Jul 042017

So now I’m settled into my hotel, know my way around, and have started my second week of teaching at KGI. It’s time now to settle into a routine that suits me and is not too repetitive. I should begin daily Burmese language lessons for example, but I’m being a bit lazy about that at the moment. I don’t want to start any kind of formal or informal lessons because I don’t want any more of my time locked into a schedule than necessary. As with China and Italy there’s no absolute necessity to learn the vernacular because my work situation is English only, and I do not have to conduct much business outside of work, and what little I do I can transact with people whose English is passable. Even so, I should press on with some studies on my own not least because Austronesian languages have a structure, vocabulary, and writing system that make you think outside Indo-European norms. Once you’ve dealt with measure words, particles, and the like you never look back. This brings me to my topic for the day: the ethical dilemmas of teaching science in English to Burmese primary students.

Up to this point, since I retired from being an anthropology professor, I’ve been hired to teach ESL and a little bit of subject matter. In China my duties at various schools mostly involved teaching English language but there was also an expectation that I would supplement language lessons with some kind of enrichment classes focusing on Western history and culture. In Italy I taught quite a range from world history to English literature, information technology, and chemistry along with English language classes and standardized test prep. None of this bothered me in the slightest. My Chinese students studied English language and culture because they wanted skills that would help improve their job prospects, and in Italy the secondary school curriculum I plugged into was mandated by the state. In Myanmar things are rather different. I am teaching science at an English only private school for the first 4 primary levels.

Parents in Myanmar send their children to fee-paying private schools if at all possible because the state supported schools are well sub-par. Not all private schools emphasize English language by any means, but there is stiff competition among those that do because English language skills are seen as one avenue to success in employment in Myanmar or overseas. All well and good. Teaching Chaucer to Italian 16 year olds was in my opinion idiotic, but the state set the curriculum and I saw nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching about Medieval England even though the subject matter was a little advanced for their age. My qualms began when I started teaching science to Burmese 6 and 7 year olds. Contrary to typical Western unthinking popular belief, physical science is not an avenue to THE TRUTH, but, rather, a system of thinking that brings with it enormous benefits, but also enormous problems – physical and philosophical. Factories churn out mobile phones that can do a lot of good things; they also pollute the world. The physical problems are well known; the philosophical ones are more hidden. Western physical science is a worldview, a belief system if you like. It is not an avenue to ALL truth, nor is it the ONLY avenue to truth. It is not even an avenue to solutions to fundamental human problems like how to mend a broken heart.  It is a powerful system, but one with limits: profound limits that few people recognize. In a way Western physical science is like the Japanese shinkansen: the bullet train. It’s very fast and efficient, and gets you to places very quickly and smoothly. But . . . it runs on rails, so it can only take you to certain places. You can’t go to new places without building new tracks. Your legs, on the other hand, can take you pretty much anywhere, admittedly slowly and with effort, but more or less anywhere. I’d say that if you want to get from Tokyo to Okinawa, the shinkansen is your best bet, rather than walking. But you can walk it. If you do have the time to walk it, furthermore, you’ll see many things you’ll miss if you speed along by train. You can also take detours that prove valuable.

When you travel the shinkansen you have to buy a ticket which then allows you to travel to certain destinations with ease. Graduate school training in science does the analogous thing for the budding scientist. Graduate training shows the neophytes where the tracks lead. Rarely does anyone question the need for tracks or the value of following them to certain destinations. It happens but it’s very rare.

Last week my classes were mostly about class rules and such, but on Friday I began seeing classes for the second time and got down to subject matter. Physical science that I am teaching is distinctly Western. One of the first things that the textbooks all explain is how to classify things in the world. Things are matter or non-matter, living or non-living etc etc. Matter has mass and volume. Living things grow, move, respond and reproduce. And so on.  This is not remotely an Asian way to classify things.

Asian languages typically use measure words which you must use when you count things and they classify the world in a distinctly non-Western way. Chinese measure words, for example, divide the world into things that have joints (bamboo and trains), things that are flat and useful (tables and credit cards), small animals (rats and rabbits), small things you read (books but not newspapers), and on and on. What would science be like if we used this classification system? It would look like ancient Chinese science which was blended with what we think of as philosophy and religion. Not useful you say? Then how come they invented compasses and gunpowder and printing which Europeans knew nothing about until they went to China? Could Chinese science have developed in uniquely different ways from Western science if it had been left alone? We’ll never know, although some physicists in the West have gained insight by studying Asian philosophy, and some Western medicine is learning from Chinese traditional medicine. Several singing coaches at my former university in New York swore by a Chinese herbalist in the Bronx who cured them of throat problems that Western physicians were powerless to treat.

So . . . here I am embarking on teaching Burmese children Western science. Is this right of me? As an anthropologist I am troubled.  The lame response is that if I don’t do it someone else will. True enough. But should I be aiding and abetting in this enterprise? I guess I’ll figure that out as I go along. Actually, my contract only runs until September with a chance to renew until February. So, teaching 160 students for a few months is not exactly going to alter the world. Neither is one person becoming vegetarian going to stop the exploitation of farmed animals. Nonetheless it is a principled stance. I suspect ere long I will start to be subversive. Maybe I will begin to inject doubt and/or Burmese ways of seeing the world as I learn more about the culture.  Too early to tell as yet. But those who know me as a teacher know that being subversive is second nature to me.

And so to bed . . .



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