Middlebury Language Schools
August 12, 2011
President, Samuel H. Kress Foundation
Good evening! I would like to “commence” (and we’ll return to that under-appreciated word in a moment!) by thanking President Liebowitz, Vice President Geisler and their colleagues for the kind invitation to participate in this celebration. I am honored to be with you. And you have truly put the “honor” in “honorary degree.”
I have, of course, asked myself what I could possibly have done to warrant such an honor. I concluded that I have only one qualification. I’ve probably failed to learn more languages, living and dead, than anybody I know. The closest I’ve ever come to being a polyglot was one hot summer day when, looking rather desperately for a public drinking fountain in midtown Manhattan, I talked my way into the UN complex and tried to say “water” to a dozen strangers in a dozen languages – all to no avail. I ended up, of course, at the UN’s Starbucks franchise with a latte macchiato – which should please the Italianisti among you.
So bear with me if, as a failed linguist, I speak to you in English! I trust you all understand English still, despite having taken the Middlebury Vow some weeks ago? I will try to make amends by continuing to pepper my remarks – which you should take “cum granum salis” – with random nods to language learning.
Now you will all be relieved to know that – despite this meandering overture – I am actually a big believer in brevity. I’m sure it has, from one perspective, been a long summer for all of you, as you sought to shed your Anglophone skin and to don the skin of a new language and a new culture. And the last thing you need is for a commencement speaker to go on “ad infinitum.” So perhaps it was prudent of you to invite a former librarian – fluent, theoretically at least, in the language of silence – to play this role.
The actual reason I’m here tonight is that I have the honor of running a small foundation which, unlike most, still cares about the humanities. And so I would like to say a word about the evolution of our interest at the Kress Foundation in the Middlebury Language Schools.
We have long admired the Kathryn W. Davis “fellowships for peace,” which have meant so much to Middlebury – and to the world. We Americans, alas, are not a nation of linguists. And a deep strain of American “exceptionalism” sometimes leads us to regard this as a virtue. Yet in our better moments, we know that we should be meeting the world half-way more frequently than we tend to do. I hope the Kress fellowships at Middlebury will make at least a modest contribution to that cause. And we hope other foundations will follow our example, especially now that longstanding federal support programs for graduate study abroad are being de-funded by a Congress that has little real interest in the world beyond our borders.
We at Kress can’t claim to be advancing the cause of world peace. But we do seek through this and other funding programs to foster true dialogue across nations and cultures, at least in the little – though by no means peaceful! – kingdom of scholarship and teaching. You may be amused to learn how the Kress fellowships at Middlebury actually came about. We have been concerned for a while now that relatively few young art historians choose to work on European art history. Most “do” modern and contemporary art, and I suspect that is because of language barriers. And so a couple of years ago I arranged to have a meeting about this at a certain Ivy League university. The meeting included art historians as well as faculty engaged with language instruction, including some faculty working on new models of discipline-based language learning, which we thought we might want to support. Halfway through the meeting one of the art historians fairly erupted, saying (much to the consternation of his colleagues from the development office): Why are you wasting your time with us? I attended German camp at Middlebury and it totally changed my life. Why don’t you just help young art historians go there to learn languages?” And so we did.
That faculty member has tenure, fortunately, and so to my knowledge he hasn’t suffered professionally for this moment of unusual academic candor . . . though come to think of it, I haven’t been invited back to that particular ivy league campus since!
We at Kress are very pleased to have helped a few young art historians improve their proficiency in French, German, Italian and Spanish, and we hope to help many more to do so. That said, I have to share with you that Rembrandt has a bone to pick with us. He was upset to learn that Middlebury does not offer what for art historians is still a core European language – Dutch. In the same vein, my children, both of whom plan to pursue the Ph.D. in Harry Potter Studies, have pointed out what they regard as a much greater omission on your part – Parseltongue. I will leave it to Professor Geisler to figure out whether it would be easier to initiate a Dutch language program or a program in Snakespeak! Alas I imagine the demand is, alas, much greater for the latter . . .
Now we all care deeply about words and language. And so I would like to return now to the word “commencement.” It is a striking fact that we rarely use the word today, except in connection with academic events like the present one. Indeed to judge from a Google search, the only other context in which we use it fairly routinely is warfare, where we speak rather quaintly of “the commencement of hostilities.” I don’t know what it means – or says about us all – that we have relegated such a fine word to the thesaurus of warfare. But I think we should all commit ourselves to using it at every opportunity to describe happier things. The recent graduates in this room, for example, are just setting out on an adventure – “commencing” the great adventure of seeing the world through new eyes and attending to its many voices with new ears. That is a “commencement” devoutly to be wished. And I want to congratulate you and your families as you set out on this great adventure.
In conclusion, I would be remiss if I didn’t observe that as we gather today, we are counting down to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I was in New York City on that dark day, sitting in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s offices on the Upper East Side. I remember, as if it were yesterday, walking outside and gazing down Lexington Avenue, and seeing – as it seemed – the world gone up in smoke, and this on one of the most piercingly beautiful days in living memory. I don’t know whether anything could have prevented such a terrible event. But I do know that international understanding is the best way to help ensure that such events do not recur – that building bridges between world cultures is the key to international understanding – and that the best way to begin – to “commence” – is by learning to speak with – and not past – one another. So let me close by thanking all of you – Middlebury administrators, faculty and students alike – for all that you do in this worthy cause, and for allowing us at the Kress Foundation to play a modest supporting role in the greatest drama of our time.
Thank you. And congratulations to all of you!