When I lived and taught English in communist Red China in the late 1980s I had heard of the ironic motto “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” This facetious slogan for the masses goes along with the “iron rice bowl” policy I wrote about a week ago. I heard at a Kurbanait holiday supper last night a variation of this care-worn slogan again, “We pretend to teach while our students pretend to learn.” I hope that more than just pretense happened in my classroom this past semester. Some of my students achieved great things, they wrote inspiring words in English, their second or third language. I’m very proud of them. The following is what C.S. Lewis wrote about pretense:
There are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. Mere Christianity, Book IV, Ch. 7.
Yesterday I finished the book Animal Farm, it is a short little “fairy tale” which takes an hour or so to read. Then I looked up what the allegory was for all of George Orwell’s farmyard characters. The following is what is commonly known, I had guessed right on the pigs -
Napoleon = Stalin and Snowball = Trotsky.
Squealer the pig = Molotov and the Soviet paper Pravda
Major, the boar = Marx (Lenin?)
Minimus the pig = Gorky
Farmer Jones = Russian tsar
Frederick, the neighboring farmer, owner of Pinchfield = Hitler
Mr. Pilkington, the other feuding farmer = U.S. and U.K.
Battle of the Windmill = WWII
Mr. Whymper = George Bernard Shaw (I had thought he might have represented Walter Duranty)
Hens = kulaks who destroyed their eggs like the farmers who destroyed their produce
Sheep = masses
Moses the Raven = Russian Orthodox religion
Horn and hoof green flag = hammer and sickle
Boxer, the hard working horse = the proletariat
Mollie = bourgeoisie or nobility, the Russian diaspora
Benjamin, the donkey = the author, George Orwell
Writing can be a powerful thing if the meanings of words come across successfully to your reading audience. The pen IS mightier than the sword and I hope my Kazakh students catch the essence of writing down their thoughts as often as possible so that what is documented can be looked back on in the future. Practice makes perfect and their writing can eventually stir others to action for the betterment of this great country of Kazakhstan.
The story of Animal Farm showed that those animals (the pigs and dogs) who could write the Seven Commandments on the side of the barn had power over those animals who remained illiterate. In fact, those who wrote had power to change the meaning of the laws by adding just a few words to the end of each law in order to twist the commandment to their advantage. Our memories are also important to remember the original truths. My students have better memories at their young age than us older folks. Institutional memory is important to have in order to counter the lies and pretense that harms rather than helps.
We, as older veteran teachers, have the experience like the donkey Benjamin, to outlive the pretense and charades that went on during the former Soviet Union. It is an achievement that the Animal Farm in real life was demolished 18 years ago but there are still remnants of the old thinking that is residual in our institution of higher learning. What will it take to have a REAL education to change society? Perhaps when teachers stop pretending to teach and REALLY teach and have a classroom full of students who REALLY want to learn. That would be an achievement in any country, not just in Kazakhstan! I think it happened in my classroom, I am hopeful and optimistic for Kazakhstan’s future.