It’s been an eventful week. Over the past seven days, protesters have taken to the streets of Brazil’s major cities, demanding that the government address a range of issues, from an unpopular rise in public transport fares, to the corruption that is endemic in public life here. As in many political protests worldwide, the protest banners are often in English, as the protesters seek to explain their grievances to an international audience and gather both local and global support.
Protesting in the cause of social reform has, of course, a long and honourable history, although often with mixed results. The current protests in Brazil have been the first major demonstrations since 1992, when people went onto the streets to demand the removal of the then President, Fernando Collor, whose impeachment subsequently happened. Today’s protests are similar and different in some major respects: as so often is the case, the protesters are young, many of them being university students. But the targets of the protests have been diverse, from the hikes in bus and metro prices to Brazil’s inadequate standards of health, education and security against crime. One way of reading the current events is that participants are in fact involved in a series of multi-functional protests, each group projecting onto the demonstrations their own agenda. Earlier today, this fact was perhaps reflected in the current government’s announcement that a series of initiatives would address transport, education, fiscal responsibility, the political system and healthcare. Those Brazilians I have spoken to about the government’s response remain sceptical – one strategy to fix the hospital system is to draft into Brazil a host of Cuban doctors, but this is hardly a credible solution to the problem of access to adequate medical treatment. But it is perhaps indicative of a dialogue beginning between protesters and the government.
One side-effect of the current protests has been to make me feel old. Popular demonstrations obviously stretch back well beyond my lifetime, but it is with some alarm that I realise that I have actually lived through numerous waves of protest movements, from the civil rights and anti-war demos in 1960s America and the student strikes in France in May 1968, which, as a child, I watched on my parents’ black-and-white television, to the ‘rock against racism’ and CND protests that I occasionally participated in when I was a student in the 1970s. Then there were the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, when the world, for me, really did change. In 1988-9 I worked in the then Soviet Union , and subsequently had a chance to visit a number of post-Soviet bloc countries, and to share the local amazement at the speed at which old assumptions had crumbled, and the nervousness people felt about the new regimes. More recently, of course, there has been the Arab Spring, whose effects are still uncertain and the variable consequences of which will be with us for some time. Many of the features of these earlier protest movements are layered onto the present Brazilian demonstrations – from the students’ retro-fitted slogans, and their Portuguese translations of 1960s protest anthems by singers like Bob Dylan, to the sophisticated use of 21st century social media to gather support for, organise, comment on and debate the events, literally as they happen. As a detached observer, watching the Brazilian demonstrations, I feel the weight of all the popular protests that have gone before, as well as the novel twists added to this one, and I wonder if or how the series of challenges to the status quo will ultimately be met.
Intercultural language education, by its very nature, encourages critical cultural awareness, and the relationship between ILE and active citizenship has been the subject of several book-length studies, for example those written or edited by Geof Alred, Mike Byram, Manuela Guilherme, Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey. None of them, so far as I recall, directly prepares learners for taking to the streets to challenge the government policies of the day (though several certainly address the kind of political issues that underlie the protests). Many English teachers, in my experience, and perhaps particularly British expatriates like me, express some anxiety at the idea of interfering in local political situations: we are supposed to be teaching language, not social activism. And yet it is difficult, even perverse, to keep out of the intercultural language classroom those current events that clearly impinge on issues at the heart of the intercultural curriculum: e.g. fair access to educational opportunities, effective access to healthcare for those that need it, and a political class that serves rather than steals from the people it represents.
A reasonable question is how to address these burning issues practically in a language classroom. There are some obvious ways in which current events can be linked to traditional classroom activities: with much of the world’s English-language media available on the internet, the teacher can ask learners to compare reports of local events from the perspective of the press and television in different countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe. A more creative activity is to ask learners what slogans they would put on English-language banners to show to the world’s journalists; for example, how would they complement: ‘It’s about: Respect Health Education Security!’
But what about those layers of history? In a conference paper from the turbulent 1990s, Alan Pulverness suggests mining literature and popular culture for what he calls ‘sound bites’. He suggests that teachers can select passages from fiction, poetry, songs and drama to dramatise four things (i) the culture of a period, (ii) the social attitudes of an era, (iii) political values and (iv) language and manners. Relevant and dramatic non-literary texts, like memoirs, essays and travel writing, can also be combined with literary texts.
In my introduction to intercultural approaches to ELT I suggest that learners consider one ‘soundbite’ that may be as relevant to today’s Brazil as it was to Victorian Britain when it was composed – it is from Sybil, a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, himself a politician who became Prime Minister. In this passage, one character is explaining the nature of the country to another:
‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, of inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’
‘You speak of –’ said Egremont, hesitatingly.
‘THE RICH AND THE POOR.’
To leap forward a century, and across the Atlantic, we can read this passage by Abbie Hoffman, who helped engineer some of the social protests of the 1960s in America. It is reprinted in Norman Mailer’s journalistic account of Miami and the Siege of Chicago:
‘A Constitutional Convention is being planned … visionary mind-benders who will for five long days and nights address themselves to the task of formulating the goals and means of the New Society.
It will be a blend of technologists and poets, of artists and community organizers, of anyone who has a vision. We will try to develop a Community of Consciousness.’
It may, of course, be objected that the rich and the poor are still with us, indeed are further apart than ever, and that Hoffman’s techno-poetic community of consciousness slid slowly into the neo-conservative USA of the 1980s. And that is true: social change is notoriously difficult to deliver, and there are songs and literature that speak of the disillusionment of protest, like The Who’s ‘Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss’ from ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and more extensive literary insights into the ways that old regimes manage to hang onto power and privilege. My own favourite of the latter is Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s novel about Garibaldi’s revolution, ‘The Leopard’, in which we are shown in considerable detail how ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’
So: a whole variety of soundbites from literary and non-literary texts can inform and deepen our understanding of current events, and might be used in the intercultural language classroom. But perhaps for the students, still out on the streets on this rainy midwinter’s night in Sao Paulo, the most useful sound bite is from the folk song, adapted from a hymn and then sung during the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s to sustain hope and determination:
Keep your eyes on the prize:
Alred, G. (2006). Education for intercultural citizenship: concepts and comparisons. Bristol: Multilingual Matters
Byram, M. (2008). From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship: Essays and reflections. Bristol: Multilingual matters.
Corbett, J. (2003). An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Guilherme, M. (2002). Critical citizens for an intercultural world: Foreign language education as cultural politics. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Osler, A., & Starkey, H. (2005). Citizenship and language learning: International perspectives. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham books.
Pulverness, A. (1996). Worlds within words: Literature and British cultural studies. In David A. Hill (ed.) Papers on teaching literature from The British Council’s conferences in Bologna 1994 and Milan 1995. Rome: The British Council