The Virtues of Foreignness

Is this how it’s supposed to be? Is learning forever winding through these strange and foreign places?  Is study the opposite of home?




I’ve been thinking about teaching and learning quite a bit lately (an appropriate reaction when one is, uh, becoming a teacher); I’ve also been very much enjoying Mr. Coates’s missives from Europe, where he has finally ventured after two years of studying French.  I’ve been sharing his posts with my mother, a native Cuban and lifelong Spanish teacher, and recalling my own struggle for fluency in Spanish – how it wasn’t until I shoved myself off the firm cliff of the familiar and landed in Chile and Argentina, alone and bewildered, that I finally gained a real sense of the language.  Truthfully I spoke Spanish before I spoke English but a life in white America had stripped much of that wiring over the years, and to spark connections anew I had to submit, completely and totally, to the onslaught of all-Spanish, all-the-time.  It was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done by a significant margin.  It was also, without question, the smartest.


It’s so easy to have an opinion about education – nearly everyone has been to school and so nearly everyone thinks themselves an expert on the matter, even if they’ve never led a classroom themselves.  Teaching is an enormously complicated thing to do, and the purpose of such education has often been up for grabs.  Widespread public education gained currency first in democratic societies, where the notion of an “informed citizen” held particular urgency; cultural elites might have been gatekeepers of knowledge but they shared it (mostly) willingly, in a recognition that the majority-rules structure of a democratic republic stacked the deck in favor of the ignorant masses unless such numbers could be schooled into civilized opinion.  The trendy model now sees education not as a civic good, a necessity of republican society, but rather as a tool for individual economic advancement, subject to cost-benefit analysis.  In such a formulation invariably the first things to be excised are the arts and humanities; a liberal arts education becomes a luxury, a dilettantism held against the pragmatism of degrees in business or health care.


Now, I do believe in vocational models of education.  Not everyone is made for a four-year college or graduate school.  But regardless of whether a student is studying to be an auto mechanic or a businessman or a classicist, a certain liberal-arts breadth is vital – not because it is central to the endpoint of the educational system (employment), but because it is central to being a human being in the world.  I don’t mean this in a self-indulgent sense: coming to the arts and humanities has something to do with self-expression, but self-expression is not the rationale for its importance.  We live in an interconnected and interdependent world, in which many different cultures entwine and national identities become ever-more pluralistic.  The liberal arts are absolutely foundational for navigating such terrain.


As JK Rowling so eloquently argued, the import of literature comes not from high-minded critical justifications but because it is in the landscape of our imaginations, in contact with this most intimate of art forms, that we develop empathy, that we fully encounter others in all of their most naked other-ness.  This is why it is important too that our canons be inclusive, reflective of diversity of experience; it is by venturing into the worlds of others, whether in real life or on the page, that our worlds are broadened beyond our narrow selves.  We cannot all travel the world with our feet, but we can travel it in the space of our own minds.


It is tempting, then, to imagine that those whose passports bear many stamps have seen and learned more than those with a limited scope of geographic experience, but this too is false – in our globalized international milieu it is all too easy to stay at American-brand hotel chains the whole world over, to eat fast food and speak English in almost any country.  But those who don’t push themselves to encounter different stories – wherever they might be – circumscribe themselves, no matter how vastly they’ve traveled.  We frequently demand such cultural multilingualism from those outside of the elite – but rarely from those on the inside, even when their own ignorance is just as apparent.


Such broadening of the self may not always be at the core of education, but it is what learning is all about.

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