Teaching teenagers: a morality tale

Having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I know that the classroom can be a frustrating place to teach and learn, and I’ve seen how easy it is to become bitter about the whole process and concept of education. Dealing with racist, lazy or wilfully ignorant students is a strain, and the staffroom can be a uniquely cynical place. There’s the constant cliché of teachers complaining about their students. All my students are so unmotivated, uninspired and hostile to the very idea of learning, teachers complain. All your students?, I think. What’s the common denominator? Then, the next day, I find myself moaning in much the same manner.

I’ve had little contact with the world of mainstream education, meaning I’ve avoided for the most part having to deal with both the classroom management of recalcitrant teenagers and the implementation of ever-innovative forms of bureaucracy designed to reduce education to the imparting and absorption of SOW-dictated lesson content. I’ve escaped all the immensely frustrating and tiring rigmarole of box-ticking and hoop-jumping of the Age of Ofsted (which now I come to think of it does sound like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale). Nevertheless, working mostly in the field of private language education, I have witnessed the way in which it is increasingly thought of and programmed as and like a business, with the teacher as mere service provider overseeing the delivery of the kind of content which can be easily converted into measurable and marketable spreadsheet data, with schools (and, increasingly, universities) desperate to guarantee students a specific level and speed of progress. Thomas Gradgrind would be delighted to see just how much the system is deigned to make students and teachers knuckle under; Paulo Freire, on the other hand, would turn in his beard.

Such system places immense pressure on the emotional, physical and social security of both students and teachers. While the mass abandonment of the teaching profession is a demonstration of just how hard it is for both teachers to maintain motivation, students find their own ways to drop out, either morally or physically, making the tasks of teaching and learning even more demanding. Secondary classrooms thus become environments where it takes immense emotional strength to even breathe. Who would willingly throw themselves into such a cauldron? As it happens, from next week I’ll be back to teaching secondary school teenagers for the first time in many years. On the one hand, the prospect terrifies me; on the other, I do kind of think what kind of teacher are you really if you can’t teach children?

I’ve long stuck by the adage that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. Education involves the building of a relationship, a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience rather than the mere handing-over of merchandise. Two preconditions for this to take place are respect and empathy, especially in mainstream education when dealing with kids from extremely challenging backgrounds. The teacher has to demonstrate a convincing interest in the lives and enthusiasms of the people they are teaching. Perhaps the video above (which was made in 2010 and very quickly went viral) shows us one example of how to achieve that. It’s certainly entertaining and enjoyable.

However, some things about the rap battle make me uncomfortable, starting with the way it’s framed: Teacher vs student. My reservations have been encapsulated in the form of a poem (part of a longer piece called (‘SOME VIOLENCE)’ by (ironically) my former poetry teacher, Wayne Holloway Smith, whose collection ‘Alarum‘ features class, masculinity, education and violence as central themes. His poem begins:

‘On YouTube an educated man is telling teenager that he is uneducated and will never amount to anything’.

In watching the video, it’s impossible to set aside this question of status. The confrontation is not, even for a second, a battle of equals. With immense wit and charm, the teacher patronises the student, divesting him of his self-definition as articulate, in control of language. He does so (argues the poem) on behalf of a State whose main function is to force him to value himself in its terms, to see himself through its eyes, to discipline and direct his energy, explicitly telling him:

‘Let me introduce you to the value inside the language of my particular group: I am better than you’.  

The students is thus subjected to authority’s withering gaze and found wanting: ‘You’ll never amount to anything’.  It is the teacher, not the student, who is ‘articulate, witty‘, who teaches him a lesson, which is that: ‘this language (that which the teacher, ‘wearing a suit and his hands casually in his pockets‘, commands) finds you ridiculous’.

Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence (itself an example of the kind of intellectual capital which the teacher has access to, and the student doesn’t) is brought to life in the following part of the poem, in which a bull is tormented by ‘a showground of people making it mean to them violence‘, forcing it to recognise itself through their eyes:

     and the slow-breathing creature is thinking
pulling this name Bull in and out of its nostrils

and the man understands the creature further with flailing arms
helps it to understand itself with pit-sand thrown in its eyes

and OK suddenly it understands

the man: for a moment, a pulsing orgasm, lust hung in the air
cue: screaming; cue: the world has realised it was right all along
cue: the animal being taken to a place where they can correct its evil by sword

Mark Grist (like Kate Tempest, a poet who became a rapper) addresses some of these aspects in a comeback in which he expressed his frustration and anger at the way the video was presented online and in the media as a morality play.  I understand his anger, but agree with Wayne Holloway Smith in that I think the form lent itself to that interpretation. There’s largely where its entertainment value (and certainly its online appeal) came from. Both combatants employ sexism and threats of violence, but Grist’s is knowing, informed by ironic distance in the form of jocular self-awareness, whereas (in the words of the poem) ‘when the teenager responds it is cliché‘. The teacher (and, by extension, the audience, drawn to the video by the promise of seeing foolish aspirations brought down to earth, ‘bound to agree‘ with its conclusion) provokes vile attitudes from the student, responses that confirm what we ‘know’ about such people, much like the treatment of the bull in the next part of the poem.

Despite my sense that the format of the rap battle between teacher and teenager was inherently problematic, Grist’s solo poems, which often draw and reflect on his experience as a teacher led onto, are often hugely compelling. I found this one deeply affecting:

It forced me to reflect on some of the more unpleasant episodes of my teaching career, those moments when my response didn’t match up to my ultimate responsibility for a student’s emotional well-being. The poem confronts both the classroom and the staffroom at their most bleak and difficult. Like many poems, it’s a novel condensed into two minutes, humanising its subjects in a way that reminded me of a passage from a recent George Saunders article about writing fiction:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

What should education do but make us into humans, i.e. people who are ready to grant each other the status of fully-realised characters with our own specific experiences, memories and complexities? Surely our job as teachers is to help our students see that the world need not be as ‘irrationally cruel’ as it appears to be. I hope that I’m up to the challenges of the next few months, and don’t fall back on the self-serving cliché that it’s the students, not their teacher, who lack energy, imagination and motivation.

Mérida: Language learning, native speakers and red phone boxes

untitled-design-13-1170x611One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.
img_4676Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.
img_3197Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name. 
globalhelpswap-a-guide-to-merida-5There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.
mexican-colorful-serapeI myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.
2dd6318a70b4c4c1ae32371699eec48eI would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.

2. Tip number 1. implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.

3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.

4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.

5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

peninsula-de-yucatan-mexico-extreme-tourism-with-outdoor-diving-adventure-29These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admittedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.
590Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That, to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.598434_10151531054831548_111665811_n

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.

Oaxaca: Tourism, Tlayudas and Terrorist Teachers

naI don’t know how many German-speaking branches of Neurotics Anonymous there are outside the Bundesrepublik. There’s probably a couple in Austria, and possibly a Geriaticneurotikenanonymous in Paraguay, but that’s beside the Punkt. We were surprised to find one in Oaxaca, Mexico. For a moment I was tempted to go entlag to one of their meetings, but I was visiting the city on holiday with my wife, herein known as Ch, who, despite my very best efforts, does not sprechen sie Deutsch, and in any case mein Volkabeln isn’t quite up to the Mark. Plus I’m not neurotic. Wirklich.dsc_0934Everybody loves Oaxaca. The first thing that Mexicans talk about whenever the place is mentioned is the food, which is indeed delicious and hard to find good versions of elsewhere. Mole is the most iconic dish – it’s actually a family of dishes of immense complexity. Coloradito, the one most associated with Oaxaca and also the most picante, is made with 36 ingredients, including chocolate, chillies, fruit, nuts, spices of various kinds, pumpkin seeds and about, er, 28 other things. Vanesa, a Oaxacan friend of Ch’s who we met up with in Mexico City shortly after we arrived, got very excited when telling us about all the eating we’d be able to do on our holiday, and then very angry when she moved on to tell us about los maestros – the teachers. Of whom more later.

Oaxaca (pronounced waHAca) is the name of both the city and the state. The latter is vast, and cut in half by mountains. After we leave the city it takes us 12 hours by bus to get to Puerto Escondido on the coast and it’s only 85 miles mientras el cuervo vuela. The rugged terrain isolates communities, which means that Oaxaca is the country’s most ethnically diverse state, with an indigenous population of 48% (mostly Zapotec and Mistec), the second highest in Mexico after the Mayan Peninsula, where most of the population are…Welsh (just testing). corbyn2A wander around the Museum of Culture testifies to this. ‘Oaxacan’ culture unifies all sorts of traditions with their own belief systems, cultural artifacts and artisan technologies. The many local markets and the makeshift stalls spread on the ground in the town’s squares by people from often distant villages show off handcrafted and painted wooden sculptures called alebrijes, and intricately woven and brightly dyed tapetes, huipiles, sarapes and the ubiquitous rebozos. Some of these artefacts we have seen elsewhere in Mexico, but we get something of a surprise on entering the adjacent church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán when we see an image of someone we recognise from home (see photo). It’s by no means the only connection Jeremy Corbyn has with Mexico. His wife, Laura Álvarez, is a human rights lawyer who also runs a business importing chocolate made by indigenous communities. Little else is known about her (except, presumably, by him), so it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that she did some sort of deal over local produce and insisted that a stained-glass window image of her husband be installed as part of the agreement. Certainly there is no shortage of chocolate and chocolate products on sale in the UNESCO-approved colonial centre, along with hundreds of varieties of mezcal, of which I sadly only get to try about half.

In the Zócalo (the main town square) most of the people selling things seem to be of indigenous origin, and so do most of the people protesting. The centre of the plaza has been turned into an Occupy-style camp. These are the famous teachers. I’m still trying to clarify what the situation is with them as their activities inspire a considerable amount of revulsion and rage amongst Mexicans I’ve met elsewhere. Reading their banners and the sheets they’ve hung up setting out their case and briefly chatting with some of them helps to make things clearer. Their movement, led by the dissident teachers’ union CNTE, has been fighting for decades for decent wages and proper schools and over the years their struggle has to some extent become instituionalised, particularly under the leadership of the phenomenally controversial Elba Esther Gordillo. One key date in the long history (detailed here) was May 2006, when police fired on striking teachers in Oaxaca. This led to a seven-month state of siege in the city. State forces unleashed massive repression, which to some extent continues – police vehicles armed with enormous machine guns are a regular sight around the city centre – and was stepped up in response to furious protests after 43 poor indigenous students from the neighbouring state of Guerrero were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the army in September 2014. More recently teachers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas have been striking and protesting against President Peña Nieto’s asinine education reforms, which seem partly designed to provoke and destroy the unions; they also attempt to sabotage the carrying-out of elections by attacking and burning polling stations, and very regularly sequester road-toll booths and block major highways. It is this kind of action which enrages locals like Vanesa, who are simply unable to go about their daily lives as a result. I sympathise with the frustration of people like her – I have never had to live with such massive and constant disruption. But I also grew up in a country with a decent school system where there were properly-remunerated teachers, plentiful materials and classrooms with roofs. Plus I’m aware that at least some of the opprobrium towards the teachers is at least related to racism; that certainly has been the case among members and supporters of successive national governments. This is one of those issues on which I have to bow to the greater wisdom of people who properly live in Mexico.justiceSo, Oaxaca is a complex place. Maybe a third eye would help make sense of things. In the market I buy a t-shirt featuring an image of Maria Sabina, the Queen of Mushrooms. She became an international celebity in the 1960s, attracting seekers of ancestral cosmic wisdom such as (it was rumoured) Dylan, Lennon, Jagger and Richards. She herself wasn’t impressed by the hordes of new arrivals. She was a curandera, for whom the point of taking psilocybins was not to find the divine but to heal sickness. Although we don’t visit her dsc_0616village, it is still on the tourist trail – every time I wear the t-shirt over the next few months, from Havana to Angkor Wat, I receive masonic nods and winks from those who share my apparent knowledge of arcane hallucinogenic rituals. We do, however, end up taking a trip: a bus excursion to Monte Albán to look at Some More Pyramids. We are lucky to be assigned a tourguide with some alternative theories to explain why some of the stone carvings depict people with deformed limbs, the upshot of which is that archeologists are all liars, historians are full of shit and we ourselves are a bit thick and should go to infowars.com if we can bear to learn the real Truth about the world. We also visit the jaw-dropping petrified waterfall and the hot springs at Hierve l’Água. Afterwards we share a collective taxi with some other tourists in order to rejoin the main bus. Halfway along an otherwise deserted track, the truck comes to an unexpected stop, and a representative of a small contingent of men requests that we all get out of the vehicle and into another one with no immediate explanation. Some of us start to suspect that something a bit kidnappy might be underway, but thankfully the new driver reassures us, explaining that the place where we got out marks the boundary between two taxi concessions, and that there have been ‘problems’ in the past when drivers from one village have encroached on the other’s territory. This makes me wonder if the preponderance of recovery groups in Mexico might be somehow related: perhaps one cartel controls all the Narcotics Anonymous groups in a given town and another armed gang rakes in the income from the meetings in the adjacent pueblo. I can’t imagine that such a situation would be particularly good for anyone’s sense of serenity.carvingAfter we’ve tromped up and down a fair few pyramids in the 40 degree heat, taken more photos than we will ever have time to look at and visited enough artisanal workshops to last the lifetimes of several Aztec gods, we are all keen to get back to Oaxaca, sink a couple of mechiladas and echar una siesta. So we’re delighted to hear we’ll be taking in one more attraction: we’re going to see some black pots being made. The black pots turn out to be useless, at least for their primary purpose of containing liquids. If you put water in them, it apparently goes all murky and you can’t drink it. They are nonetheless very pretty decorative objects, with their black sheen achieved by polishing them before firing them. Oh. It turns out that I am the only person in the world who finds pottery boring*. Everyone else wanders round the shop cooing at the crockery on display, or at least they do until the heavens intervene. Unfortunately the shop is open to the elements, which is a shame because the elements are in a very bad mood; like us, they’re probably a bit tired and just want to be driven back to the hotel. They descend on the place and smash bits of it to pieces while we cower in the corners and try to avoid getting lacerated by shards of falling pottery. In fact the weather gods have done us a major favour, because as soon as the torrent ceases we wade across the car park and get back in the van.

There’s a limit to what we can see in and around the city in three or so days. You could easily spend a month in Oaxaca State and not even get round to a third of the places you are recommended to visit. It is the fourth most visited state in the country, and also happens to be the second poorest, with 76% of the population living in extreme poverty. In my English language examining job I often pose this conundrum to candidates when the topic of tourism arises. It suggests to me that tourism is not a good or fair strategy for developing a region. Oaxaca does not suffer from a lack of promotion or even a shortage of visitors, and it’s rich in terms of both natural and cultural resources. It has a range of outstanding natural landscapes and no shortage of well-preserved ruins reflecting its historical complexity, the range of civilisations that have existed there. However, while most images of Oaxaca depict things of indigenous origin, whether archaeological sites or local products, in tourism-related jobs indigenous people themselves are rarely seen. This must be partly because of racism, but it is also clearly related to education. People whose schools do not have books and roofs are far less likely to acquire the skills necessary to obtain such jobs. Compared to a national average of 26%, only 5% of Oaxaca’s indigenous population reaches middle or higher education.cartoonThere is also the question of who has money to invest to take advantage of all the visitors. Most mid-range places we stay in happen to be owned by foreigners, and at the level of higher-end tourism, it’s international money that dominates – indeed it often physically displaces both local investment in addition to causing the eviction of local people and the destruction of natural environments. A recent and spectacular example of the latter were the mangroves in Cancun. Where tourism does create jobs for local people, they tend to be of poor quality – short-term, badly-paid and often very exploitative. Betting on tourism as a development strategy also has an opportunity cost. It replaces other forms of development and means that everything is valued in terms of its potential appeal to visitors. This is something I hear all the time in IELTS exams, regardless of the topic: parks are good because tourists like them. National cinema is useful because it promotes the country and might encourage tourists to visit. Museums and galleries are important because tourists seem to like them. The success of this ideology is demonstrated by the fact that to many people it seems to be a natural way of thinking, a common sense point of view. Drawing people’s attention to the fallacy of it (not exactly my job, but what the hey) is like the joke about one fish remarking to another on the temperature of the water. It’s an ideology which lends itself to exploitation by private interests. In ‘The Shock Doctrine’ Naomi Klein detailed how after the Asian tsunami of 2004 fishermen along the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand were displaced by hotel developments. In the case of Mexico, we learn of a similar situation towards the end of the film ‘Y Tu Mama También’: the young family who the three main characters have become friends with on the beach (filmed in Huatulco, Oaxaca) will soon be forced to leave their beachside home because of a new holiday resort. The same dynamic is in operation around the world, and not just along coastlines, but also in major cities, as the urban geographer (and my personal friend) David Harvey explores in some detail here. As he explains, tourism is a great product for capitalists to invest in because, unlike a vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone, it is instantly and infinitely consumable, with no product cycle. There is no limit to the amount that tourists can consume. Meanwhile local people are locked outside this endless festival of superfluous consumption, and in many situations are left with no other available means of survival but to sit on the pavement and try to sell whatever they have to the tourists. As for how people excluded in this way feel, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze tries to put herself in their huaraches in her brilliant poem ‘Third World Girl‘:

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze poem: ‘THIRD WORLD GIRL’ from Tilt Spoken Word on Vimeo.

The poem also addresses cultural appropriation. Oaxaca is important to Mexico in a similar way to how the Northeast is important to Brazil. In both cases the region provides symbols and icons which are central to national identity, and in both cases the people of the region are amongst the most deprived in the country. One such Mexican national emblem is the rebozo. In summer 2015 the Franz Mayer Museum held a special exhibition on Frida Kahlo’s use of the garment, titled, revealingly in English, Made in Mexico**. (The same exhibition had been held in London a year earlier). We learn from the information on display that this outfit is “one of the feminine Mexican garments par excellence … it has (much) meaning in the creation of the identity of women and the country.” The text that introduces the exhibition does not speak mainly of the rebozo, but of national identity:

‘Mexico is a rich tapestry in which multiple threads are interwoven. Its long and tumultuous history, from the ancient pre-Hispanic towns to the modernity of its urban culture, has brought many influences and ideas to the country, adapting to a cosmovision and way of life singularly Mexican. The decorative arts, an integral part of Mexican culture, reflect the intersection of traditional culture, colonial legacy and contemporary and political life. The rebozo has been – and continues to be – a resistant emblem of Mexican identity.’

In the words of Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, what the Mexican state and its elite values is not its indigenous population, but an image of it. It then sells Mexico on the global market using images of indigenous people and indigenous products, but denies the people themselves the education that would give them the chance to exploit those things for themselves if they chose to do so. It’s comforting and flattering to think that our visit to Oaxaca helped develop the region in some small way. We certainly found it a deeply enriching experience. But I don’t believe that tourism is a equitable or sustainable way to develop a region or a city. Social and economic policies should focus on improving the living standards and human potential of the people who live in a particular place, and not the experience of those who are merely there on holiday. To which I suppose the only logical corollary is: if I ever go back to Oaxaca, I very much hope that I have a worse time than I did on my first visit.

* José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ (which I also mentioned yesterday, oddly enough) is partly an essay In Praise of Pottery. Those bits of it are profoundly dull.

** I wrote a piece in Spanish about it in Spanish here (it’s in Spanish).