Daily Archives: September 18, 2009

Cemetery for not so forgotten Textbooks

In a rather unconvincing tale “Shadow of the wind” by an equally unconvincing Catalan author,  Carlos Ruiz Zafon, we are introduced to the idea of a cemetery for forgotten books. Unconvincing because cemeteries are not generally for forgetting but for remembering (big gravestones, flowers, family visits),  and corpses are generally for rotting rather than ” living forever….”

Yet Daniel, the protagonist, takes such a book from such a cemetery and a tale of love, betrayal and truth slowly unfolds. Indeed, there is even a mysterious character intent on burning the last remaining copy of the book. Not the greatest of books, it has nevertheless become a best seller and even inspired guided tours around Barcelona, following the trails of the book through the very city in which it was set.

Clearly the editor of English File at Oxford University Press (OUP) Spain has read and been inspired by this very same book. When they re-launched English File as New English File they had to re-write and edit new material for their new books. OUP had to approach Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koening and ask them to write new material (expensive business). In 2008, New English File Upper-Intermediate rolled off the presses to join other illustrious titles such as New English File pre-Intermediate and New English File Intermediate.

The problem for the editor is that he or she was obviously fond of the former, plain English File Upper-Intermediate, first published in 2001 and wanted to save it from evil book burners. They could have chosen to store it in a secret warehouse or continue publishing it in opposition to the new book (promoting it as the “outdated edition”) but instead they chose to give it a new cover, and sell it as………..New English File Intermediate PLUS.

A beautiful story, I’m sure you will agree, and currently retailing to Spanish students for around 40 Euros.

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More than meets the eye: A closer look at Onestopenglish.com

In August 2009, Sara Hannam launched her highly thoughtful and challenging blog, Critical Mass ELT. In it she asks so many key questions about the language teaching industry. What particularly caught our eye was:

 What I want to do is step outside my comfort and safety zone sometimes and look between the gaps of the way people understand things to see if there is more to things than meets the eye. 

And it is in this spirit we would ask people to examine the role and purpose of  Onestopenglish.com in English language teaching. A seemingly benevolent website that even promotes the articles of Critical Mass ELT and Marxist TEFL Group, through its onestopblogs.

 Now the decision to charge visitors for the use of material in 2006 was a controversial decision as: 1) it had previously been free 2) was the product of an academic publisher, Macmillan, which already made handsome profits from the industry anyway. Of course, Macmillan Campus (responsible for the blog) can justifiably claim that the website had an expensive makeover before going subscription only and that 32 pounds per year is hardly excessive given the wealth of teaching resources available. However, we would go beyond this argument and remind readers that Macmillian publishers are part of an aggressive  media empire with a murky past where benevolence and generosity are mere marketing tools designed to improve its market position.

The founder of the Holtzbrinck Group, one Georg von Holtzbrink, which has owned Macmillan since 1995, was a card carrying Nazi who made his fortune during the Nazi years, publishing and distributing Nazi propaganda. After the defeat of the Nazis, Holtzbrinck faced imprisonment for his wartime activities but a judge found that his motivation for collaboration with the Nazis was economic and not political (oh, so that’s okay then?) and fined Holtzbrinck a mere 1,200 reichsmark; a tiny proportion  (1%) of the 120,140 reichsmark he had made during the war years.

The Holtzbrinck Group have, of course, gone from strength to strength since the judge’s leniency. Here is the Wiki entry

In the 1960s, it purchased Droemer, Kindler, Rowohlt and S. Fischer Verlag, two German publishing companies. In 1985, it acquired the retail book division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, naming it the Henry Holt Book Company. One year later, the company acquired Scientific American magazine for $52.6 million. In 1994, it purchased a majority interest in Farrar, Straus & Giroux from retiring Roger W. Straus, Jr.. A year later, it purchased a 70% majority interest in The Macmillan Group, and then the remaining shares in 1999.

Holtzbrinck has total annual sales of 2.1 billion euros (as of 2005); 49% of sales are in Germany and 23% in North America. It had 2005 earnings before taxes of 142 million euros, and a total of 14,000 employees.

When an article by David Margolick appeared in the June 1998 edition of Vanity Fair (original not available), however, concerning Georg Von Holzbrinck’s Nazi past, the company’s reputation was under threat. Apparently, in this original article the group’s representatives claimed  that the company had been “almost a member of the Resistance” and was stripped by the Nazis of its license to publish, This was of course untrue, but the company did hire a journalist, Thomas Garke-Rothbart, who was given “free access” to all relevant documents to report on the company’s past. After ten years of research, Garke-Rothbart published the results in a book, “für unseren Betrieb lebensnotwendig…” (Essential for our company’s survival). The book contains classic statements like:

Dieter, Monika and Stefan, said they saw “evidence of opportunistic behaviour,” but remember him as “a man without anti-Semitic or militaristic character traits.” After the war, in word and deed, he worked to compensate the people “who suffered under Nazi Germany. We share his commitment,” 

Garke-Rothbart concludes:

“Georg von Holtzbrinck’s behaviour was typical of the many owners of medium-sized businesses who came to terms with the equally medium and lower levels of the party and ministerial bureaucracy and the Wehrmacht offices responsible for producing books for the front,”

 Personally, we would have thought, “Making a Killing” or “Profiteering from Fascism” would have made better titles.

 Now, we are not suggesting, of course, onestopenglish is in fact onestopauschwitz. The activities of this website have nothing whatsoever to do with fascism. Nor are we saying that Macmillan or the Holtzbrinck group have any current ideological link with such politics. Indeed, Macmillan now refuse to publish work by the holocaust denier and general low-life, David Irving. Our point is that such economic opportunism is an insidious disease which eats away at ethical behaviour, undermines values of solidarity and the principles of protecting the vulnerable. From Holtzbrinck, to the Judge who fined him a trivial amount for his war-time activities to the journalist hired by the Holtzbrinks to “investigate”, there is this belief that profiting from misery is okay, not nice, but okay. 

Prior to 2006, teachers did what they always did/do, share material. They sent it off to onetopenglish. Some with the hope of showcasing their talents as potential textbook writers and others, the majority no doubt, because they just did/do (that’s the way teachers are, they stumble across a great idea for a lesson and they share it). And onestopenglish soon became an extremely popular resource for new and experienced teachers alike because, well, because the textbooks are inadequate. What a discomforting thought; a teacher pays an extra 32 pounds a year because the books produced by publishers (despite their cost) are inadequate for the task and who does he/she pay the money to, well the exact same publishers. Have we become so blinded by the prevalence of economic opportunism that we see this as inevitable and okay?

Here at Marxist TEFL, we want to heed the call of Sara Hannam, and look between the gaps, to challenge natural assumptions. For us, therefore, there is a gap between the service onestopenglish provides, and the company that provides it. A contradiction, a contradiction that is not easily visible because economic opportunism is seen as okay, the natural order of things. The jovial small shopkeeper, the dynamic entrepeneur, charging a small commission for their services. This, however, is no small shopkeeper or entrepeneur but a small part of a huge powerful media empire, a media empire that made its original fortune out of collaboration with the nazis. Something worth thinking about before you hand over your 32 pounds to those nice people at onestopenglish.

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