Words to Live By

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Higher Ed Gamma

Perhaps you remember this exchange between Lisa and Homer Simpson from a 1991 episode of the animated sitcom.  Homer’s wish that Ned Flanders’s store would go bankrupt has come true, leaving the overweight, lazy, yet endearing oaf of a father with an unfamiliar sensation.

Lisa : Dad, do you know what Schadenfreude is?

Homer : No, I don’t know what “shaden-frawde” is.

[sarcastic]

Homer : Please tell me, because I’m dying to know.

Lisa : It’s a German term for “shameful joy”, taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Homer : Oh, come on Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt!

[getting mad]

Homer : He’s usually all happy and comfortable, and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes me feel… What’s the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?

Lisa : Sour grapes

One reason to learn a foreign language is to encounter words and phrases that broaden our thinking and understanding.

Start with the Spanish word mestizaje and the Mexican concept of the cosmic race.  Put mestizaje into Google Translate and you get: “of mixed race” or “miscegenation” But neither translation begins to capture the term’s meaning with its allusions to cultural mixing not in a pejorative sense, but, rather, as the creation of a richer, more resonant and vibrant culture.

As for the cosmic race, the phrase was coined by the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos in a 1925 essay to describe a new race of people, combining American, European, African, and Asian ancestry, that would forge a cultural synthesis superior to all that came before.  With its overtones of hybridity and syncretism, the phrase certainly speaks to the fluidity and fruitfulness that the fusion of different religions, cultures, beliefs, philosophies, and practices can produce.

But the words that I’d like to look at here come from German, a language whose vocabulary can give vivid expression to ideas that don’t readily translate into English, and, accordingly, reveals the impoverishment of this country’s dominant tongue.

Take the word Bildung, which Google translates as education, but which has a far richer, more capacious and complex meaning. The antonym of Ausbildung or vocational training, Bildung refers to self-formation, self-cultivation, and moral and emotional maturation. It also suggests the aesthetic shaping of one’s style and character.  An educational ideal our campuses should embrace, Bildung refers to the development of the whole person and of all a person’s capacities.

What if our student life offices defined their role in terms of Bildung – as I believe they should?  We’d think about student life in a more deliberate and intentional way. Student life offices would do more to create environments in which students can grow across all vectors.  These offices would offer a host of non-classroom based hands-on and experiential opportunities through which students could develop the full range of their capacities. They’d create spaces where difficult conversations about hot topics could thrive.

Instead, of course, our philosophy is to let students find their way largely on their own.  Many of our campuses are a bit like a candy story filled with fantastic options: intramural sports, wellness centers, a wealth of clubs and organizations, and a host of support centers.  But, unfortunately, we rarely provide students with a map to lead the way or a vision about the kind of person they might become.  Unless a student is really lucky and finds a fantastic mentor, growth is largely a product of osmosis.  We let peers set the tone, and serve as the Number 1 resource for their fellow students.

But shouldn’t our campuses strive to create more culturally-competent, more physically fit, more ethically aware graduates?  When nearly 40 percent of Harvard graduates go into consulting or investment banking, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whether that’s the purpose of an elite education?

Next, let’s turn to the word Lebensluege.  This term refers to the self-deceptions and delusions that lie at the heart of how a person or a group view themselves.  In Germany, the term is widely used to unmask the belief that German racism began and ended with the Holocaust.  It’s the lies people tell themselves: That Germany has successfully confronted and expunged its Nazi past, that today’s Germany is a model multicultural society, that German society has rid itself of xenophobia.

Isn’t that the subject that Miguel de Cervantes explores in Don Quixote:  Spain as a nation of dreamers who lead lives colored by fantasies, fictions, and illusions that are ultimately unmasked as the delusions that they are.

We, in the United States, also, far too often engage in wishful thinking, for example, when we decided to wage a global war on terror and to reshape the Middle East in our image.  Certain illusions reside at the very heart of this nation’s self-image, involving freedom, equality, and opportunity, that are too often compromised and contradicted in practice.

The final German word that I want to bring up is Vergangenheitsbewaltigung and its insistence that past evils must be faced and overcome before one can move forward.  There’s no precise English equivalent to this term.  Certainly, Americans would benefit from such a process of self-analysis.  As an example, you might read an opinion essay that the great American Studies scholar Andrew Delbanco recently published in the Washington Post.

Based on his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, this essay, entitled “Reparations for Black Americans can work. Here’s how.,” offers an authentic demonstration of why the humanities matter and how the humanities can teach us to think and speak about the most fraught, highly charged, and daunting topics and help us rethink debates that have not advanced over time.

As Professor Delbanco shows, part, but only part, of reparations is remembrance: recognizing our historical obligations as beneficiaries of this country’s successes and wealth.  But as he also argues, drawing upon arguments earlier advanced by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recently developed by the social and political philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, reparations, if they are to occur, must be forward looking.  Reparations require us to envision and begin to realize a a fairer, juster, more inclusive society.

These are difficult days and it’s all too easy to be cynical and pessimistic and give into despair and recriminations.  But as Kenneth Keniston wrote in his 1965 classic The Uncommitted; Alienated Youth in American Society, it’s the absence of a utopian vision that represents the most dangerous delusion. The events of 1989, far from representing the end of history, did undercut many utopian dreams. The collapse of East European Communism made idealistic visions appear naive, unworkable, impractical, and even dangerous.

But a society without a utopian vision is a society drained of all hope, optimism, and direction.  Delbanco’s essay offers a powerful and inspiring visions of what we, as a collectivity, can and ought to do, if we are to move forward.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (now commonly called linguistic relativity) – that a language’s structure and vocabulary color people’s perceptions and construction of experience – has been subject to much criticism, revision, and modification.  But words do carry affective meanings and resonances and allusions that are rooted in particular histories and cultures.  When we encounter a foreign phrase or term, we must recognize that it has much to tell us.  It can challenge our narrow provinciality, free us from our cultural presuppositions, and open our eyes to other possibilities.

In German, there’s the evocative word Torschlusspanik: The sense of time slipping away.  Then there’s Sturmfrei: The feeling of freedom one experienced upon being left alone for the first time by one’s parents.  There’s Wanderlust: The urge to break from quotidian and experience the new and unknown.  There’s Kummerspeck:  The weight one puts on in response to depression, grief, and unhappiness.

There’s Verschlimmbessern:  Making something worse while trying to make it better. There’s Innerer Schweinehund: The lack of willpower that prevents us from achieving our dreams.  There’s also Kopfkino:  The involuntary process in which one replays scenarios in one’s head, often exceedingly troubling sequences of events.  Then there’s Freundschaftsdienst: an act done out of friendship, a term especially meaningful at a time when Americans report having fewer close friends and intimate friendships than ever.

To enter another language is to travel to another world.  It renders our everyday world exotic and reminds us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our vocabulary.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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Thursday, December 1, 2022
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