors: Janinka Greenwood and John Everatt, University of Canterbury, Aotearoa/NZ (Editors: Lynn Mario T. M. de Souza, University of São Paulo and Vanessa Andreotti, University of Oulu)


Reading the contents of this issue of the journal is an interesting case study in ‘reading’, perhaps in analogy of the journal’s guru (in the positive sense of the word), de Souza, who often quotes that other famous Brazilian, Paulo Freire, as ‘listening’ – ‘we learn to speak not by speaking but by listening’. I wonder though if we can go as far as extending the analogy to ‘we learn to write not by writing but by reading’?

In any case, as the collection (of 7) articles can be headlined as ‘Research and Educational Change in Bangladesh: Meeting Local Goals Through Research in an International Academic Context’ (which is the title of the lengthy ‘position paper’ by Greenwood, filed at the end of the collection, and alluded to in the short introduction, also filed by Greenwood and her co-author), one cannot but wonder what the ‘International Academic Context’ might be, unless it is of course NZ/Aotearoa, as evinced by the location and academic institution given for themselves by the ‘guest editors’ Janinka Greenwood and John Everatt (the latter does not seem to have written anything much apart from having given his name to the brief introductory notes co-signed with Greenwood – perhaps to his credit).

While Greenwood (in her ‘Position paper’) does pay lip service to the idea that we as good Critical Litterateurs should have an critical dialogue between our “I” and our ‘non-I’, i.e. be self-critical, she does in fact stay within the limits of what she calls the ‘rules of the game’. At one stage she does indicate that she might entertain breaking the rules a bit, a bit like one of the authors (Rasheed) did “I risk following his example in the latter parts of this essay” – how ever I could not detect any signs of it. There were certainly signs in Mollah Rasheed’s article on ‘Learning English Language in Bangladesh: CLT and Beyond’. Greenwood alerts us to Rasheed having ‘overty shed the mantle of scholarly reliance on external academic authority … and subjectively explores …’ the shortcomings of the communicative teaching approach for English as a Second Language. In fact he does no such thing. What he does do is to inform us briefly but very informatively as to what the whole sham was about: some 14 ‘experienced’ educators from Bangladesh – selected from hundreds of applicants – are ‘given the chance’ to study in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury (in Christchurch) to get an MA – even though they all already have MAs from their Bangladeshi universities (sic) – believing in the ‘legend’ of the West. Once in Christchurch they wake up from their daydreaming, experiencing racist discrimination and other ‘situations’, realizing that the ‘situation’ is worse in New Zealand than in Bangladesh. Greenwood says that if Rasheed had written this in his ‘real’ MA thesis he might have failed!

Well, well, naughty Rasheed! Luckily in his Critical Literacy article he was allowed to briefly state the case (presumably the nasty details were edited out by the editors) – which in my mind it the crux of the matter. Christchurch can be a nasty little town full of neo-Nazis, as is the rest of New Zealand - as is the rest of the West, and quite possibly in the rest of the world, Bangladesh included – and no matter how Greenwood invokes the recent earthquakes as some sort of natural catastrophe that encourages her inhabitants to re-evaluate their lives in term of critical literacy, there is no change in the weather. Maybe she thinks she is taking a ‘risk’ by relating her experiences with the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, the Maori, which in academic circles has turned into an equal sham – tokenism of the worst sort. She speaks of Maori as some sort of sacred tribe that has all the wisdom to save the world from itself. By doing this she paints herself more and more into the corner of a white, middleclass academic who sleeps with the beautiful enemy – ambiguously perhaps – who are the power elites of this world (‘power is an aphrodisiac’ said one the greatest dickheads of our time, Henry Kissinger). Rasheed also points out that power elites run just about every country in the world, be it China, India, Brazil, Bangladesh or the USA). Only Rasheed calls a spade a spade. All the others concur with the editors and thus follow the ‘rules of the game’.

This does not mean, however, that all the other articles are not worth reading. The rules of the game do after all allow for ‘critical literacy’ and as such can be a valuable resource for those who seek to gain a deeper understanding of what conditions are like in Bangladesh. Ariful Kabir’s article entitled ‘Neoliberal Hegemony and the Ideological Transformation of Higher Education in Bangladesh’ does a good job in alerting us to the fact that ‘higher education’ is the domain for the middle and upper classes and that American-style private universities are the domain for the ruling classes. While Kabir does quote Said in this context he should have considered Chomsky ‘s (2003) Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance as a valuable resource. This brings me to this awful ‘rule of the game’ which dictates that academic articles must have a list of references that is longer than the article itself. This apparently demonstrates wide reading! One trick to get an impressive list of references is to have a phrase like ‘previous studies’ or ‘drawing on the works of’ and then bracket 10 or more references to it without ever having to refer to them again. Actually Kabir’s article is more of an exception to this rule but still manages an impressive list. In his conclusions he minces no words and says that for Bangladesh ‘future higher education will be reflected as a quest for knowledge of capitalist ideology’. Surely this is a statement of fact for just about all countries these days, New Zealand included. I wonder if Kabir was then forced to add what sounds like an addendum, namely that there is a nice solution to this nasty problem: ‘Democratic practices in higher education inevitably reduce market fundamentalism in this sector’. Maybe this was a nod of gratitude towards his alma mater in New Zealand which as an ‘international academic context’ has allowed him to voice unpalatable local (Bangladeshi) truths. I’m sure Rasheed, like myself, look at this as quite a sad cop-out. The so-called democratic practices in New Zealand promote capitalist ideology in a far more efficient way than in Bangaldesh, so much so that ‘higher education’ in New Zealand is sold as a model for Bangladesh – the aid donors for this project (ADB and the Canadian International Development Agency – both rabidly pushing capitalist ideology) wisely chose New Zealand for the purpose.

The second of the seven articles by the Bangladeshi authors is by Safayet Alam, entitled ‘Neoliberalism and Citizenship in the Bangladesh Secondary School Curriculum’. As with Kabir the critique of neo-liberalism is well articulated but the question if and how ‘citizenship’ should be taught in secondary schools results in some odd ideas. Noting the obvious contradictions between education for ‘global citizenship’ and ‘local citizenship’, there is the often stated notion that citizenship education in Bangladesh is ‘based on the core values of patriotism’. These references to nationalism as seemingly positive values echo the recent speeches by Obama who also referred to American patriotism as a positive value. This type of jingoistic talk seems to make a come-back from the times when rabid nationalism and empire building led to two world wars (quite apart from the saying attributed to Samuel Johnson that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’). Alam, like Kabir comes to the conclusion that these contradictory forces are designed to ‘maintain existing inter-group relations (middle class and the elite class) …’ Again there is this addendum that states that ‘to review the Bangladesh secondary curriculum in terms of critical multicultural approaches’ will save the day. This sounds very much like New Zealand practice. Endless reviews and reports, commissioned by MoE, come up with statistics that show the poor ethnic minorities like Maori and Pasifika as failing in the education stakes, making various useless recommendations, and thus leaving the ruling elite secure in the knowledge that all is well, that the poor are getting poorer while the tiny minority of the super rich are getting ever richer. Let them wishy-washy academics read all about Paulo Freire’s thesis of ‘education being a tool for liberation from oppression’ as long as they don’t rock the boat. If they dare, a call to the VC will ensure a quick redundancy or two. Anyway, a small number of academic dissidents are cultivated so as to prove the point of academic freedom. When political Maori activists like Tama Iti (not an academic) push for real action, they are quickly branded, arrested and sentenced as ‘terrorists’.

The fourth article by Abu Salahuddin entitled ‘Challenges to Effective Leadership of Urban Secondary Schools in Bangladesh: A Critical Study’ might be called a contradiction of terms, for ‘effective leadership’ is always and everywhere part of the problem, never the solution. ‘Leadership’ cannot be reformed: it is an institutional design that ensures the dictatorial status quo. Headmasters (and later called ‘principals’ (sic)) of schools derive from the British education system that is institutionalised to such a degree that even the most inept and laughable headmasters (ridiculed in many media) become pillars of their local communities. Take the deputy headmaster in JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy as a shining example. Salahuddin does mention that principals in Bangladesh need to pay more attention to ‘self-management’ of teachers and staff, i.e. letting go of their assumed dictatorial powers but wouldn’t a logical conclusion be that real ‘self-management’ means to have no leadership? Leadership means that people cannot manage themselves, hence need to be led. Education systems that subscribe to this model are as dominant in New Zealand as in Bangladesh. Salahuddin is again caught up a contradiction of terms when saying in the conclusion that ‘it is important for Bangladeshi policy makers to avoid replicating the colonial situation or creating a neo-colonial dependency on the western world’. ‘Policy makers’ all around the world are elitist cadres (Chomsky calls these intellectuals ‘Stalinist commissars’) who will ensure that the colonial mindset will prevail, even to the extent of using language that seems to point in a different direction. It’s an example of Orwellian newspeak. One hopes that Salahuddin has no ambition to become a ‘policy maker’ lest all sorts of educational crimes are committed.

‘Teacher Educators’ Perspectives of the Introduction of ICT in Education in Bangladesh’ by Arefin Chowdhury, must be an obligatory research topic these days, for what would the world be like without ICT? There can be little doubt that advances in military technology have had huge spin-offs for civil society, be it the Teflon frying pan or the microchip for the computer and i-phone. Modern drone warfare brings us closer to the idea that we can fight wars by remote control. It is always a matter of speculation as to why many parts of the so-called western world is technologically ‘developed’ while others are only ‘developing’ and yet more are ‘under-developed’. Since Chowdhury does call Bangladesh a ‘developing country’ one can only assume that the author subscribes to such a classification. When I was working for UNESCO as an education advisor for Vanuatu, this island nation was declared a ‘least developed country’ (LDC) and when I challenged the Australian Aid representative as to how Australia might have contributed to this new label, she said it was good news for Vanuatu as they could apply for increased aid. The boomerang aid industry is legendary as one of the most insidious mechanisms for keeping the LDCs of this world on their knees. One way is to ship off lots of second-hand ITC equipment to out-of-the-way places where it breaks down quickly, leaving behind toxic rubbish. ITC is like the magic wand that stops to function without warning. You are left with a piece of useless junk. Chowdhury does concede that one has to look at ITC critically and not accept it as mere consumer goods. Obviously ITC in education is a reality, as all new technologies are. The point is to assess how useful they are in a given context. The dream that ITC can overcome all geographical, economical, social, political and educational boundaries has long been shattered along the North-South division, suitably called the digital divide. Bangladesh cannot bypass its technological evolution by jumping the queue. ITC development is an elitist enterprise and to educate the masses in the uses of ITC is at the level of making them knowledgeable consumers of ITC – something that Chowdhury does warn against.

The last two articles ‘Attitudes and Concerns of Teacher Educators towards Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities in Bangladesh’ by Mahbubur Rahaman, Dean Sutherland and ‘Secondary School Teachers’ Perceptions of Inclusive Education in Bangladesh’ by Tania Khan deal with the question of how to handle students with disabilities and/or special needs. While surely an eminently worthy topic but highly specialised and narrow in scope, one wonders why two articles are dedicated to this issue. Both papers seem to come to the conclusion that while inclusive education is a very noble aim, the Bangladeshi context is a long way off achieving any such goals. The harsh reality of a country struggling to educate its masses of able-bodied and cognitively unimpaired youth is that there are no resources to deal with ‘special needs’. To achieve a measure of social justice, i.e. of being inclusive, is predicated on economic success, and while this is denied to Bangladesh, it is unlikely to be able to respond. The authors quote all manner of lip service to the contrary yet are unable to get to grips with the underlying problems. Kahn seems to come to the conclusion that a ‘shift in consciousness’ on part of the teachers is required, as if that would solve the problem. I have seen several ‘special needs’ schools in operation in New Zealand and one can only be amazed at the professionalism some of the teachers display. What matters most is that they are relatively well-paid for their services. It’s a terrible thing to say but it is true: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Poor countries have no choice but to deal with ‘special needs’ by either ignoring them altogether or to put them into appalling institutions that are run by poorly paid and untrained staff – or worse, looked after by charitable volunteers who exploit the children for their own devious ends. Rahaman and Sutherland come up with the quite bizarre notion – repeated several times – that Bangladesh has ‘a history that pre-disposes it to social justice but also makes it hard to achieve’. What does this mean? The authors seem to suggest that history can work in contradictory ways: committed to social justice but beholden to poverty, hence unable to institute the former. It seems obvious to me that those who cause poverty are not in the least interested in social justice. Bangladesh’ struggle for independence – as all such struggles – only served to substitute the colonial elite with a native elite (educated by the best institutions the colonials can offer, such as Sandhurst and West Point). For the masses of ordinary people nothing much changed. All the history of ordinary people is predicated on social justice, while all the history of power hungry elites is predicated on denying it. Read Marx, read Chomsky. Read the pamphlets of the Socialist Party of Bangladesh.

My review is based on the saying that ‘the path to hell is paved with good intentions’ and that I want the authors to reconsider some of their ‘good intentions’ lest they reinforce the status quo. My critique may sound harsh at times but should be considered as a compliment: the authors are worth saving from themselves and instances of their incorrect thinking. With a change in direction they can make the world a better place. Critical literacy means not only to subject ones own thoughts (the I and the non-I) to criticism but also listen to criticism from the outside, such as this review. I am happy to argue my case and be criticized in return lest I am barking up the wrong tree. I am happy to engage in academic discourse that has no rules. I am happy to mix it up like de Souza in his ‘Gaza 2009: notes on critically reading conflict’ when he dedicates the article to the ‘victims of Gaza’ while on the other hand proposing a somewhat quixotic construct called ‘post-critical critical literacy’. I am unhappy with everything else.

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