nyone with any experience in the world of ELT (English Language Teaching) has probably had the same reaction: you’re looking through the selection of materials at your school and you burst out laughing at the photo of some ancient technology, e.g. a mobile phone circa 1999. As you leaf further through the course book — called “Cutting Edge” or something just as promising — you begin to gawk at how dated everything looks: the cars, the hairstyles, the fashion, even the layout of the words on the page. You think, How can I teach from something so embarrassing?
I’ve never been as conscious of the passing of time as I’ve recently become thanks to these course books. Family photographs don’t really do the trick, bordering as they do on nostalgia. It’s a trip down memory lane with Uncle Shmuely or whomever, who had the crooked toupé and the bulletproof glasses.
These old course books, instead, offer an entire cultural smorgasbord in a few pages designed to sell the English-language and its culture in their full glory.
Sometimes I like to test myself on my ability to guess the year. I’ll pick out a promising specimen, enter fearlessly into its yellowing pages, and try to deduce the date of publication. It’s surprisingly easy to do, too. I play the same game with my wife when a film comes on television. “This is soooo 1993!” I say. “Get the Maltin’s. Look it up.” I’m usually within a year of the actual date the movie came out.
This is the way culture nerds pass the time. It’s an old habit, I realize.
When I was in high school a friend and I used to challenge each other’s knowledge of Beasty Boys lyrics. We knew all of them by heart, and gave each other high marks for the ability to pull the most obscure reference out of the seemingly arbitrary word salad. I remember when I first learned what an Orange Julius was (a beverage), though it took Google to figure out who George Drakoulias was (they rhyme in the song “Stop That Train.”)
Curiously, this scenario was replayed years later to a new audience: our wives. It was our first trip to the United States together and I wanted my Italian wife (we weren’t married yet) to meet my old high school friend.
The four of us were sitting in a Friendly’s nursing ice cream sundaes rich with caramel and chocolate syrup. My friend and I atavistically reverted to our old banter about music lyrics, and did an on-the-spot recital of one of our favorite Beasty Boys numbers. Our wives fell into an embarrassed silence.
My wife later told me my friend and I were unable to talk to each other without endlessly making references to pop culture. “Sure,” I said proudly. “That’s part of being an American!”
In fact, this characteristic is something I’d long held as a prerequisite for true friendship. Looking back, the ability to “talk about nothing” (as Seinfeld would have it) was a defining element in every friendship of my American life. We were Seinfeldian to the core.
At a certain point in my twenties I went through a romantic period. I fell in love with Art, and believed True Art was separable from its historical context. There seemed to be something eternal about certain lines of poetry, for instance, and their having been written by a Scottish aristocrat in 1803 or a Polish Jew in 1943 was immaterial. Context was beside the point. Nothing mattered outside of Truth and Beauty.
I’m happy to say I’ve grown up considerably since then. Now I find myself at the other end of the continuum where culture is trapped by context. When I look at a photo I immediately begin making assumptions about when it was taken and what was happening. I begin filling in the missing information mentally, constructing a historical context for even the slightest details.
I can no longer read Byron without his biography staining the pages. I can no longer watch “Citizen Kane” without reflecting on Orson Welles’s heroic struggle against media titan William Randolph Hearst just to get the film released. Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum; rather, it’s an integral part of the everyday life of our species.
And this has been the most important lesson for me as a teacher: language cannot be severed from the cultures that produce it. Those old course books are embarrassing because they no longer represent the cultural context in which we live. We no longer feather our hair, wear Jordache jeans or listen to ABBA on a Walkman. As a teacher, I want my students to have as authentic an experience as possible in the classroom. That means trying hard to be up-to-date.
I’m sure those old books can still be put to good use, though, perhaps to teach new vocabulary like “kitsch” and “schlock.”