The Utility and Application of Voltaire’s Dictum

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The Utility and Application of Voltaire’s Dictum

Unread postby Peter Easton » 11 Mar 2009, 08:29

Voltaire, the 18th century French enlightenment thinker was outspoken in his opposition to censorship and restrictions of freedom, summed up by his famous pronouncement:

Sir, I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death for your right to say it.

This belief in free speech is the fundamental principle of liberal democracies - the paradox being that if everyone is free to make an unlettered idiot of themselves, society as a whole becomes more open to change which in turn propagates prosperity. In England for instance, you can say or write whatever you wish no matter how ludicrous, as long as it doesn’t defame people, incite violence, hatred or deliberately mislead a person or group of people. These limitations of the principle are summed up by the well known American maxim: You can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.

In the classroom it’s healthy to encourage intellectual risk taking, no matter how absurd or extreme the opinions may be. When you pose questions or make statements to the class, ideally students should feel comfortable enough make fanciful conclusions, disagree with you, or express outlandish, even xenophobic ideas, as long as they do it in English. All the teacher needs to do in controversial situations is to turn the class as a whole into a barometer of common sense and good reason by postulating and questioning. In this way truth is redressed, while the teacher plays the role of a bystander and elicitor.

I believe teachers should avoid the temptation to dogmatise and we shouldn’t censure people for what they say because the truth comes out in the wash through protracted dialectic. We don’t need to force the issue or state the obvious when people can easily figure it out for themselves. Instead, the teacher’s role is to ask, is that really true? How can we prove or contradict it? To quote another French philosopher, Claude Levi Strauss:

The wise man doesn't give the right answers, he poses the right questions.

Liberality in the classroom encompasses more than just debates; we should see people for who they are, not what we think they should be. It’s up to responsible teachers to move away from single-minded cultural imperialism, i.e. this is the right way to think, this is what you should say and do, this is the way we think and you should too. Intellectual and cultural authority can be just as bad as unsophisticated students’ naivety or immature beliefs.

Rather, students should express themselves the way they want and the only time we should draw the line and become judgemental is when students drift into Chinglish and use Chinglish without awareness of its incorrectness. Therefore in form and not content is where we should be conservatives in the classroom.
Peter Easton
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Re: The Utility and Application of Voltaire’s Dictum

Unread postby domgag12 » 16 Mar 2009, 17:48

Of course, when teaching EFL in China, we should motivate students to express themselves in the first place, so as to get over their timidity, their unwillingness to attract attention or to talk freely about some touchy issues. Thus, the teacher should encourage them to speak and he should restrain himself from judging whether the content is appropriate or not. As long as they talk in English, that seems well enough for me. However, are we suppose to use our teaching position in order to spread Western thoughts on what makes democracy effective?

While tutoring in Xinjiang three years ago, I wished sometimes my students would've talk more about some issues. But I kept reminding me that I was a guest, and paid to teach them English, not democracy.

Eventually, maybe the Chinese will learn how to express themselves in society. And if this time comes, they won't need a Western guy to teach them. They are too proud for that.
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Re: The Utility and Application of Voltaire’s Dictum

Unread postby Peter Easton » 17 Mar 2009, 02:21

Maybe that’s just Xinjiang - which is a politically sensitive and ethnically tense area. From my experience of teaching adults in the east of China, I have found that they try to lock me into discussions on the 3Ts – something which by law, foreigners are not supposed to discuss. I think the best policy is just to play dumb and ask for their opinions rather than proferring my own and potentially upsetting people.
Peter Easton
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