Archive for April 2011

Avatars of the Spanish Language in the Home of the Brave circa 2011. By Fernando Gomez Herrero (Oberlin College).

Avatars: think of the etymology in both languages, a relatively recent one,  according to the OED, that must be related, but for both languages?, to the legacy of the English colonization of India: the descent or appearance of the Hindu Supreme Being, the incarnation of the deity, the personifications, the manifestations, the “renditions,” or institutional configurations of Spanish / English relations in the USA early in the  21st century. In more secular language, one must also contemplate the theoretical possibility of the debilitation of the interpellation of the deity, the weak appeal perhaps, the decline, decay or de-institutionalization, and some of these visible forms will be assuming digital forms, side by side James Cameron’s recent film Avatar.

My initial suggestion: university life, like the crowded cabin in the great filmThe Night at the Opera (1935) of the Marx Brothers, “classic” American humor in a society that appears utterly unwilling and perhaps utterly incapable of remembering what was happening in its midst a few decades ago at the basic level of popular culture. Incongruously crowded, bad crowded, funny for those in the cabin if you are not one of the brothers not known by young generations? This is a token example of the popular or mass culture, mind you. I am not talking about books. And to my surprise only one or two out 30 students could identify the classic American comedians. Go to the reference desk of the closest library and ask for good suggestions regarding “classic” American film –or classic anything– and see what happens. “Classic” means little or nothing. Background? Context? Old stuff? The previous or early version, or precedent, of a certain consumer product (computer programs, soda drinks)?. Again, the Marx Brothers: “classic” cultural modality of the immediate past that the vast majority of my current students could not identify. Don’t despair. Classic American humor device: ask in fully grammatical Spanish for good classic foreign film references and see what happens. Continue piling up the reference-desk with pertinent and impertinent, congruous and incongruous questions…

Ordering Dinner and Crowded Cabin Scene

One possible general definition of any classicism: the pertinence of a symbolic production, or the intellectual congruity of collective referentiality or sustainable tradition. Book culture: classics, the heritage of Greek and Latin traditions. The format of national traditions: Baroque as the “classic” moment of Spanish and Latin American letters as the subject and keyword searches in library items will tell you in the English-speaking world, at least on this side of the Atlantic (do you want to bet on the strong awareness of the Baroque in the immediate society?, what about the neo-baroque?). In general terms, classicism can be said to be the matrix of intelligibility or even any notion of “center.” O.k. then: torn, twisted, broken matrix and off- or even de-center. It appears that we live on the other side of the negative nouns in the previous sentences (impertinence, non- or anti-intellectual, incongruity, de-referentiality, unsustainable, etc.), at least in the immediate circumstance of the US. Does this lack of orientation and obliviousness feel like flexibility and liberation? What holds the theoretical possibility of meaningful points of reference? Family and family history, ethnic affiliations, the official political structure of your society, university education, a sense of having been somewhere in the past for example in relation to historic buildings in your immediate living environment, or even in the historical figures populating your imagination, increasingly, the virtualization of reality, the simulacra of the world, digitality, small bits and fast pieces of information loosely joined and the world-wide- web framelessness…? In the brutal separation –in this society, particularly—among generations, one big thing: how to make sense of (social) things in a way that the sense-making operation holds and is not totally ephemeral or individualistic?

If we have no sense of time-passing –or chronology– or place –or geography–, and these things –like everything– change historically, of course, then what kind of society is this? And how does this society relate to itself, to its own becoming, what was and what will be, but also what wasn’t and will not be, and also to societies deemed different or other?  And it is not difficult to see at the personal, biographical level how one may want to clean up the house of the accumulated clutter of old things that is bringing you down, and get rid of it, for example, after the death of dear ones in a lifeless place, and move on. Remember the light touch, the device of creative anachronism mocking atavisms, in a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: why use the horse when I have a good bike? Why the candle when I have the lighter in my pocket? Your sword against my gun? Remember the Nietzschean repudiation of antiquarianism, the deliberate forgetfulness as a strong form of vengeance against morbid old forms of no vitality. And you may wish to remember the forgetting about most things European that your family left behind to become something new, call it American. But, how far can you go in this clean-slate making of any collectivity?

Again, another example, world football or “soccer,” as in the World Cup competition last year, or the Champions League 2011 currently happening while I am writing these pages; clearly one –if not the– biggest world sports competition out there in the true sense of “world,” or international platform with teams and players from many different nationalities, and obscene amounts of money. The disconnect: very poor awareness and very poor coverage in the US, and very poor quality in the coverage, very poor access to this information and utter sense of no-sense of history or background whatsoever in relation to such event in the poor coverage and if only for the business mindset and the money and world attention in the information society and global village… In the US, soccer is associated popularly with little girls playing the beautiful game, something that does not happen in significant numbers anywhere else in the rest of the world, as though the game was not manly enough in relation to the brutality of (American) football (the Americanization and transfer of the name of the game invented by the English, probably in combination with rugby, comes into being in detriment of the language use of the rest of the worl). So, the point: the great divide, or the big disconnect, and some will ask: “o.k., and what about basketball, or the Olympic Games?, and the point is well taken. Yet, I am holding to the US reluctance to mix vigorously with truly international platforms, particularly when the centers or winners of such games are elsewhere. One provocation: institutional, university-level Spanish is like soccer in the US domain against the larger world dimension.

I am trying to keep it somewhat light, but some of these impressions are genuinely disturbing informing all dimensions of (foreign) “studies.” One repetition: This is a complex society with no good collective global positioning system, utterly unaware of its place in relation to itself, utterly unaware of its place in the history of the world, with discombobulated frames of intelligibility, and yet it does not hesitate to call itself number one…  Also now? This brings me to the issue of “knowledge.”

Knowledge production side by side the business culture or the business model (synonyms: corporate university, privatized college, capitalist society). Have you noticed how “culture” has come to mean something vague and thin, like modality, way of doing things, the way things get done around here or there? The visual culture, teenage culture, beach culture… There is an unmistakable desemanticization, a lazy lip, a non-descript way of saying one supple thing, or nothing in particular, that may cover many manifestations. Bill O’Reilly’s Culture Warrior! Want some? So, knowledge? Of what kind? And how does this knowledge relate to knowledge the way it was put together a few decades ago, a century ago? And whose knowledge? Forget about the funny crowded cabin for a minute: will we be in a position to know much about courses taught, academic configurations and traditions of scholarship and intellectual life in the US and elsewhere to be able to make the comparison? Do we care? Do the academic units we now inhabit, ever so precariously, increasingly discontinuous and disjointed, come quickly with the caring?

It could be the best of times and it could be the worst of times. In serious moments of genuine budget crisis, across-the-board downsizing and reconfiguration of what still amounts to be called “university knowledge,” multilingual humanities are weathering the storm, ever so precariously. It is always a humbling exercise to remember the etymology of “university:” the institution that theoretically fosters access to a totality or universe, and there will be more than one. And of course there are interests and ideologies and states attached to such institutionality of knowledge production. The normality I would put to you now being the opposite: the increasing fragmentation of knowledge, the repudiation of synthetic structures, of the “uni-verse,” and the
“minority status” of the “humanities,” or even of the anti-humanities. The English lingua franca of globality is related –at least domestically in the US—to the modern-foreign-language packaging of a plurality of languages, most often, always?, stuck at basic or intermediate levels (Spanish has typically more gross numbers than all these other languages put together, but not at the faculty level). English-mostly, or English-only globalization means that the very word of “humanities” is un-American, uncommon and antiquated, “foreign” and for the most part unwelcome, whether explicitly or not. I would argue the same fate for the more common label of the “liberal arts.” Liberal? The normality is limited liberal, a- or anti-humanities, and the thinning out of basic-literacy skills in English-mostly or only settings. You can easily see the institutional manufacture of de-skilling, perhaps a defensive mechanism of an institutional life in crisis,  operating at all levels from student achievement to faculty retention, etc. A Spanish degree will not be pursued for the most part either. Most American students will never go beyond intermediate levels in Spanish, barely reaching complex-sentence structure to ossify soon after. Spanish is thus escort service, not of a glamorous kind, of thin academic achievement increasingly losing social meaning. There is a big loss of what was: American students have no sense of what philology stands for and this is meaningful in the current situation of uncoupling literature from history. But there is no acquaintance with Western philosophy either and all disciplines are a bit like dangling skeletons drying up in the sun of a nondescript landscape with no sustainable points of collective referentiality. We inhabit small social areas of cultural studies increasingly interchangeable, improvised, adjustable and detached from larger vistas. We are still mostly dealing –but for how long?– with a certain handling of a certain textuality, sociology of culture?, in an increasingly non-textual society of weak social ties, as sociologists remind us, but also not dialogic or non-discursive. This Spanish “thing” is at least the institutional variety, truly a “minority” affair, in more ways than one, inside academic units typically treated as “service departments.” The naturalization of diglossia in English / Spanish relations is such that the linguistic concept will be unintelligible to the silent majority with little patience for such matters.

Language and language only, says the instrumentalist conception of language, increasingly not required item in your undergraduate education, with a bit of literature and culture, perhaps, for decoration purposes, a little bit but not too much. And how little is little? And how much is too much? Again, the light sociological handling of a text- and textuality—and the exposure and decoding of some images –or visuality— with an “adhoc culture.” In a society poorly trained in textual and visual literacy, “culture” becomes the joker-card to play to win what? (there are ideological disputes in the vicinity of this sign in some academic environments but this is largely invisible to the public at large). The point is this: in a predominantly visual and global society, how come the poor or nil  acquaintance with mass phenomena such as the Marx Brothers and the Champions League? (you can actually google Groucho Marx and see television clips of him in the 1950s and 1960s!, and there will be free and irregular and foreign internet viewing of the games in various languages, Spanish being one of them). Is FGH making too much of a sport that is simply not national pastime yet? Also of the utter unawareness of the old comedians in black-and-white films in an ephemeral society saturated with fast-changing images coming at you from every single virtual angle? With textuality appreciation receding, Spanish courses increasingly carry a film component…  I am a film fan: I think this is essentially a surrender to the thinning out of the academic configuration in an increasingly customer-and-consumer environment that goes for easy –the easy way in and the easy way out.

What truth do the signs “knowledge” and “education” hold in the university environment? What do they mean against the larger social background? One option, at least from the standpoint of the consumer: an “externality” of the core social relations taking place inside education environments with the motor of the capitalist-business mechanism embedded in them (the term “externality” coming from “classical” economic theory as the wanted and beneficial or unwanted and typically unacknowledged bad consequence of an exchange narrowly conceived in purely economic and capitalistic terms of short-term benefit).  So, the outsourcing of (foreign) studies finds the externality of the humanities in the immediate college circumstance, whether you want this good side-effect or you don’t care about it, the main purpose of the university-education endeavor is the purchase of a social space and symbolic capital –not necessarily with mighty intrinsic content– that you wish to make yours for quick profit in the short term.  If this is the “mainstream culture,” what does the “literature” say? Here, “literature” mostly means what it already means in the social sciences: the pertinent writing in relation to a specific subject matter. In relation to institutionality, branding. What if the society does not function textually, rhetorically in the appreciation of beautiful letters anymore, but paratactically with image saturation in relation to university-cultural-goods that help decorate the consumer in a certain way for the ideal participation in the labor force? Is this ideal still happening in the home of the brave circa 2011? The smallness of the “literature,” but also of “fiction,” is increasingly an expensive commodity afforded by the few customers and consumers who can foot the bill inside a privatized, commodified system attached to a society that largely does not put great value in such concrete dedication. Spanish is a little island in this cultural archipelago. Or am I wrong?

“Liberal ideology” –for a lack of a better rubric– always prevents the sustained questioning of its assumed frames of intelligibility, and also of its immediate conditions of knowledge production, wanting (humanistic) knowledge manufacture to function socially as docile, light, smooth and noiseless as possible. And above all, it will never put its own limitations and repressive mechanisms in public, while playing the game of “diversity” and “tolerance” (the hypocritical claim is that of total tolerance and non-denominational openness while pinning intolerance to some ghost of foreignness, and one is instantly reminded of Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance”). Think of the diversity of the label “world music” in the music industry, currently in some disarray. Think about the foreign coverage in journalistic venues, also in some disarray.  Do you remember the last time you saw a foreign dimension presented in such a way that you felt genuine jealousy in relation to your own social, institutional limitations? This big issue of the ideal “here” and the foreign “there” may go in the direction of various environments, obviously. What are the foreign materials –even in translation– that get to be used in conventional American instruction? What type of English is not “foreign” in a way that all other languages fit into the category in quotation marks? The journalistic parallel: foreign correspondents do not exist anymore. The coverage of the global dimension is increasingly “localized” through fewer outlets, while there is an increasing fragmentation of established venues (if you wish, of increasing debilitation, decay, informality, even de-establishment of “authority sources,” and the genuine problem of ascertaining “provenance” of information, the last two terms in quotes coming from library parlance in moments of imposing digitality and apparent world-wide-web framelessness). This is a pressing social issue that bypasses conventional approaches to decoding texts deemed literary, largely detached from histories of national literature (the last adjective being replaced by continents or adhocced themes).

Admired Paul Virilio has spoken eloquently about the deterrence of the idea of the university in these global-network environments (two meanings: the increasingly burocratized, commodified, administered university space, at least as we now know it, does effectively the deterrence, it does more control of social energies and of knowledge production than the expansive release of enlightenment or renaissance ideals say; and second, the crisis of the university means its historical arrest, perhaps its mutation, or even its liquidation, in that it is having a hard time catching up with social phenomena of the global society such as the impact of digitality previously mentioned). It is acceptable to wonder if universities are maximizing the volume, intensity and quality of the information potentials, and if not, why not, against the level of information quality of American society at large in the current global village of apparently unstoppable divergence. Mutatis mutandis: when knowledge is most needed, there is downsizing and deskilling structurally at all institutional levels. Guess who is coming to dinner… When Spanish is growing in gross student numbers, Spanish is undergoing identical downsizing and deskilling while being still treated as “foreign,” and not yet “normalized” –also in the Foucault sense of the term (the Hispanic typology acquiring official status since Nixon). Accordingly, all Spanish courses are typically put in the “cultural diversity” humanities basket, euphemism for non-US and disenfranchised groups; and it is clear that this token quota vanishes in the thin air of an increasingly flexible course-requirement frame, at odds with the projection of American-population at large, but emphatically not in relation to professional-institutional quotas across the professional board. Don’t worry, the single-digit of Hispanic representatives will be safely “diverse” in boards of trustees… Think foreign, non-English-language book market share in the US, 2/3%? Films? Would Cantinflas do when the Marx Brothers don’t? With increasing interest in soccer in the US, the poor global positioning with no system of the Champions League phenomena holds… comparatively in relation to institutional clumsiness. Do we sense now a bit better the big problem appertaining to the legendary provincialization of the US university system –and of US society at large– apropos the knowledge production of the universe?

In moments of tremendous social challenges, the general university response appears to be of a withdrawal symptom, of a disavowal, as though the American psyche could feel that it cannot keep up if it engaged vigorously on equal terms with those uncertainties and challenges and there will be glorious exceptions, I am sure. Yet, the generalization is that these academic spaces are thinning out the intellectuality and also its academic constitutionality (check out the recent Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa for some data). There is a tremendous lack of eloquence and of courage inside academic environments increasingly broken by a post-affluence market logic that seeks cheaper sources and cheaper services in the discontinuous, deskilled provision of intangible consumer goods. The silence is so thick you can cut it with a chainsaw almost as though in a horror movie. How much is the Spanish consumer good wanted by the American customers? How much is any education consumer good wanted by the American consumers? How to go about the demand-and-supply in between faculty-and-students with the administrators’ wisdom? What I see is a genuine contraction, when there should be expansionism and experimentalism, with or without little money. Money has been the core issue of the humanities, poorly paid since the Stone Age in relation to the vast majority of its representatives in this and other societies. Nothing will be lost that was not lost a long time ago. It may well be the end of the university world as some of us knew it and you may feel fine, perhaps.

The business logic: cheaper is better, irrespective of the mounting complexity. Study programs are being reduced, and made ornamental decoration, I am particularly thinking of the “foreign humanities,” never high in the “native” agenda, or even terminated. Study-abroad programs mean many things certainly, and typically controlled-environment exposure to an “outside,” which is better than no-exposure at all. The outsourcing of institutional services is perhaps the predominant meaning, from the business standpoint, typically done on the cheap, as a way of mitigating the immediate institutional lifelessness. So, in a sense, short-term exposure to foreign novelty and greater social vitality, compensates for the thin-value of the American accreditation inside which such international experience fits in the first place, with the emphasis mostly on resume building. Hiring of credentialed “educators” takes place exclusively at lower levels with grotesque payment conditions (think bureaucratic mechanisms of social ordering based on mitigated meritocracy and of the docile doing of the most institutional time). Always in the business culture, follow the money: get the human resources cheap, as cheap as possible, short-term, disregard intellectual, big-brain production, training, trajectory, projection, build your business upon short sequences, foster built-in discontinuity, irrespective of knowledge, content expertise and experience, inside a “dumbing-down” mechanism, almost like a gravitational pull, that brings down de facto, if not de iure the higher in higher education (I am fond of quoting the PuertoRican false cognate of “colegio” for college, which hits the mark by missing it!).

There is a structural mechanism here: content gets thin and thin and allegorically shakes hands with shaky subjects of knowledge production getting thinner and thinner inside the liberal ideology that de-differentiates consumer goods and places the subjects of knowledge at a disadvantage in the discerning eyes of the customer who is always right. What to invoke to try to prevent this normality from happening? What to appeal to in this very American –but not exclusively American– state of university education on the sliding scale? Customer satisfaction? The enlightened self-interest of the nomadic monad? The well-being of the commonwealth? The green sustainability of the locality? This long-term tradition or that one? Loyalty and faith? Leaner education that will help you get a job? Being number one? I can see the salutariness of the occasional disunity and fragmentation, but for the duration? Academia is not substantially different from this American (un-)becoming conditioning, yet how does academia speak to itself and to society at large? Spanish in US academia is obviously not either, and perhaps both dissimilar dimensions are undergoing a process of provincialization that will not make it stronger. Spanish-language instruction remains appallingly shallow exclusively in introductory courses at very modest literacy levels of literature- and-culture (no interpenetrations with the social sciences, no shadow of a thin presence in the natural sciences, etc.). How obsolete is this? Good for what? And for whom? With all other languages fighting for their institutional lives, Spanish remains alive and well –well… playing with the yellow-rubber duckies in the “Duck Soup” –Marx Brothers reference, mind you– in the waters of a/grammaticality– holding hands with its bigger sister, English, also not enjoying an exuberant or expansive academic moment.

Read my lips: I am not defending it (Spanish); “it” does not need my defending, who am I am claiming, wanting to defend it? A bit of linguistic terminology: synecdoque, the use of the part for the whole, and when you get it you realize the relationship of the totality and its many portions, big and small. And the winning intellectual move is always to try to historicize the totality and never mistake the immediate institutionality with such totality in relation to the phenomenon of Spanish or any other. The mosquito (yours truly) cannot claim to save the big bull (Spanish). It is grotesque to think in that way. If Spanish is part of me, well, yes, and? I think it is the oppossite, I am part of it, a single individual inside a thousand-year historical creature that does not need my defending, even when undergoing the general institutionalization of benign neglect that historically fails to account for the vastness of such social phenomena. And one must be strong enough, particularly after all these years, to manage to account intellectually for the theoretical possibility mentioned at the beginning of these pages, of the twilight of the gods, of the decline and decay and de-institutionalization of the academic avatars of Spanish…  When you come to think of it, Spanish has a bigger chronology than anyone institution in Uncle Sam’s home of the brave, the home included. What part and what whole, then? Read more carefully: I am genuinely not interested in defending the ultimate goal of the “the modern foreign language” set-up particularly inside current degrading institutionalities of which I am only scratching the surface. This battle may already have been lost a long time ago. And two things about this type of thinking: it is not intelligent and it is not enough. Again, “it” does not need my defending. And “it” is not a “thing.” And these pages are fundamentally not about languages, the English language included, which is also part of me, and I am rather part of it, which I love with equal love. There is no either-or issue here, English or Spanish?, grotesque abomination! None of that. And some of your immensely aged colleagues will be scratching the scalp of their own subaltern history of institutional degradation not quite getting the full avenue of lices (such was the funny toponym where I used to live a few years back, the avenida de las pulgas!).

In closing, there are larger issues. What kind of society is this that treats “knowledge” mostly like brand-name markers of immaterial education “goods” as though lined up in the convenience store, or like gadgets, tools, or kitchen appliances, and keeps them separate, even breaks them down into smithereens, and pays cheaper and cheaper, and brings skills of sophistication down and down and puts them in some spinning wheel and pushes the button of the fast cleaning cycle to get what, where? With no ghost of an inspirational origin, remember that three or four decades ago has gone the way of the Marx Brothers. And, with no sense of destination or teleology: whither? USA: pure immanence, tense and fast-paced, typically individualized in practical, short-term goals against no background or larger context. And it will surprise you to witness how the “natives” will embrace the disoriented, formless or amorphous conditioning of their –also yours?—own global society, the sign “American” remaining empty subject position, no history, no culture, formless and amorphous, and in the same simple-sentence structure the ideal-type –in the Weberian sense– particularly when antagonized to a constructed, simplified formula of a foreign challenge. Is this society sustainable? Are university houses about the making of rich, comparative knowledge production that allows for greater circulation in the big world out there? As mentioned, Virilio spoke of the deterrence of the university setting (“classically,” subjective and objective genitive: the university does the bad deed of containment and deterrence of expansive vistas of social reality; and the bad deed of being left behind or obsolescence is happening to the venerable idea of the institution once called university particularly among the business-minded managers). It is a sign of health to be skeptical of the invocation of the positive signs of “knowledge” in the official house of knowledge production (also of “education,” “tolerance,” “diversity,” etc.).

How easy is it for the average American student enrolled in the conventional basic-level Spanish-language class to be exposed to the diachronic richness of Spanish in the conventional arrangement of the US university setting? How hungry will s/he be for such knowledge typically pursued for a couple of courses and rarely for the official recognition of a degree with little recognition, domestically and internationally? Spanish: typically, “Hispanic and not white,” in between “black and white” in the US racial typology, which is a grotesque misnomer, that of “race,” unless you happen to be an old-fashioned racist, and I of course understand that one must use the old language selectively; Spanish also not quite part of the West, at least in the English-speaking understanding of the vague term, meaning something like technological development or modernity, while also flawlessly going for the bi-continentality of the Western Hemisphere, and effortlessly appropriating the shorthand of America for the immediate nationality that still firmly delinks from global avatars. There will be no fastidious chronology and no strong geographical sense. But there is more: Spanish, always in the contemporary US platform, is mostly non-European dimension; mostly “modern and foreign,” but not quite “modern” and not quite “foreign, not only “out there” anymore, but “in here,” but in what manner if not in a subaltern status promoted by most institutionalities of languages, literatures and cultures, often by the very Spanish or Hispanic Studies departments themselves? Finally, Spanish is mostly popular culture of some kind –food and pop music– than high and prestigious culture, etc. This is the conventional US understanding of Spanish that has nothing to do with the big picture of the game of Spanish… How to game the system? Go catch it in meaningful, powerful ways in American institutions of higher learning or in American society at large circa 2011! And I recall the experience of the Conexiones book and how difficult it is in our moments of global information village to find audiovisual material in the google world of ours in relation to the role-model Hispanic individuals in the immediate US context included in it. Dare I say?: Dreary, awful tabula rasa of institutional Spanish accordingly that must be put within the big, dreary awful tabula rasa of genuine disconnection and disorientation of the immediate society at large (Jean Baudrillard spoke of the “desert” of America, he meant the US; Daniel Bell spoke of his own society and a society with no center). But there is one center: the business culture that –I don’t know about you but– I find genuinely troubling, also of course in matters of knowledge and university and languages and cultures and what have you.

Hence, big disconnect between what happens in the classroom –or does not happen—in relation to the Spanish “thing” and what happens in the big picture of things. The language already claims national-language status in the land of the free, but not an official status. And there is a telling confusion about the understanding of “official,” and also “authority” in the American minds, as in the notion of “authority source” in library terminology already mentioned, which speaks loudly of phenomena already be with us: debilitation and crisis of legitimacy of institutions, even de-institutionalization, shakiness of the business  foundations of the establishment, lifelessness, apathy and absentism, even de-establishment, and hence the tremendous informality, if not the formlessness I have alluded to in relation to knowledge production, but also in relation to academic-labor conditions and many other things. Institutions of higher learning are having a hard time to try to justify what they do, and they think they can get away with it without addressing the issue intellectually. And what is it that they do besides branding and self-promotion for the vast majority of its consumers and customers inside a society of capitalist values currently undergoing severe re-structuring cutting off inessential parts? What is the big, radical difference between college and Walmart? The socialization inside selected social sectors and the potential advantage of acquiring profitable professional connections? What if the theoretical direct line between getting through school and jobs is not direct anymore? These are questions for you and me to put in your back pocket and go the duration of the avenida de las pulgas. How much do the consumers want knowledge? How well are the customers learning? Learning what for what in relation to a society that does not put value –and money with the value– in the vast majority of the education professionals?  Education means what in a capitalist society with arrhythmia at the business core? (check out “The B-School Blahs: Where’s the Rigor? Undergraduate business has an image problem,” by David Glenn, NYTimes, Education Life, Sunday April 17, 2011, pp. 16-19). Are these the colleges that the business culture deserves? Are these the best colleges that American society can get? Obviously the issues are big and must be put within if not against the social totality. Well, this is a good beginning for the justification of education: the critical interrogation of the social totality inside which you try to make sense of things intellectually, emotionally.

Repetition: the American conditioning of the Spanish language is not automatic love affair with the “modern foreign language,” and Spanish /Hispanic departments are guilty in reproducing this impoverished state of affairs that not only degrades the said language, but many other things along the way. Language-learning is way behind in the US in relation to the big picture of other nations out there and there are historical and social reasons for that under-development, and those who care about these matters have to invest time and energy in trying to understand such things. Assimilation or de-culturation has been the norm (one good example of the desirability of assimilation models among East European Jews of modest means in the New York context of the Lower East Side, Stanley Aronowitz’s Roll Over Beethoven, in relation to his own family, and here you have in the institutional context of CUNY sociology, a good American example of healthy skepticism of all authorities). I don’t think assimilation is quite what it was, but I may be wrong. For one thing: Americans have to compete –like everybody else—for jobs in an increasingly international arena. Are American students competitive, also domestically? Is American society competitive internationally? Do we apply Franklin Foer’s How soccer explains the world: an unlikely theory of globalization? Or do we change the choice of sport and also something else instead of the delightful A Night at the Opera? It will take you by surprise to know that the foreigners will know English and American popular culture better than you do, at least in some cases. We are dealing with a global culture, American popular culture, the Marx Brothers included. So we will see what happens in the immediate future.

This is the final radical suggestion: Do not think exclusively within national labels. Toss in the cold air of the early morning the almost natural defensiveness that comes from witnessing foreigners highlighting limitations of your global and imperial nationality. Go mentally up to inter- or transnational dimensions and down to social energies in more situated and localized settings with which you may already be familiar. Think about the following: you will leave behind those environments that do not give you what you want. Those enviroments that are actively not responding to vigorous social engagements and challenges will be left behind. Those settings that do not wish to open up and expose themselves to learning old and new things will be left behind and they are –when you come to think of them– not worth living in. You will have to learn to make do when the immediate circumstance is barely livable, when it cannot be saved, when it is not worth saving. This is in fact one good American lesson: the relative independence from the immediate circumstance and the social ties that come with it, or not. One will have to learn to bypass the unconvincing frames of intelligibility and the weak social ties one has around accordingly, never falling for those people in controlled-environments with a poor xenophilic disposition. Those unwilling to learn good things from outsiders to bring drastic change to the misery of the immediate settings will die sooner than later. By the way they move, or don’t move, talk or don’t talk, share or don’t share, they may be already dead for all you care. No fortresses. No isolations. No separations. This is the global village of interconnectivity and free foreign-based internet will give you more or less what you want that finds no easy broadcast in the middle of the big country. Again, we live in times of tremendous transformations inside and outside the US and judging from the way institutional things are going, these transformations are not going to be pretty. This is one: Hispanicization of the home of the brave continues apace, 1 out of 2 or 3 Americans by 2050 will be called “Hispanic” a misnomer that may or may not stick, and add the ambivalence of the category previously mentioned. Spanish language is in this vicinity, unevenly so, also with big numbers of speakers inside the big world out there. But this you will never know, unless you take care of your curiosity and jump a few institutional fences. Did you see the good coverage in the American media of Vargas Llosa in relation to the Nobel Prize for Literature 2010? Objects of knowledge and subjects of knowledge: peanut-butter-and-jelly thin. And this thinness is us, like Toys ‘R’ US in the home of the brave. Do you know the numbers of those individuals called “Hispanic” in institutions of higher learning? Single digits: 2/3%! Utter shame of the little college, woody the woodpecker will have fun making his funny sound. How funny the crowded cabin situation according to the core-business criteria previously described?

And it is a good idea –at least from time to time– to remember the “strategic depth” –the goodness, and the longevity—of the modern foreign language, side by side others, inside the home of the brave, and outside…  And the rubric in quotation marks comes unexpectedly from the margins of Europe in original environments of foreign affairs that will soon have to be explored.

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