My Country, Right or Wrong: 5 Ways of Understanding Nationalism in the ESL Classroom

My Country, Right or Wrong: 5 Ways of Understanding Nationalism in the ESL Classroom

Teaching English abroad is a profession which frequently pits the teacher against local idiosyncracies and frustrations.

Our reactions to these peculiarities - matters of dress or speech, food and table manners, or timekeeping - can go a long way to defining the tone of our stay. One factor which we invariably encounter, both when abroad or working with foreign students in the west, is the passionate expression of nationalistic beliefs. Every nation and ethnic group has its moments of patriotic fervor, brought to the surface by an anniversary, or a confrontation with a long-standing regional rival, or merely by a seemingly innocent comment. Handling these tricky moments is a challenge, and I’d like to present some methods both for taking the sting out of such awkward situations, and for ensuring that the teacher does nothing to worsen the situation.

Use These Ideas to Tackle National Beliefs

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    It’s Real. Don’t Dismiss It

    Without getting too far into philosophy, it’s worth remembering that ‘truth’, as it pertains to our relationship with our home countries, is impossible to define. Very quickly, we find that our connections to the spirit and culture of our homelands are personally forged and unique. It makes no more sense to lambast such an opinion than to criticize which soccer team a student supports, or whether they prefer McDonalds or Burger King. What matters is that patriotic beliefs, however they may seem to others, are both honestly held and established after much reflection; parental or educational influences very often play their part, and here it’s important to consider that criticizing the belief might be seen as undermining those deeply respected origins. Whether or not you agree, the belief is real for the student.

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    Everyone Does It

    During the Monday morning flag-raising ceremony at the Chinese college where I worked, I was upset by what I saw as the deliberate fostering of an unthinking nationalism. Singing the national anthem and saluting the flag smacked of brainwashing; it felt like an attempt to get under the skin of naïve, young people and to capture their lifelong allegiance. Then I took a moment to reflect, and took a broader, more informed view: every country in the world does something similar. An American upset by such a ceremony need only remind themselves of those thousands of recitations of the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ at high school; a Briton need look no further than the singing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at sporting events or during the unconfined flag-waving fervor of the Last Night of the Proms. From Albania to Zambia, nationalism and patriotism are inculcated for a huge range of reasons – some are matters of genuine national pride, others darker and more cynical – making this practice one of the oldest and most enduring in human culture. Singling out one nation for marking its uniqueness is to ignore the global and ancient nature of this trend.

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    You May Not Understand Where It Comes From

    We may find it nearly impossible to empathize with those for whom a 14th century battle is a critical historical fulcrum. It is easy to wave away the dispute over possession of a tiny Pacific island, but for those brought up within the debate, there might literally be nothing quite so important in the world. Deep history has a habit of wending itself into the threads of contemporary culture almost as if the events were those not of the last millenium, but of last year. Even if the details of the event are highly spurious – or the event itself may never have occurred – it is worth treating your students with the same seriousness and respect they have shown in their view of history. To refute an assertion that one of your students’ ancient countrymen invented the concept of latitude, or algebra, or the earliest rocket, would be exactly as though someone from the other side of the world dismissed Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill as plagiarists and frauds; you’d be offended, and justifiably so. A failure to tread carefully, especially when rightly leading the student to the true facts of the matter, can badly maar your relationship with the class.

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    Dark Forces Are Not Always to Blame

    It is easy to regard nationalism and cynical manipulation as close cousins, but this need not always be true. Many patriotic beliefs are rooted in a very genuine affection for the landscape, arts and language of one’s home. I confess to wishing Britain every success in world affairs, but I have no enthusiasm whatsoever for empire-building or military dominance; I have a respect for tolerance and fair play, and a love for the English countryside, its pubs in particular. Furthermore, the expression of one’s patriotism need not embody a parallel desire for one’s own nation to rule the world, although this is something we will infrequently find. Much more often, there are far less sinister motives: ‘I think we do this really well, and the world might benefit from emulating us’. In the case of my native Britain, I might laud the legal and parliamentary systems, but wouldn’t think of attempting to impose traditional British food on the world.

    It is also worth remembering that nationalism, for all its flaws, acts as a vital glue which can provide much-needed national unity; modern China would not exist without it, and the economic miracle which has lifted billions out of poverty would have been still-born without the enduring togetherness provided by four generations of enthusiastic patriotism.

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    Beware of Pushing Your Own Agenda

    “I’ll show these people their true place in the world. There’s no way I’m going to spend a whole year here and just let them carry on thinking as they always have. They need to be taken down a peg or two.”

    If ever you find yourself echoing sentiments like these, please stop and think. As an ESL instructor, your task is not to burst the balloon of your students’ patriotism, or to ‘correct’ their view of themselves, but to provide an environment where language skills acquisition is both inevitable and good fun. Among younger teachers in particular, there is often the temptation to ‘put things right’ with regard to nationalistic beliefs and to those views of history which collide badly with what we are taught in the west. Dangerously nationalistic tendencies, more often than not, melt away once the student reaches university and reads more widely. It can be a tough transition to have cold water poured on the fire of one’s nationalistic fervor; to do so is absolutely not our role. Besides, implicit in the argument which begins, “Your country isn’t so great, because…” is its almost inevitable complement: “My own country actually is so great, because…” There are few quicker ways to destroy your relationship with a class, and I urge you to take care when reacting to these deeply-felt and delicate issues.

    I would claim - and I do hope that you agree – that it is the purest nonsense to apply a ‘good-better-best’ paradigm to nation states.

    All are unique, and their differences should be celebrated, not compared on some unfair scale which, in any event, cannot hope to avoid bias. What does it truly mean, I’ve often wondered, to claim primacy through an event in which we did not participate? Can I seriously claim that Britons are superior to Frenchmen because of how the Battle of Trafalgar concluded? Of course not. Many students are, however, informed by just such a view of history, and it is our job to gently guide them to a fuller understanding both of the facts, and of the strong, deep bonds which connect the nation states of the world.

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