The House that John Haycraft Built. Notes towards a biography of the man who probably destroyed English Language Teaching as a profession.

The wiki entry for John Haycraft CBE John Stacpoole Haycraft CBE (11 December 1926 – 23 May 1996) claims:

The main creation of John Haycraft is International House World Organisation. It was started by John and his wife Brita Haycraft in 1953. A fervent internationalist, John strove to promote international understanding through language learning and teacher training.

When he died on 23 May 1996, he left behind a network of 100 (now over 200) schools that grew from the first school in Cordoba in Spain to cover 40 countries (now over fifty). John influenced the lives and careers of almost everybody involved in present day English language teaching.

We would go further than wiki by arguing that John Haycraft is to Modern TEFL what Lenin is to Marxism or Freud  to Psychology. This is not to say there have not been other contributors to the field, people who originated the idea of modern language teaching, but it was Haycraft who shaped the institutional structure that dominates the world of TEFL today, with its native speakers being dispatched around the world after only four weeks of training, with its reliance on self-reflection rather than supervision, with its eclecticism rather than a body of scientific knowledge, with its emphasis on private language schools working against the local education systems rather than with them. In this sense we can not disagree with but amplify the claim that he influenced  the lives and careers of almost everybody involved in present day English language teaching. We would not disagree either that Haycraft was a fervent internationalist but we would argue that his internationalism was the “internationalism” of the British Empire and not a world of equals but a world shaped in the image of  Oxford and Cambridge, in the interests of the rulers over the ruled.

Of course, Marxists do not see history as the result of actions of individuals but sets of social relationships, most notably class. This is not to say that key individuals (with their particular idiosyncrasies do not  shape history, rather that history (social relations) calls them forth and they play their particular part in their own distinctive style, and that these particular nuances can themselves help to propel history in certain directions and at certain speeds. Without doubt, Haycraft is one of those men, a man befitting a proper biography. Unfortunately, we do not have the resources here at Marxist TEFL to do this and we will have to content ourselves with a sketch of what that biography might look like. In what follows we shall give some rough notes towards that biography

 Part One. The remains of Empire

Haycraft was born in India in 1926, his father was serving in the British army. It is here where the roots of Haycraft’s internationalism can be found, beautifully summed up by a 19th century thinker qouted in Mad Tales and the British Raj:

The flowering, the highest peak perhaps in the lofty range of what the English have done, when a handfull of our countrymen, by the integrity of their character and with not much else to help them gave to millions for the first time for some centuries the idea that a ruler might be concerned with their well-being.

Now we don’t for one moment want to suggest that Haycraft believed in the continuation of the British empire in that same form; even despite the fact that our fervent internationalist served in that same army in the same country in 1947. Indeed, Haycraft was wise enough to know that the days of the Empire were numbered (even in 1947) that a new world order was coming into being, a world divided by the West on one side, under the military and economic tutelage of the US, and the Soviet Bloc on the other. He was also no doubt aware that, under the leadership of the US, new organisations and social relations were growing which tied those countries more closely together like Bretton Woods and NATO. He would have been aware that the intercommunication of these nation states would be key to thier “progress” in this new world, otherwise known as the cold war.

Indeed, it would have not have been lost on Haycraft that Nehru, the first president  of Independent India, was educated in the Britain, first at Harrow then at Trinity College. For Haycraft then as Anthony Sampson said of this “post-imperailst”:

 His remarkable career pointed the way to a new kind of British internationalism, with a dedicated professionalism in place of domination.

Otherwise put, the rule of ideas and the organisation of civil society, not the crude rule of armies. After all the Amerian army was now the the largest miltary force in the new world order, so that handfull of countrymen would have to find a new way to shape the world.

For anyone in any doubt, Haycraft’s class position is perfectly demonstrated by the fact that, after his father’s death*, he and his family were able to swan around Europe for 15 years on their father’s military pension. We can imagine few widows of British soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan being afforded the same priviledge today.

*Haycraft’s father was shot by one of his own soldiers but we are unable to find more information on this interesting historical footnote. Of course, we would welcome any information from readers.

Part Two The original TEFL Adventurer

John Haycraft was not the first person to set up a school outside the main teaching establishments, teaching students a new language only in the target language and not using the students’ own native tongue. No, what was particularly interesting about Haycraft’s project was the sense of adventure he projected into language teaching. Along with his wife, Brita, he established a language school operating out of a small apartment they rented in Cordoba, Spain in 1953. The school was suppposed to be a means to an end. A manner of earning money whilst Haycraft concentrated on his real passion, writing. This sense of TEFL as a means to travel and support other more worthy aspirations (maybe learn a language and get a good job when you “get back”) is exactly what Haycraft was to institutionalise on is return to London from Spain.

The Berlitz school had made its reputation for teaching business people, politicians and monarchs but Haycraft had travelled to a poor part of Europe largely ostracised by the rest of Europe (for the fact that it was a fascist dictatorship) and sought to teach all those willing to learn and even those in possession of relatively modest means:

 We had all types of people as pupils, apart from labourers. For, although our fees were small, few workmen could have afforded even fifty pesetas a month, and their low standards of literacy would have made the learning of another language almost impossible.

Haycraft “Babel in Spain”

Making money would not, apparently, be of such a priority because Haycraft said of the “under-development” of Spain at that time:

it is easier to reconcile oneself to discomfort in Spain than in more northern countries, a fact which so often escapes those foreign observers who estimate …a country by the cars on its roads, or the washing- machines in its homes, forgetting that this is like assessing the soul of a bell- boy by the number of buttons he wears on his uniform

Haycraft “Babel in Spain”

Is this not reminiscent of a handfull of our countrymen, by the integrity of their character and with not much else to help them? Indeed, Haycraft claims:

 I felt for my wallet which contained the odd £40 which remained to us. The return fare’s £26—£14 will probably last us about two weeks.’ ‘Anyway, we’re bound to get someone.’ Haycraft “Babel in Spain” 

And of course, Haycraft was not short of students. The United States had just signed a treaty with Franco, effectively ending their isolation from the world. American soldiers were to be stationed in Spain and loans would be made available for Spain. This was part of America’s battle against communism, overlooking the human rights abuses in the country in order to secure another ally in Europe.  This was the start of what is termed the economic miracle in Spain under Franco. Franco appointed a new government of technocrats to imporove the infrastuctue of the country and foreign money arrived in the shape of tourism and select foreign companies setting up factories throughout the country. One must remember that trade unions were illegal and, therefore, wages were very low and health and safety virtually non-existent. An excellent place to enjoy a cheap holiday or establish a factory. In this climate there was an upsurge in interst in learning languages. At this time too, many young workers and professionals were migrating abroad in order to escape repression and low pay. Paradoxically, the money they sent home and stories of another would also encouraged growth and stimulated language learning. Spain grew quickly from 1957 to 1973, ( only beaten by Japan) its progress halted by the economic crises of the early seventies.

So here we see the British Internationalism of Haycraft, seemingly disinterested in the fact that Spain was a dictatorship that tortured and murdered its political opponents, Haycraft like US president, Richard Nixon, believed that the solution to Spain’s problems rested in integrating itself with the new world order being constructed by America. A new world order where the suppression of workers’ rights and the supression of the cultures and languages of others (most notably Catalonia and the Basque country) were secondary to the fight against communism. By setting up his schools in Spain, Haycraft must have believed that his dedicated group of teachers were leading Spain to a new dawn. How else could one explain his comments:

It was interesting analysing the actual motives people had for starting classes. A few came for immediate commercial reasons. We soon formed a group of doctors who wanted to translate English and American medical reviews. Another class was sent and paid for by an olive distillery and became known as ‘the olive men’, which conjured up a picture of gnarled, brown little men, leaning over their books before creeping back to the olive groves to stretch up their arms, at sunrise, in postures of twisted agony. Many, like Vicente, came because they had a genuine interest in learning. Others, from the Army, wished to pass an exam which would give them a 15 per cent rise in pay.

Haycraft “Babel in Spain”

What exactly did students, these gnarled brown little men, have to learn, in addition to a language, that would satisfy Haycraft that they had a genuine interest in learning? What had Haycraft to teach them which exceeded that of language skills?

Parts 3, 4, 5 and 6 to follow.



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5 responses to “The House that John Haycraft Built. Notes towards a biography of the man who probably destroyed English Language Teaching as a profession.

  1. Nicholas

    Fascinating as usual. I’ll be looking forward to future installments.

    Being that one day soon I may find myself traipsing down the street to hand my CV over to the folks at the local IH, I’ve been looking for more information about this organization, which I know very little about really.

    Any suggestions for other sources along these lines? Just so I know what I may or may not be letting myself in for…

    • marxistelf

      Hi Nicholas,
      In truth, International House are usually a lot better than most other private academies, especially if they have a teacher training unit inside. However, the pay is not much better and in many cases worse.

      Of course, all will depend on the particular franchise. One “positive” is that working for International House may help you move to another city, country with greater ease.

      On the whole though, their method of TEFL adventurism and flooding the market with poorly trained teachers means you will always be under their influence. Unless of course, there are changes in the industry which undermine the hegemony of the CELTA certificate and reward better training, knowledge of the local culture/language and experience.

  2. Pingback: The House that John Haycraft Built. Part Three « Marxist TEFL Group

  3. Alienor

    I’m a Polish girl having English as my major at the uni. I’m in the top 10% students in my year and I do so well in my classes just because I spent 5 years in IH, starting in Elementary and ending up with CAE at the age of 15. And I wasn’t the youngest in my group.
    I would never have achieved that with the Polish school system. The English teachers in my school were unmotivated, bored and taught me nothing. English wouldn’t be such a passion for me if it wasn’t for the “poorly trained teachers” from IH. Really, two of my IH teachers got a job in my junior high, which specialized in languages. One of them was considered the best English teacher in town.
    Teaching foreign languages using only native speakers is rare in my country. After getting CAE I moved out to a city where there’s no IH school and I tried to attend others to get CPE. But after 2-3 months I dropped out, I couldn’t stand it. It was boring and unmotivating. I felt that I can’t learn anything new. If I could, I would move back, just to go to IH.
    Studying there was like an adventure. I prepared for the English class more than for any other, because those young people, who moved around the world taught me more than just a language. I changed from a shy girl who was terrified when she had to speak a word in the class to a woman who’s not afraid to talk about her views openly and argue. And believe me, this wouldn’t happen without IH people.
    I would really love the situation when teachers after studying 5 years and getting a Master degree (that’s a must in Poland to teach in junior high and above) would teach the language so well and do so much for their students as those guys after a few weeks’ course.

  4. I remember John and Brita well,and followed a career that I may not have had but for IH,although to teach was my dream.It was an inspiring school in the fact that the students were interesting, and the teachers that I met,my colleages,were well qualified and dedicated.We all enjoyed working in IH,we did not realise at the time that we were all making history.Methods were breakthrough, and learning was enjoyable.I have since retired and live in Malta.I can only remember my time at IH as a,great inspiration and interesting part of my life.The training carried me through a lifetime.
    I am sure other teachers loved the school,and work was enjoyable and we looked forward to each day.Life has changed considerably and with
    the many frontiers Afghanistan and Iraq appear to created,and modern day problems.International House enabled many nationalities to make friends thus breaking
    down barriers and promoting English as an international language.

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