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Resisting Trivialization

In a recent education supplement of the New York Times, a piece advising recent graduates on entering professional schools begins with the words, “We’re not talking about humanities” (Hoover). This is a silly thing to say, for it shows the custodians of social welfare playing into the prejudices of those they seek to advise.I am not going to speak of vulnerability. Academic radicalism talking vulnerability can become top-down. It does not necessarily lead to policy change. The vulnerable becomes cannon fodder. I quote Crystal Bartolovich in Academe:

[C]oming out of a generally conservative climate into the liberal university, bright students can develop their “critical-thinking” skills in ways useful to business and government so long as they don’t think too critically for too long—something that corporate elites do not appear to be concerned will happen. They know that professors are small fish in a very big pond.

We need a mind-set change, what in my typically turgid way I have called “imaginative training for epistemological performance” (122). We need to think ourselves differently so that we act differently. We are the custodians of the only weapon not for social change but life survival: language, definitively also and always vulnerable. We need to change the minds of the policy makers.

Language is vulnerable under globalization; there is loss of connection with the mother tongue unless its class of speakers happens to be globally viable. I want to share with you what I discussed with Hassanat Balogun Bello just before our session at the MLA. She is a young woman who is a systems analyst at a small new rural Nigerian university. To her I said that what has been seen as a disadvantage—Africa’s wealth of languages unsystematized by the missionaries—should be rethought as an advantage and then push, push, push for resources.

Easier said than done. The donor agencies still feel that Africa should receive only top-down health and welfare needs, involving the communities without engaging anything but self-interest, solving problems for economic verification on the development model. Higher education reinforces the old class structures. Primary education makes no attempt to tune itself to damaged epistemes.

In one of her preparatory e-mails for our session, Guadalupe Valdés wrote, “Much harm is done to children in the name of language pedagogy.” Brava. I believe she was speaking of the first preparation of the human mind, passed on from generation to generation, so that it can use the technological “setting to work” of science for the betterment of the world, so that citizens’ resistance does not stop with either inconsequential violence or, at the other extreme, the development of tool kits by intellectuals organic to capitalist globalization in their worship of the digital.

Intellectual labor begins with the training of children, slowly. It has been abundantly demonstrated that an at least bilingual primary education not only lays the foundation for learning other languages (including mathematics, digitality, and the like) but also connects the world of social justice and social welfare with the earliest stages of a child’s development. The “global” languages are first language to only a part of the world. It is only that part that has an intrinsic connection to a “global” language. Speakers whose first language is not “global”—and we are talking race, class, and gender here—suffer a loss of connection with their infancy language, and this loss is ethical and as significant as climate change for the world’s future.

In this connection, and because Africa is taken never as a model—the United States local is always offered as the global—but only as vulnerable, I refer to an Africa-led project that believes that in order to build human capital on an unprecedentedly broad basis, the wealth of mother tongues unsystematized by colonialism must be seized for direct phonetic digitalization. Here the digital can partner its prefiguration in the oral, bypassing the existential impoverishment of the codification practiced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This project will not compete with the established usefulness of the great African languages—Swahili, Yoruba, Wolof, Xhosa, and so on. It will not impede access to global English. It will rather provide an altogether firmer basis for democratic popular education. There is an urgent need at this historical moment to seize these resilient languages as survivors rather than endangered. This is altogether different from the necessary work of preservation, which must focus on endangered languages. The project uses advanced information technology for the democratic development and interlinking of community and civil society as well as further research for posttertiary education in Africa and the rest of the world through the resources of still undocumented but socially viable mother tongues. It will demonstrate that, from infancy through advanced education, it is the mother tongue that remains fundamental. The tracks set down by these languages across the length and breadth of continental Africa—because you cannot tell the outlines of named languages, as Suresh Canagarajah pointed out—will strengthen the African unity that is most urgently required as the continent achieves higher human-development indexes. Since these languages are spoken by poor and rich, uneducated and educated alike—and the project intends to sustain that double focus—it is hoped that the divided polity will heal as a result of this project.

As we were planning our session together, Mary Louise Pratt sent us a fantastic item from the Guardian, commenting on the closing down of language departments in the United States and in Britain. That is the fight in the trenches, where I do engage. We do not hesitate to find a reason for language training in the United States Department of Defense. Anthony Grafton’s excellent “Humanities in Dubious Battle” belongs here (Grafton and Grossman). But at the Presidential Forum we have the opportunity to think in the long term. To think a somewhat utopian future and affirm that the world’s wealth of languages is a way to survival—and not simply see ourselves as helping through policy to save endangered and vulnerable languages or even language departments.

On the subject of not having access to the sources of power: I have become a member of the Global Agenda Council on Values of the World Economic Forum. Believe me, these are people of goodwill. And they can make changes, because they not only have the ear of policy makers but are themselves policy makers. Yet the greatest goodwill can be hindered by a knowledge-management approach: putting limits on what counts as language (as Canagarajah points out) and offering tool kits. That hindrance is shared by us, however politically correct we may be about the World Economic Forum and however predictably ecstatic about the World Social Forum, when we, denying our complicity, offer basically the same panacea. What I have learned is that social justice builds itself on all children’s, and therefore all people’s, capacity to use the right to intellectual labor, not just on the ease and speed of their learning.

One of the problems with tool kits is that they make teaching “easier.” Far away from radical solidarity tourism, teachers of language, as well as the teachers of literature from whom they are hierarchically separated, no longer confront the challenge of the unexpected. We might want to remember that the teachability of literature is not only in the categorizability of literature but also in the fact that literature can open us to a contingency that escapes all knowledge management. I am not a Romantic. I certainly do not suggest that we go back to the primitivism of emoting over global communities that I witness at many international conferences where I am invited because I am seen as a poco person. We want to combat orthodox linguistics and anthropology, which are colonial disciplines, in the same way that I am trying to combat from the inside the transformation of the discipline of literary reading into something colonial as it allows itself to be quantified instead of rising to the insistent defense of the humanities as instrument and weapon.

We are not primarily artists or philosophers at this convention but teachers of the humanities. It is our task always to work for the future of humankind. This is what Adrienne Rich described, already in 1977, as “an ethical and intellectual contract between teacher and student” (231). Our primary instrument of ethical preparation is language teaching.

My message to Bartolovich, with whom I am in solidarity since the early 1980s: get out of the acceptance of powerlessness as normal, stop us-and-them-ing, acknowledge complicity, and act the conjuncture.

Works Cited

Bartolovich, Crystal. “Small Fish, Big Pond.” Rev. of Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by Neil Gross. Academe Nov.–Dec. 2013: n. pag. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Grafton, Anthony, and James Grossman. “Humanities in Dubious Battle: What a New Harvard Report Doesn’t Tell Us.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 1 July 2014. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.

Hoover, Eric. “Going Professional: The Ins and Outs: Law, Business, Medicine, Dentistry, Education, Engineering.” New York Times 1 Aug. 2014, Educ. Supp.: ED6. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Claiming an Education.” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978. New York: Norton, 1979. 231–35. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

Valdés, Guadalupe. Message to the author. 29 Mar. 2013. E-mail.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is University Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

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