Of Medicine and English Teaching

Medicine is the king of the professions. Every occupation that has organization as a goal wants to be like Medicine. In discussions about professionalization and credentialism, English teachers in Asia often draw some kind of comparison with Medicine. Yet, Medicine as a profession is not what it seems.

Medicine is the oldest professionally organized occupation. It is not clear what the term ‘profession’ really refers to, and sociologists have stopped trying to define it. In a sense, the only thing that a profession is is what people call a profession. Professions define themselves, and in this sense, Medicine is the king.

It is often stated that Medicine is the king because medical technology is so powerful. This is wrong. Medicine was the king long before medical technology had any serious scientific power. The American Medical Association was founded in 1847, when life span was about 40 years. The causal connection in this case is backward. Medicine controls powerful scientific technology because it is the king of professions.
Medicine was organized first. They laid the first legitimate claim over medical technology, and subsequently, medicine has gotten first claim to all new medical technologies. The battle between medical professionals and other organizing professions over claims to new discoveries is fascinating. Medicine did not have any historical or scientific reasons to dominate X-ray technology or clinical care. There were occupations dominating child birthing long before Medicine ever had anything useful to say. But Medicine became the king of professions because it organized first and from then afterward, any other occupation that wanted to control medical technology could only do so if Medicine did not first want that control. Pharmacists may make, dispense, and understand drug action, but ONLY a physician can prescribe them.

What’s all this got to do with English teachers? A lot, I’d say. And particularly a lot for those of us who teach EFL. Long before EFL in Asia became a major employer of education professions, there was a hierarchy of educators that included post-secondary and public school literature and grammar teachers, as well as private cram school teachers. The division of educational labour divided the known teaching work world between all the recognized parties in a way that balanced and made sense to those involved.

The lifting of military law and development of the economy made possible the expansion of a traditional form of education formerly reserved almost exclusively for the wealthy: foreign teacher instruction. The privileged position of this market and its relatively smallness had left it largely unregulated. As a result, when it expanded, the only regulatory bodies that were in any position to control them were those monitoring labour and migration.

EFL in Asia has emerged a patchwork collection of ideas. Qualifications have arisen because they make sense to labour officials. Developing systems of education and certification have responded to the labour market needs that this defines, rather than to those defended by professionalized members of this group. Put another way, would certificate training, such as CELTA and TEFL International have continued to expand into Asia without the assistance of local authorities? Would their existence have continued if employment were regulated and recognized by a professional body controlled by licensed EFL professionals?

Foreign EFL teachers themselves have done little in the way professional organization. The groups that do exist, such as JALT and KoTESOL, have publically stated that advocacy is NOT one of their roles. Their only function is to hold conferences, workshops, and release periodicals. They steadfastly refuse to rank programs or employers, lobby governments over policy issues or teacher certification, or become involved in work that promotes their organization as the only legitimate voice for EFL education. Contrast this will AMA opposition to chiropractic and other alternative medicines. This sluggishness of response has created a work world where individual teachers are left at the mercy of the labor force. Those with the ability can claw their way into a place in an already established organization, but there is no security or control. Definitions of what should be done at work are handed down through an institution whose goals may not fit the foreign EFL professional.

One of the side issues involved in this problem is internal fighting among foreign EFL professionals in Asia over what basic training should be, how it should be conducted, and where it should take place. The conflict between CELTA/DELTA and M.TESOL may appear highly theoretical on Dave’s ESL Cafe, but it has a very real history. CELTA/DELTA reflect an older British concept of the professional. Professionals are master craftsmen trained through OJT in much the same way that American people think of an apprenticeship. The M.TESOL and other similar degrees reflect an American, university-bound definition of what a professional should be. There is some attempt to address this issue. University-based certificate training offers limited exposure for practitioners without the extensive time committment of a master’s degree. Some certificate granting organizations, such as TEFL International are trying to offer more ‘hi-tech’ sorts of certificates by exposing students to the kind of concepts and training that a longer, university-based program would teach. But this social experiement has been largely unsuccessful.

Will the internal disputes of TEFL get solved and the authority base of this profession expand? Is it possible that the bushiban/hogwan/juku industry will get sorted out and absorbed into some aspect of a professionalized occupation? Personally, I don’t see how. Education in Asia is very well stratified; subsequently there is little room for increased division of labour. Nor do the foreign teachers themselves seem much up to the difficult task ahead of themselves. In all likelihood, the kind of English teaching that foreign teachers do in Asia will continue to be bits and pieces of work at the margins of legitimate, mainstream educational work.

March 01, 2004 in The EFL Professional Project | Permalink


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» professional organization from Blinger: A linguistics and ESL Blog – ESL in Korea
Scott Sommers’ wrote a long and inciteful post comparing the organization of medicine and EFL instruction. when it [EFL] expanded, the only regulatory bodies that were in any position to control them were those monitoring labour and migration. EFL in… [Read More]

Tracked on February 29, 2004 07:31 AM


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Posted by: Kerim Friedman | March 1, 2004 11:22 AM

This article on the role of professional associations in restricting free trade might be of interest.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | March 1, 2004 10:18 AM

There is not even a basic idea about what teaching in Taiwan is for. This mostly leads to each person doing his own thing, which often means default to the same old thing learned when in Taiwan high school, i.e., go through the motions but actual skill obtainment is optional (while this may look to many as a “Chinese” thing, it is not

the same could be said about Korea.

Posted by: Blinger | February 29, 2004 08:59 AM

The largest difference between being a teacher in a language department and any other college/university department in Taiwan is that language departments have a complete and total lack of any kind of standard. I’ve noted this for years, but most English teachers don’t see it because they are in the center of it. Scott’s observation is so on target.
In organizational behavior, one of the key concepts is to hire people who have the same professionalization as the employees you already have; In Taiwan langauge departments, however, this is hard since it seems almost no one has any background that unites them in thought. Standards and professionalism here do not mean to do a good job, they mean that in the past, mostly during university and and first few years on the job, you get a kind of basic thorught/value system into your brain. Thus, engineers should emphasize safe design no matter what company they work at. Business teachers understand the importance of profit and efficiency, etc. At each language department I’ve worked there is NO idea what they do! There is not even a basic idea about what teaching in Taiwan is for. This mostly leads to each person doing his own thing, which often means default to the same old thing learned when in Taiwan high school, i.e., go through the motions but actual skill obtainment is optional (while this may look to many as a “Chinese” thing, it is not–in trade and business departments I’ve seen the professional concept expressed very clearly).
I could write more, but I just caught Scott’s post and had to say I agree that this is at the core of nearly all problems with English in Taiwan, making organizing, goal setting, hiring, etc., very difficult.

Posted by: Clyde A. Warden | February 29, 2004 08:47 AM


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