Humanistic Language Teaching: A Revolutionary Option

Jakobovits and Gordon’s work (1974) embodies, in many ways, the spirit and ideas behind humanistic language teaching. Starting from the thesis that “effective education and mass teaching do not go together” (1974: 16; cf. too 79), they propose a hypothesis of “natural growth” for the learning process (1974: 44f.). The central theme in their thinking is freedom, “the new consciousness of the youth generation, of freedom, of self’, and of the “freedom-giving leap into the unknown” (1974: 84) that will bring about radical changes in the way that language teaching is conducted. Though they claim not to be propagating revolution, at least as a political tactic, these authors do acknowledge that, to one of the traditional, ‘older’ consciousness, their account of liberated language instruction “must evoke a feeling of horror ... Visions of anarchy, chaos, abuse, waste, present themselves ...” (Jakobovits and Gordon 1974: 97).

The revolutionary tack is not so much one of political action, but lies in their tdeological tubscription to the “unfulfilled promises” of freedom in the future (1974: 98). What is revolutionary here, in other words, is the vision: a commitment to a future state of liberated happiness, accompanied inevitably by the tunnel vision that is characteristic of all ideologies.

The ideal of freedom that asserts itself in humanistic language teaching is, moreover, an individualistic one, which, in the history of humanism: has always been the very antithesis of the ideal of science. In this case, too, it embodies an assertion of the freedom of the individual from its bondage by scientific designs, that was so characteristic of language teaching and assessment designs that were inspired by modernism .

In another early work on humanistic teaching, Stevick (1980) considered, in turn, three humanistic ‘ways’ of teaching: The Silent Way, Counseling-Learning and Suggestopedia (now called Desuggestopedia; for an explanation, see Larsen- Freeman and Anderson 2011 : 71). Stevick’s (1980) book is still one of the more accessible defences of humanistic teaching. In all the various descriptions of the different ‘ways’ of humanistic teaching given by Stevick, there is the pervasive emphasis on the individual learner.

Gattegno’s Silent Way, which is the subject of the second part of Stevick’s book, has as its goal making learning more conscious, by assuming that the self has qualities of independence or inner resource, autonomy (i.e. initiative) and responsibility, which should be nurtured in teaching. It is the inner capacity for self-education that enables the learner to become more fully human. Through the teacher’s silence, the students learn how to trust their own inner resources and criteria.

In the third part of Stevick’s survey (1980) eleven chapters are devoted to Counseling-Learning . This approach, in Stevick’s understanding , contains important insights into the causes of internal and external conflict in the learner. Whereas conflict may be increased by outside expectations that are not consistent with the learner’s own, one can, if another’s expectations complement and fulfil one’s own, receive support or ‘love’, and may eventually achieve a ‘stillness’, i.e. a state of being at one with oneself (Stevick 1980: 86ff.). As Moskowitz (1978: 12) puts it: “Humanistic education ... takes into consideration that learning is affected by how students feel about themselves.”

Such stillness or self-steadiness is also a quality a teacher must (ideally) possess if he or she is to assume the role of counselor, i.e. have the ability to understand others as they are. The counselor-teacher views the client-students as independent, yet not as lonely persons, since they are being understood in a non-judgmental way, free from the web of the understander’s expectations (Stevick 1980: 98, 101).

In Counseling-Learning one or more of the persons involved act as counselor in order to make learning and teaching smoother and more satisfying. Whereas the teacher is the counselor in the initial stages of Counseling-Learning, the roles of knower and learner may well be reversed in a mature, mutually supportive relationship. The stages in a maturing knower-learner relationship (Stevick 1980, 108ff.) follow a sequence that Stevick, following Curran (1976: 6ff.) with some slight modification, describes as security, (learner) assertion, attention, reflection, retention, discrimination or genuine internalization.

Suggestopedia, the third humanistic ‘way’, is dealt with in the fourth part of Stevick’s book (1980: 229ff.). Specifically, attention is given to the work of Lozanov in developing the various suggestopedic strategies, techniques and principles. The central claim of Suggestopedia is that learning is both conscious and unconscious, and that it can be accelerated if learners make use of their inner resources. The suggestion is to “think big”; desuggestion or resuggestion is employed to circumvent the socialexpectations that stand in the way of learning, so that the inner fear of limitation is removed.

I believe Brumfit (1982: 12) is correct in locating the philosophical bases of modern humanistic psychology, on which these language teaching methods crucially depend for j ustification , in existentialism. The concern of existentialism with the individual, and the location of ultimate reality within the self of the human person (Zais 1976: 151f., 154) are the driving forces behind the humanistic approaches discussed by Stevick (1980). But Stevick’s existentialism, it must immediately be added, has gone beyond Kierkegaard: it has been refined and developed into an intensely interpersonal solution to alienation - probably through the influence of Buber (cf., e.g., Stevick 1980 : 22) - resulting in belonging, companionship and mutuality. It is a consistent form of humanism nonetheless, in that it confesses the essential humanistic paradox between freedom and determinism (cf. Stevick 1980: 98), albeit in an irrational mode. It is, moreover, equally dogmatic and ideological jn the pursuit of irrational freedom, for it is “Only ... from within that stillness (that) ... the vision (can) turn itself into flesh and blood ...” (Stevick 1980: 98; emphasis added).

This is not the rationalist idea of freedom that, as in Chomsky’s philosophy, is at variance with determinism: the freedom is an elusive inner freedom (cf. Stevick 1980: 292) that must be set in motion and nurtured in teaching.

In keeping with the existentialist definition of true knowledge as self-knowledge (Zais 1976: 153f.), humanistic teaching focuses on self-disclosure as a means of obtaining existential self-knowledge (cf. e.g. the suggestions for language teaching by Rinvolucri 1982 and Moskowitz 1982). And because such self-realization is deemed possible, humanistic approaches are essentially optimistic, though now on grounds quite different than in those approaches to language teaching where the optimism stems from a belief in the ideal of science. In contrast to the latter, the optimism inherent in humanistic language teaching does not mean that the situation is not at the same time also hopeless, according to Stevick, since, as language teachers, we all realize that we are unable to control all the factors that influence and affect the outcome of our teaching; nevertheless “we all know that some degree of success js possible ... (and) more likely when we follow what light we have” (Stevick 1982: l0), that ‘light’ being the firm belief in the realization of self and growth in the individual.

Because the individual’s self-knowledge is the ultimate reality, the control, experiment and objective test that modernism, under the influence of the ideal of science, would have us put our trust in, are replaced in humanistic language teaching by considering the learner’s comments and reactions as grounds for the validity and validation of such teaching (cf. Rardin 1982: 62f., 67).

Unlike the position of, say, mainstream communicative language teaching, where the content of the language course is determined beforehand through a technical- scientific analysis of learner needs, the support that humanistic language teaching derives from theoretical analysis lies at a philosophical level, in the ideas that inform especially the way that such teaching must be accomplished. There is then indeed a link - an “operational connection”, to use Rardin’s phrase (1982: 66) - between abstract theoretical ideas and concrete experience in humanistic teaching. But this connection is in direct contrast to the belief in the ideal of science, in that it subscribes rather to a commitment to the freedom of the individual. The idea of the absoluteness of the individual self, for example, is evident in the minutest concrete detail of the techniques described by Stevick (1980): the cuisenaire rod is an uncluttered object, freely allowing students to project their own vision and exercise their own creativity on it (Stevick 1980: 134), instead of “going directly” to another person’s imagination (1980: 135). The dignity of the individual, their integrity and worth, are, moreover, always more than the mere “mechanics of language” that is being taught, both in Curran’s concept of counseling (cf. Stevick 1980: 136) and in the Silent Way (cf. Stevick 1980: 263).

If the self is absolute, then it follows that it must have an absolute and free selfidentity, not entangled in another’s expectations or designs, for its wholeness is unlike that of any other (Stevick 1980: 101).

Conflict, tension and anxiety are the very antithesis of wholeness, forces that threaten to tear the absolute integrity of the self apart. Conflict, according to humanistic thinking, is the result of alienation between teacher and learner, and also of the learners’ expectations of themselves, that in turn cause feelings of guilt (Stevick 1980: 11), especially if the learners view themselves, and are viewed, as perpetually powerless and ignorant receivers of teacher and peer evaluation (cf. Stevick 1980: 235f.). To the humanist, learning takes place when there is self-realization without competition (Stevick 1980: 186). In Suggestopedia, specifically, learning is encouraged by removing limitations to the realization of self in the form of imposed norms, as well as by doing away with other sources of psychical tension inherent in some materials, in tasks that demand evaluation and result in embarrassment, and in techniques such as adopting roles (a surrogate identity is therefore used). The purpose here is to encourage learning by restoring the integrity of self through joy, harmony and easiness (cf. Stevick 1980: 230ff.), by gaining “freedom from the inner fear of one’s own limited powers of assimilating new information” (Stevick 1980: 241).

It is difficult to assess the exact influence such psychological emphases have had on language teaching, compared with the undoubted influence of the linguistic emphasis of mainstream communicative teaching of the British school. However, it is an undeniable fact, firstly, that existentialism has in many fields - at least in medicine, psychology, philosophy and education - contributed to a much needed view of the essential wholeness of human life. But, however necessary and influential it has been in this respect, it must nonetheless be remembered that existentialist thought was - and is - by no means the only, or even the first school of thought to argue this point. There are numerous examples of pre-existentialist and non-humanistic philosophies that have made the same point. In a sense the existentialist concern with the integrity of the self is symptomatic of what might be called the Humpty Dumpty irony of humanism: the ancients, followed first by the scholastics and later by humanistic thinkers like Descartes and Kant, having taken man apart, dichotomizing him in several ways (cf. Curran 1977: 25f., 42f., 46ff.; Dooyeweerd 1979: 15ff.), a new generation of existentialist thinkers must now try to mend the broken image. Moreover, it is of course not necessary to declare the human selfhood absolute in order to know that life is a unity. Even though the self may not be absolute, i.e., we may still confess the wholeness and integrity of life.

Secondly, from the general angle of world view, there remains some uneasiness with the way in which the humanistic ‘ways’ require commitment solely for the sake of individual wholeness. In Stevick’s description of humanistic language teaching, even communal experience is there, it seems, only because the absolute individual has the need to belong (1980: 199). In the human self the three humanistic ways of language teaching find their end and ultimate purpose; there is no, or indeed very little, understanding that commitment may lead not so much to individual self-clarification and growth (or perhaps to communal experience) for its own sake, but may in fact open up the life of the individual or the group to something outside of itself, e.g. to the productive service of others. The historical origin of humanism , that recognizes nothing outside of the individual or group that is a norm unto itself (and hence literally ‘autonomous’) is given a new, irrationalistic psychological content in humanistic language teaching. But the sting of presumed human autonomy, be it of an individualistic or communal nature, is there still.

The major contribution that humanistic approaches might make to language teaching designs is to focus attention on the emotional aspects of interaction between learners and learners, and learners and teachers in the classroom, especially in contexts where linguistic criteria have traditionally reigned supreme. Humanistic language teaching is a salutary reminder that language teachers and applied linguists must resist the temptation to think that in language classes language is all that matters: we must therefore learn to see that “learning is persons” essentially means that “what is really important is what goes on inside and between people in the classroom” (Stevick 1980: 22).

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