Presidential Languages (or Lack Thereof)

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It isn’t that a U.S. president who spoke two or more languages would be wiser, humbler, or even more learned than one who didn’t. Such a person would not necessarily respect other countries and cultures, support language education, or recognize the gifts that immigrants can bring. Yet he or she could strengthen and enrich the country in the following ways.

Language learning would become a recognized good. A president who learned a second language would inspire others do do the same, or at least deflate the notion that speaking languages other than English makes you un-American. Learning languages and being American (i.e., United States American) would come together.

A president who had learned a second language at home–for instance, from immigrant parents or grandparents–would understand what it means to translate from language to language, country to country, generation to generation; to switch languages upon entering and leaving the home; to know certain registers of a language but not others; to have a feeling for a language and its cadences; and more.

A president who had learned a second language through study would know what it was like to understand little or nothing, initially, of what others were saying, and then come to understand it over time. Such a president would recognize that understanding comes gradually and is never complete.

A president who spoke more than one language would earn respect both abroad and at home, for a good reason: he or she does not expect others to speak English all the time but can return the linguistic gesture.

Granted, a president could have all of these qualities–and more–without knowing a second language. About half of the U.S. presidents so far knew at least one language besides English, or a little of a language–but many esteemed ones, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, did not. John Quincy Adams studied many languages, including Dutch, Italian, and Russian, but his intellectual appetite was rare. Barack Obama speaks only English (and a little Indonesian, perhaps) but has tried many languages, even a few phrases here and there.

Far on the other end of things, Trump might know a little Gaelic (from his mother’s side of the family) and German (from his father’s), but I see no sign that he takes interest in these languages or does anything to increase his knowledge of them. If he did, his presidential demeanor and attitude would be different.

Once again: learning languages does not make you a better person, but it does make you aware of things you don’t know. Besides that, it’s interesting, and it’s good to do interesting things and learn to do them better, whether you’re a president, teacher, high school student, professional athlete, train conductor, magician, dolphin, or cat.

Yes, and despite the apparent disregard for languages at the presidential level, young people today have far more ways to study abroad, practice languages, meet native speakers, etc., than they did a few decades ago. Dual language schools have become increasingly common; study-abroad programs have taken new forms. Languages are not on the wane in the U.S., but they need more recognition. They need to inform the way we think and speak.

Still, I see small signs of an uplift in public discussion: more calls for listening to others, more admission of fallibility, more recognition of the issues at stake. Maybe in the upcoming elections we (across the political divides) will choose leaders who not only know things about the world but seek, in their daily work and leisure, to learn more. Maybe we will begin by doing the same ourselves. Maybe intellectual life, long demeaned in the U.S., will find its way over time to new respect and honor. And maybe languages will play a part.

A little addendum: Speaking of languages, I can now say the rather meaningless sentence “The most important thing is what we are doing now” in Hungarian: “A legfontosabb dolog az, amit most csinálunk.” Six months ago I could have memorized it, but now I understand more of the grammar and can put it together logically. “Fontos” means “important”; to say “more important,” you add the suffix “-abb,” and to say “most important,” you add the prefix “leg-” to this. “Dolog” can mean “matter,” “thing,” or “work.” “Amit” (“which” or “that”) is a subordinating conjunction consisting of “mit” (“what”) and the prefix “a-.” You can form other subordinating conjunctions in a similar manner: “ahol,” “amikor,” etc. Bit by bit, the language is taking shape in my mind.

 

In the photo above, Minnaloushe is looking intently at the Hungarian word “macska.” You can see from the slight blur that this did not last long.

 

 

“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

 

 

Twitter, Trump, and Trivialization

electric-companyFrom what I have seen and gathered, Twitter can be a quick and efficient way to spread information. But it also invites one-off, irresponsible, incomplete comments that gain momentum as they go.

Mitchell D. Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department (and now Executive Managing Director for Intelligence and Analytic Solutions at K2 Intelligence), explained the relation between social media (particularly of the Twitter variety) and acts of hatred and violence: “You started out with the hostile tweets. You moved to the bomb threats against JCCs and other institutions, and now you have a physical manifestation at the cemeteries with the gravestones knocked over.” (This quote is from yesterday’s New York Times article “Threats and Vandalism Leave American Jews on Edge in Trump Era” by Alan Blinder, Serge F. Kovaleski, and Adam Goldman.)

I do not know that Twitter is influencing any of the recent killings, bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, or other acts. But a medium that encourages fragmented, sensationalist, extreme expression cannot be helping the situation. Twitter has replaced other kinds of online conversation; people go there first for their updates and reactions.

Now we have a president who thrives on Twitter—who may even owe his electoral victory to his relationship with the tweet. In October 2015, Michael Barbaro explained (in another New York Times article) how Trump used the medium to promote himself and cut others down:

On Twitter, Mr. Trump has assembled an online SWAT team of devoted (some say rabid) supporters who spring into action with stunning speed. In a pattern that has played out over and over, he makes a provocative remark, like one about Mrs. Fiorina’s face — “Would anybody vote for that?’’ — and hundreds of thousands of strangers defend him, spread his message and engage in emotional debates with his critics, all the while ensuring he remains the subject of a constant conversation.

Yes, this is the style of our chief executive. The danger lies not only in the meanness of his remarks—which is appalling—but in the lack of reason. He maintains these qualities of speech both online and offline. About the vandalism of the Jewish cemeteries, he reportedly told the state attorneys general that the threats and destruction might be a politically coordinated effort to “make people look bad.”

That is not even a statement. It is a half-hint. Is he saying that someone did this to make him look bad? Or does he mean something else? Where are these words coming from? Who are the “people” to whom he refers? Presidents throughout history have exploited the vagueness of language, but this goes beyond vagueness; while making little sense, it also trivializes what has happened and sheds responsibility.

Such trivialization aids the violence even if it doesn’t cause it. If you reduce an act of violence to a vague handful of words, you encourage others to respond in kind. Those upset by these events but trying to make sense of them may end up spending hours clicking tweets and links, becoming, as Jesse Singal puts it, “click-zombies,” instead of putting their efforts into clearer speech).

If headstones are being toppled, people are being killed for their race and origin, community centers are receiving bomb threats, cars and buildings are being spray-painted with Nazi graffiti, and our most popular social media sites are set up for wrist-jerk responses, then not only our language but our places of speech are crying for repair.

Image credit: From an the PBS program The Electric Company (still image taken from video).

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.