Middlebury Language Schools Commencement, August 18, 2006
Associate Dean for International Affairs
President Liebowitz, members of the Board of trustees, thank you. It is truly a great pleasure for me to be here: what greater honor could I possibly hope for than to become a member of this community, one that is surely the leasing provider of language programs in the whole country?
It’s been a tough 10 days for all those of us who believe that moving people around the world is important if they are to understand each other. The news from England, that we must once again find tighter security methods for airline travel, is a blow. But for me that means that it is more important than ever to reflect on, and to celebrate, international experience. For those graduating today engagement with other cultures is already ingrained, is something to which you are committed. Sharing this commitment, I have been reflecting on two things we do when we travel: acquisition, and participation. I want to question the first, and applaud the second.
If are staying home for a while (whether for fear of airport chaos or perhaps beginning a new job, like me) and not experiencing another culture firsthand, perhaps you will be reading about someone else doing that. My most recent experience with this literature is Vermont’s own resident Jamaica Kincaid’s book, Among Flowers, about a trek in Nepal She sets out on a journey of acquisition, to acquire plants for her Vermont garden, not to explore language or culture. But she finds herself, in an unusually challenging environment, attempting that dive into immersion into a foreign culture familiar to us all:
“I went to breakfast and ate something with curry and mango and bananas, doing this with a feeling of getting into the local spirit of things….I was going into the
countryside where the Maoist guerrillas might be, and since they couldn’t kill the king, would they kill me instead?...the irony of me getting into the local spirit of things was not lost on me”
Acquisition leads, for the reluctant Jamaica Kincaid, down a road towards engagement. My own most recent sojourn abroad was also a mission of acquisition – in July I went to study Italian in Lecce, in southern Italy . No one at Harvard thought it odd that I would spend two weeks in Italy (most frequently-chosen vacation destination for Harvard faculty – after, of course, Wellfleet.) But people did ask why I felt the need to acquire another language, when I already have a pretty good knowledge of the other major Romance languages, and some others as well. My flippant response – that I figured that if I just twisted my Spanish and Latin and French and Portuguese together a bit it would come out Italian – was adequate for most of my questioners. But I was a little uncomfortable. My discomfort had something to do with that word “acquisition”.
“Language acquisition” is, of course, a technical term very familiar to everyone here. But – to acquire? In one of our Italian classes our teacher asked us about contemporary American culture, and I found myself talking (in some combination of Italian and other Romance languages, no doubt) about the way in which we place, in recent years, ever greater emphasis on stuff, on mountains of things, on consumption. It is important to make a lot of money in order to have all these things, in order to enjoy the contemporary paradise of retail therapy where everything is new, and designed, and coherent. I know it is not unique to this moment in history or to this country, but it seems to me overwhelming just now, this need we all have to acquire things, to own them, whether shoes or credentials. And so I thought, suddenly panicked, if I was going to Italy to “acquire” Italian, was I doing it to add to a collection? To own Italian? To set it on the mental shelf next to the others (shiny, well-buffed Spanish and, I’m sad to say, grubby, crumbling Welsh)? To add someone else’s language and world view to my box of anthropological tricks?
We need to think about languages not as things we acquire, lines on our resume, check marks on a to-do list, credentials. Those of you graduating today have invested in learning languages in ways that suggest that you are my natural allies in the work of reflecting on this issue. If we are acquiring anything, it is a ticket – an admission ticket. You graduates understand, having paid your dues: you have spent your summers of intensive language learning in Middlebury. And then abroad, you have worked when you could have played. Remember the decision you made to listen to tales of World War II from the old customer in the corner store when you could have been checking in on Paris Hilton on the internet; the daily battle with the local newspaper’s litany of corruption among the Town Council; the struggles with menus – you understand that languages are not about acquisition, but about participation. Participation means being willing to change: to eat dinner at 10.00 at night and breakfast standing at the counter in the corner bar; sometimes it means changing how you dress; it means recognizing that your most important conversations may be, for a while, with the old guy in the bar or your five year old homestay sister or the lady in the post office. I’ve had the privilege of spending time at the Language Schools in Madrid and in China, and I know this kind of engagement is one of the strategies promoted by the Middlebury Language Schools- one reason why you do what you do so well. This kind of participation that Middlebury programs fosters is the work of standing in another’s shoes, of looking at the world from their vantage point, of understanding why things look different to Jamaica Kincaid’s Maoist guerrillas or to the Italian ex-partisan drinking grappa in the piazza. Participation is about listening as well as talking; it’s about breaking through the curtain of sound presented by a language we do not understand until we hear first what is said, and then, later, what is meant. This is not about acquiring - if anything it’s about losing something – losing a certainty of rightness, losing assumptions. It’s about skinny dipping in the cultural stream.
I am unusually aware of the importance of this distinction just at present not only because I’ve just spent time abroad learning a language, but also because of this moment in the foreign policy of this country – my adopted country, the country that I have chosen – and my fear for the way in which America is being seen, and interpreted, and judged in the global community, on the basis of our government’s current actions, and attitudes, and above all, words. Those of you who have been living abroad in recent months will have seen the way in which the choices we have made and are making – whether in invading a country or delaying a call for cease fire, in appointing a representative to the UN; seeking to change the language of the Geneva Convention or refusing to ratify an accord – are interpreted as an attitude of acquisition. America is seen as seeking to own the right to decide, rather than looking for ways to be a creative participant in the global community.
I believe that people like us, who work to participate in other cultures, not to collect them, who must stand for an America that seeks full participation. We are committed to celebrating and to defending diversity and not merely to declaring we’ve been there, done that, and – most important – bought the T shirt. It is we who must and can work towards having America move in the global community as a partner, as a participant, and not as an acquisitor. When Middlebury graduates teach, or negotiate, or work in a service organization, or for the government, or, like me, figuring out how to send young people abroad - this is an element of our work. And it is something in which we can take pride and comfort as we try to answer the questions posed by our friends and colleagues abroad about America’s current posture.
While these larger goals are always present, you know also what the personal rewards of participation, of engagement, can be. Our exterior lives are full of noise and activity. But when we are abroad, knowing we need to listen more carefully, we are more likely to allow the interior silence necessary for reflection. We walk down an unfamiliar street, intensely curious about the lives of those around us, and indeed about the very stones of the street. We watch the children and the dogs and the comings and goings of this environment with a different level of engagement. There is nothing quite like that sense of creating a new self, of belonging in a place to which we do not belong, and as you know, the phase of tongue-tied observation is the first step, a fundamental act of participation. Then it is followed by the sense of exhilaration that comes with a growing ability simply to talk with people, to know what they are meaning and not just what they are saying. We can as individuals be participants in the world, and when we do this by way of learning the language of the country, we are trying to do it on equal terms. That seems to me to be what, as an American abroad, I most want to do just now. I want to be in Italian, not to acquire it.
Which brings us back to Jamaica Kincaid, who was in the business of acquisition – but acquisition of a renewable resource, to spread knowledge and understanding and beauty. And while acquiring plants, she was participating:
What was I doing in a world in which King and Maoists were in mortal conflict? The irony of me getting into the local spirit of things was not lost on me, but this feeling of estrangement was soon replaced altogether with a sense of being lost in amazement and wonder and awe. From time to time I lost a sense of who I was, what I thought myself to be, what I knew to be my own true self, but this did not make me panic or become full of fear, I only viewed everything I came upon with complete acceptance as if I expected there to be no border between myself and what I was seeing before me, no border between myself and my day to day existence.
This passage captures for me the pleasure, and the significance, of real engagement with other cultures. And that engagement increases immeasurably when we add the nuanced understanding of listening to others speak in their own language, in their own voices. You have done the work, in preparing for your degrees, that permits you not only to hear what they mean, but to join your voice to theirs. And you will do this, I know, with due humility, engaging in an egalitarian conversation in which everyone participates, and no one is acquiring anything – except of course those qualities which, like transplanted Nepalese rhododendrons, only grow stronger when they are shared: knowledge, and friendship, and respect.