Pedro García-Caro Delivers 2013 RL Commencement Address
Commencement Speech, Romance Languages, June 17th 2013.
Assistant Professor of Spanish Pedro García-Caro
Title: A Wide World of Human Choice
Theme: You are now ready to ask the more difficult questions in your own languages. You have a life ahead of you to seek for answers. Your search will make the world a better place. You are now faced with the Human Choice.
Boa tarde, bona tarda, bonjour, buon giorno, buenas tardes. Good afternoon and welcome. Bienvenidos.
Thanks Amalia for that introduction and for giving me the opportunity to speak to all of you today on such an important occasion: the culmination of your studies at the University of Oregon, the graduation of your sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Thanks to all for joining us today in this celebration of academic achievement and collective pride. It is an honor for me to be able to welcome families and friends of our dear graduates and to speak to you today for just under a couple of hours before they bring the lemonade (you have taken my classes, you know I am unstoppable, so I will time myself to something really short, just over 30 minutes). Seriously now, I would like to use this rare chance to respectfully talk to you directly about a keyword: choice. This is the concept that will run through my speech, perhaps the last lecture many of you will hear at this university, I have entitled it “A Wide World of Human Choice.”
Let me start by commending you on an excellent choice you already made in your past: you chose to study here at the University of Oregon, one of only 76 top research institutions in the country with consistently high rankings across the disciplines on an international level. Our faculty, trained in many of those other top universities are deeply committed to the quality and excellence of this institution and to offering you our best at every juncture. You chose us over others, and you also chose to study at our department: Spanish, French, Italian, or a combination of two of those Romance Languages. In only a few years our undergraduates will also be able to choose to graduate in Portuguese. We are today the largest language and literature program in the Northwest, with 1,043 undergraduate declared majors or minors. Of those, a total of 713 are declared Spanish majors or minors. Over the past four years our students have been exposed in the classroom to all the many varieties of Spanish, from Andalusian to Peruvian, from Puerto Rican to Bolivian or Chilean. As John Jaramillo, one of our graduating majors and future MA student has put it: “my time here at the UO has been like that of a kid in a candy store. My perspective on Latin America has changed tremendously and my consciousness elevated to new heights thanks to the professors, instructors and staff that are too numerous to mention.”
This year, 139 Spanish majors and 119 Spanish minors will graduate with you; many of them could not be here today, as the vast majority of our students are double majors in a variety of other disciplines ranging from Music to Journalism, Business Administration, History, or International Studies. As you can see by the little black dot next to the names on your program, out of those 139 Spanish majors graduating this year, eighteen are chosen ones, joined by another two from French: they have been nominated to the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa and most were inducted yesterday, I believe, into the world of quaint handshakes and rituals of one of the oldest learned societies in the country. Among them is Sophia Layser Borgias, a double major in Spanish and International Studies who is one of the Oregon Six this year. And she assures us that she did it all without the help of a smartphone!
Faced with an extremely low ratio of research tenure-track faculty to students (currently 1 to 62 majors or minors) we are striving to offer a top quality Spanish major without neglecting our own research agendas, and I think that we are so far succeeding, thanks in no small part to the high caliber of our instructors and graduate students without whom our job would be an impossible task. My colleagues in the Spanish sector are specialists in fields such as medieval Jewish culture, literary translation, indigenous cultures of the Americas, contemporary Spanish cinema, transatlantic studies, golden age poetry, short short stories, US heritage Spanish. We have trained seven new Masters of Arts in Spanish who are here today after having completed a very comprehensive course of studies and having taught entry-level Spanish with us for the past two years.
We are one of only a handful of Romance Languages departments west of the Mississippi and are actively committed to maintaining the study of the cultural relations between the many languages that derived from Latin so many centuries ago. Our graduate students organized a very successful national conference this last fall around the topic of Resistance and occupation in the Romance World. We currently have 111 declared majors in Romance languages who will study 2 of our languages together. Eight of them are graduating today. Three of our Masters of Arts are also now specialists in two of our languages. Our two new doctors in the house, Patrick Herve Moneyang, from Cameroon, and Luis Gonzalo Portugal, from Bolivia, graduate with our prized PhD in Romance Languages.
Eleven champions will also receive a major or a minor in Italian today and they join our two MAs in Italian in challenging academic fashions, and the supposed pressures of the market of which I will talk later. One of our most recent hires is an expert in Italian cinema, Sergio Rigoletto, who in his short time here has already organized a Cinematheque to expose us to new films from around the world. This impetus on modern Italian culture strengthens our well-established medieval and renaissance studies core. This last April our Italian faculty beckoned more than two hundred scholars for the annual meeting of the American Association of Italian Studies here in Eugene in an International conference that proved to be an outstanding success.
Thirty-five of you will be awarded a BA in French and you will be forever certified to speak and understand the Romance language, the one that many truly call the language of Romance. La langue de l’amour et du romance. Croyez-moi, je le sais! Our students in French have been exposed to speakers from three different continents; they have taken seminars that range from medieval troubadour poetry, Cameroonian literature, the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire, Caribbean literature, to Cajun (Louisiana) French, among others.
As you can hopefully start to see from this short review of our department’s healthy and vibrant intellectual life, we are a truly international space on campus that offers students immersive experiences here in Eugene in the languages and cultures of more than thirty countries from around the world from the Tierra del fuego to Puglia, from Lyon to Dakar to Nuevo León. Our role is to guide and advice, to facilitate the way, to share with you our ample track-record as scholars and open up the classroom to your experiences and the expansion of your knowledge. Confronted with an increasingly shrinking, warming, overpopulated planet, we embrace the idea of cultural diversity, and seek to create the conditions that will place our students constantly outside their comfort zones, to challenge them intellectually and culturally into a deeper, critical understanding of human difference and the histories of cultural production.
For our choice is to learn and teach about cultural and linguistic differences, about accents and the many exceptions to a grammatical rule. In the oddity of a literary text we choose to look for the signs of an individual at odds with her world and perhaps even her language. Confronted with the crushing sense of genetic or geographic determination we choose in favor of the human factor, the human choice: at every stage we try to resist and actively defy the enormous pressure to calculate and even produce culture in statistical terms, or to understand humanity through the sociological lens of numbers, averages, and proportions.
Here you have been exposed to an ethics called humanism, one that is neither based on faith, magic or tradition, nor on a mechanical, numeric understanding of human beings. Instead, we humanists are able to historically locate those approaches to human existence, and still be willing to advocate for the many legacies and narratives of human culture itself, in its myriad iterations, with its fascinating capacity to imagine and create alternative worlds, to teach compassion, to express itself through complex artistic codes, to question and repel the tyranny of indifference and uniformity.
So our study is not only grammar and rhetoric, but the many grammars and exceptions of culture: we engage with cultural history, philosophy (the love for knowledge), and aesthetics (the study of beauty). Humanist studies not only advance our knowledge of the diversity of human societies, they are exercises in human sympathy that make the world a more livable space. We seek in the footprints of human aesthetic activity the guiding principles for a fuller, fairer, and more peaceful life. Our human choice is not only the study of aesthetics, it also constitutes an ethics. It was clearly such an ethical impulse that took one of our students, Laurel Onawa Way, to choose to study the educational projects of the most impoverished and marginal communities in Buenos Aires while she lived in Argentina. Her hundred and twenty page-long honors thesis is a testimony to her energetic commitment to furthering knowledge but also to social equity and justice.
Studying a Romance language you have gone from asking the time and the price of things, to asking really hard, truly important questions in another language. Critical thinking is an invaluable skill humanists cultivate. You have been able to step outside the cozy cultural treadmill and into the urban and rustic pathways of unexpected terrains. Instead of being content to always read in translation, as an alternative to touring the monuments and sightseeing empty ruins by the hand of a guide, snugly celebrating or abandoning yourselves in front of a monitor or a television set, you chose to be exposed to tangible human otherness and difference, to noise and misunderstanding, to error and negotiation, to remaking yourselves anew in another tone, in a different worldview. You have mastered another invaluable skill: human sympathy.
Take our guest musician for instance, Matthew Cartmill, who is graciously playing the cello for us today evoking sounds from Spain and Argentina, and who became so enamored of Granada that he disappeared there for three years to come back without a trace of an accent, speaking Andalusian Spanish in such a perfect way perhaps only a musician could achieve.
Or Pauline Goosens, a native French speaker who traveled from the tip of South America all the way to the North of the continent, and who found social value in storytelling and a new meaning for the word respect. She said that her language skills and the narratives she could exchange made a whole difference in her trips: “The most rewarding thing while traveling hundreds of hours by bus was that I was able to share stories with local people and in turn was respected by them so much more than just another ignorant tourist.” Or Hannah Ehlers, who wrote that she would be forever grateful for what studying another culture and language had done for her: “You become more tolerant, more calm, more understanding. You realize that others may act a certain way because of a past experience in their life, a miracle or a depression. You open your mind and start to see in color, not black and white. Your mind opens and so does your heart. Your understanding for others becomes a part of your daily life, you morph into a considerate, compassionate, being.” These are the testimonies of true humanists.
This is also the life-story of Adrian Levick whose experience in the hospital in Chile, while harrowing, emphasized for him a sense of community: “a sense of solidarity, and a value placed on humanity that often seems missing in America’s culture of egotism and individuality to the point of isolation. When I was headed into a surgery with a low platelet count and needed over 20 blood donors, dozens of people showed up to donate blood and wish me well, most of whom I had never met. People heard that someone needed help and literally came to open up their veins. I went from fearing I wouldn’t be able to find enough donors to having way too many, the blood bank was turning people away because there were too many. This cultural difference I think is what attracts so many young people to learn Romance Languages and go travel, in search of a warmth of human spirit…”
In these many blood transfusions we can also read the ultimate act of immersion and acculturation, the process that Caribbean philosopher Eduard Glissant has described as creolization, or mixing in with others from a different culture. In his Introduction a une poétique du divers Glissant contrasts the ethnocentric “deadly and sublime” conception of unique and exclusive roots with the image of the rhizome (bamboo plants or irises have), to propose a vision of “identity not [seen] anymore as a unique root, but as a root that searches for other roots.” Glissant thus advocates in his Poetics of diversity, for identity as mixed and impure, what he calls creolized, creolizé, criollizada. Similarly for you, the challenge from the outset of your studies was to be creolized and to become their, our countrymen and women and by embarking in that trip, you have already succeeded, you are more healthily impure and all the more wiser. You have broken through the national walls that attempted to contain your roots and divide the landscape and the human race into discrete, separate consumer units.
As we can see, when our graduates march through this podium in a few minutes we will have ample reasons to be proud and to celebrate with them their truly excellent achievements. Much of that accomplishment is due to the caring support of many people who will not physically step on the stage today with them, but who guided them and provided the ethical examples and encouraged the cultural sensitivity and humanist spirit in them. As role models in their lives, their families have helped them in ways that go far beyond the merely material or financial. Please join me in recognizing the key contribution that their relatives and mentors have provided for over two decades to the success of our graduates. The experiences abroad of so many of our students talk about their host families, their friends, their lovers, the people they built houses for (as in Anna Koepke’s volunteering Lima experiences), their multiple families. In our quest for a deeper understanding and a better world, we humanists are internationalists and engage in polyamorous transnational relations. Those are the roots that seek other roots.
So we certainly also need to thank all those people who will not even be here today and who provided an equally wholesome learning experience for these graduates. In your travels some of you left behind a loved one, some others brought them over, and many others will go to live abroad after graduation. Even those of you who have not yet managed to go abroad, you did not need to be in Yaundé or La Paz to experience a true internationalization of knowledge here in Eugene: our university is itself an international space where national assurances are challenged by learning and experiencing diversity at home and abroad, studying borders and crevices, the liminal spaces in-between, the thresholds of cultures.
Now tell me how you could have learned all of this from an online class? From a recorded series of lectures broadcast into the comfort of your laptop? The next stage in our society’s rapid trend away from personal, thorough, and dedicated humanist education are the so called MOOCs, (Massive Open Online Courses), online lectures whose only real promise is to generate huge financial benefits for a few, and standardized, largely impersonal access to some knowledge for most. As citizens are increasingly turned into spectators, so too are students turned into passive customers and consumers and asked to demand spectacles of light and sound as if human knowledge was another package ready for consumption.
The same society that annually spends billions of dollars in entertainment and spectacles such as football or basketball, in this very court, or in theme parks and 3D television sets actively broadcasts the message that intellectual hard work, the labor of philosophy, the study of arts and letters, is somehow out of fashion and impractical. Memorizing the scores or the averages of sportsmen is OK, reciting nineteenth-century French symbolist poetry, understanding alliteration in Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets, or relishing in the torments of Dante’s Inferno sounds too remote and useless by comparison. In the meantime we have defunded our libraries, frozen the hiring and the salaries of our professors and teachers, cut down class times, stuffed our classrooms with ever larger masses even as we constructed larger and brighter arenas to entertain them and keep the circus open 24 hours. This is not just happening at the UO, it is a nation-wide phenomenon.
As I was writing this, the local newspaper announced yet more furlough days for secondary school teachers and a reduction of the school year to 165 days of classes annually. Who will educate our children during those 200 days out of school?
A society whose citizens are not equipped to ask the hard questions in their own language, let alone those of others, where they can no longer fully understand the programming behind their machines, the language and culture of their neighbors, the histories of their town or state, or the reasons for their lives will not be a free society. The choices that will appear in front of those citizens will not be true choices but closed menus to feed the mechanical wheel of consumerism and numbness.
In her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Matha Nussbaum puts this seemingly unstoppable drift in very stark terms: “Today we still maintain that we like democracy and self-governance, and we also think that we like freedom of speech, respect for difference, and understanding of others. We give these values lip service, but we think far too little about what we need to do in order to transmit them to the next generation and ensure their survival. Distracted by the pursuit of wealth, we increasingly ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens. Under pressure to cut costs, we prune away just those parts of the educational endeavor that are crucial to preserving a healthy society. What will we have, if these trends continue? [asks Nussbaum] Nations of technically trained people who do not know how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations.”
I would like to conclude, by warning against the mirage of the plural choices that consumerist society appears to offer us; including many of the jobs you will be offered. These many different options are presented as if in a plain moral level, as a kind of large menu of sameness. These choices are just a mirage of freedom, for they are choices within a close-system driven only by economic, numeric considerations. I want to advocate in closing for the inherent value of social narratives, of the Human Choice – for you to continue to choose a diverse noisy humanity, for the rock solid skills and ethics that you have enhanced here as part of your lifelong search for answers: a complex, inquiring humanism. Graduates in Romance Languages you now can embrace the possibility not so much of consuming in another language, but of asking the hardest, toughest questions in all the many languages you now know.
I trust that you will always opt for that human choice.
Glissant, Édouard. Introduction À Une Poétique Du Divers [in French]. [Paris]: Gallimard, 1996.
Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Not for Profit : Why Democracy Needs the Humanities [in English]. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.