Keynote Address: Texas Foreign Language Association
March 30, 2001 Laredo, Texas
“Caminos de la tarde:” Language, Literature, and Teaching
Ray M. Keck
Professor of Spanish and Provost,
Texas A&M International University
When we think back over the century we just left behind, irreconcilable dualities and contradictions thrust themselves upon our minds: violent change and entrenched hierarchies; unspeakable cruelty and widespread compassion; liberation and enslavement; advances in science and a loss of religious fervor; delivery from hunger and terrifying famines; an end to smallpox and a beginning of AIDS; mass communication for increasingly banal thoughts and events. The history of pedagogy in the twentieth century is, like political and social history, conflicted and confusing. In her recent book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, Diane Ravitch maps the black forest of tangled theories and clashing constructs that have encircled those of us who live in education and in teaching. In these remarks, I hope to persuade you that, as teachers of foreign languages, our fundamental task is in truth a deep calling: we are to foster a change of sensibilities, a process that literature can first spark and then nurture throughout a lifetime.
Two examples of how we language teachers might consider our craft will serve to mark off the bounds of traditional and contemporary practice, extremes that I believe we should avoid. The first approach we might call the classical strategy. We inherited this method from studies of Greek and Latin, courses in which students mastered grammatical structures in order to read a classical text. In importing this methodology into the modern language classroom, we expected a student to grasp for himself or herself possible connections between the grammar textbook and language embedded in a living culture. I recall vividly how, as a beginning teacher in the Fall of 1970, a fine preparatory school in New England offered me a job teaching Spanish, and proudly initiated me into its tradition of foreign language teaching. Although we were encouraged to conduct the classes in Spanish, the work of each course was the same: students translated, translated, translated— from English to Spanish—sentences designed to test mastery of grammar. It never occurred to anyone that any of these sentences would ever be uttered, even in imagined conversations. The grammar of foreign language class was calculated to measure a student’s grammatical prowess, his or her ability to manipulate formally correct patterns. Some of you will remember these exercises:
If I were to have seen you, I would have told you to bring me the book by 10:00 p.m. unless you were sick.
I will help you provided that you let me know in advance of your needs and assure me that I can count on cooperation from everybody else.
After battling similar farrago, we began to introduce students to literature and literary analysis in the foreign language. Again, any direct connection between the literary work and “life” was strictly left to each student’s fantasy.
Thirty years and innumerable embroilments later, all is changed. Consider the following admonitions, by Benjamin Robinson, which appeared recently in the winter issue of the journal of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. An assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Ohio State University, Mr. Robinson urges that we become “practical service departments,” that we “sell to administrators and potential students... [our] unmatched ability to teach the foreign languages that are necessary for international business, for cross-community or international public service, and for research and developmental exchange.” Mr. Robinson calls his model “ a freshman integrated language and culture seminar,” offering “an administratively practical way of sparking intellectual fires in foreign cultural studies and solidifying the administrative standing of language departments.” We must show, Professor Robinson tells us, an immediate connection between language, business, foreign service, and research and development. A “culture” course, not the traditional one stressing language and literature, will fit the bill, save us from obscurity or extinction, and enhance our standing in the school or university.
A “practical service department” will undoubtedly enhance our standing in some circles. Our society most readily rewards effort directed toward individualistic and materialist ends. Administrators within the academy and employers without will enthusiastically welcome the promise of language study closely linked to the modern market. In his brilliantly written and vatic book, Jewish Renewal, Michael Lerner describes this phenomenon as “empiricist epistemology” and “materialist ontology,” organization and origin circumscribed by the particular and sensual aspirations of the individual. Spirituality and ethics are reduced “to a merely subjective expression of emotion or personal choice.” Lerner argues, I think correctly, that for modern societies in the West, the ultimate test of reality has become “that which can be presented to our senses.” It follows, therefore, that foreign language acquisition can be of great use in making the sale, closing the deal, achieving a thriving place in the market society. Foreign language courses must provide access to the culture of commerce and economic development.
Separated by thirty years, yet widely representative of tendencies in our field, the two courses I have described—grammar puzzles in one, foreign-language-as-commodity in the other—fail to address why I continue to study and to teach Spanish and what has generated for me the countless exciting moments I have spent in solitary reflection or with students. Many years ago, a student commented: “When I enter your classroom, I feel as though I step into another world.” For that student, my teaching had achieved what I had most hoped to do.
A foreign language offers the new speaker a new way to see, to feel, to think, to be in the world. It shows him or her that life thrives and throbs and pulsates elsewhere, arrayed in a very different manner. Not better, not worse, just different. But there is no need to divorce perplexing perceptions of otherness from larger human questions of value and meaning. It is futile, and indeed a misrepresentation of human experience, to think that we can speak or teach the language of business and research and development, somehow segregating it from literary or artistic contamination. All students enter our language classes pondering the same eternal questions: Who am I? What will I become? With whom will I spend my life? What is love? How can I express it? Will I suffer much? If so, Why? Why does anyone suffer? What is death? When will it come? Our task is to lead each student to perceive how these questions are posed and answered in another culture, another tongue, another world.
We will teach best, and our students will attach themselves most readily to what we are teaching, if we allow the moral and ethical dimensions of life, captured in literature and in art, into the foreign language classroom with us. In its writings, in its literature, in its art, a culture enters into dialogue with itself, portraying, examining, questioning, judging. “Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided,” the mysterious hand wrote, defining forever the reaches of national reflection. A systematic, careful, and intelligent integration of art and literature into the language curriculum discloses to a student multiple realities, harmonies and conflicts, lives lived at great verbal, physical, cultural, historical, and temporal remove. D.H. Lawrence has described the eternal restlessness and illumination that follows an encounter with art:
The essence of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime
and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral. But a
passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the
blood, rather than the mind. Change the blood first. The mind follows
later, in the wake.
To “change the blood” should be the goal of every foreign language class. It is only when we confront moral questions, seen through the lens of another culture that we begin to understand that culture, that we being to acquire new blood.
Somehow, as foreign language teachers, we must have used and then abused literature, conveying the impression that our purpose was to make of each student a professional critic. Today, Professor Robinson’s “practical” strategy offers a market-sensitive defense at a time when there is much criticism of impractical courses in literature, much talk of relevant courses in culture. And yet for me, and I would wager for most of us who teach foreign language, it is precious moments remembered in literature—special verses, powerful scenes—that moved our hearts, created new blood within us, and made us want to give our lives to studying and teaching the new world before us.
In thirty years of teaching and studying Spanish, a number of texts have fixed themselves in my mind, passages that I regularly remember, re-read, contemplate, or visit for inspiration, guidance, wisdom, or relief from life’s inevitable pain and despair. Because they have helped me in my quest for answers, for strength, for joy, for meaning, these texts have become intimate companions and counselors. They have at various moments aroused, stirred, re-directed my passions. It is these texts that propel me to continue to teach. It is their continuing, mesmerizing effect upon students of all ages that convinces me of our mission as foreign language teachers to exchange old blood for new. As a useful exercise to re-focus our thinking and to rekindle our passion, I urge everyone who teaches a foreign language to make his or her list of scenes or verses, defining expressions of the culture we urge our students to adopt. In compiling my own list, I restricted myself to lines or scenes so central to my being that, without consciously meaning to do so, I have committed them to memory.
The list begins with two lines the “Poema de Myo Cid” from the twelfth century:
“¡Dios, qué buen vasallo, si hubiese buen señore.”
“What a great employee! If only he/she had a good boss!”
Rodrigo Díaz, el Cid, has been mistreated by his king, exiled from his home and family. As he emerges in the poem, the Cid embodies all the characteristics still at the heart of Hispanic culture: a ferocious sense of self, tempered by a deep loyalty, even submission, to the king and to the Church. Fearless warrior, faithful husband, tender father, reverent Catholic, honorable friend, dutiful servant of his king. Our moral qualities and the actions they reflect are not dependent upon how we are received by our superiors, by society, or the world. Unfair treatment does not justify a betrayal of principle. “Antes quebrar que doblar.” Better break than bend. The reverse proverb exists in English.
My next example comes from the fourteenth century. When Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita, a priest, catches sight of the beautiful Doña Endrina crossing the plaza, his reaction, in the Libro de buen amor, forever reminds us of the inexhaustible energy, power, and beauty of youth:
¡Ay, Dios, quán fermosa viene doña Endrina por la plaça!
¡qué talle, qué donaire, qué alto cuello de garça!
O God! How beautiful Doña Endrina is, coming across the plaza!
What a figure! What grace! What a long, slender throat, like a heron’s!
I have often thought of these lines to remind myself that life forever renews itself in vigorous and beautiful youth. But a scrutiny of these lines discloses another fundamental obstacle to human understanding, a fundamental task for the language teacher. The poetic power of the image, doña Endrina’s “alto cuello de garça,” so immediate and provocative in Spanish, descends in translation to the very unpoetic, almost comic invocation of a heron. Our culture determines our sense of the beautiful, a central truth any language teacher will strive to demonstrate (show, not tell) in every possible way.
Next, from the fifteenth century, a moment in which a young man, riding through the mountains, comes upon a beautiful young rancherita. The poem is one of a series called serranillas, by the Marqués de Santillana.
Moça tan fermosa
non ví en la frontera,
como una vaquera
de la Finojosa.
Such a beautiful girl
I never saw along the border
like that cowgirl
from la Finojosa.
Although la Finojosa rejects her errant suitor, and he rides away disappointed, the memory of that moment, of her beauty, remains with him and with us forever.
From the early sixteenth century, Juan Boscán captures in three short lines the joy and pain of a lover rejected.
Si no os hubiera mirado,
pero tampoco os mirara.
If I hadn’t seen you, there would have been no pain.
But neither would I have seen you!
Sadder than the pain of love would be the emptiness of never having loved.
From the sixteenth century, Spain’s Goldern Age of art and literature, one famous verse from San Juan de la Cruz. In the midst of life’s fever, the simple joys, San Juan reminds us, are what keep us from despair, the daily repetition of
la cena que recrea y enamora.
the supper that restores life and love
I often think of these lines as I am on my way home in the evening. No stresses in our professional or public lives can dim the simple joy of returning home.
Santa Teresa de Avila left magnificent books of mysticism, guides to prayer. But she penned a few poems. This one is surely as beautiful and simple a prayer as was ever written.
Nada te turbe,
nada te espante,
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda.
todo lo alzanca.
Quien a Dios tiene
nada le falta.
Sólo Dios basta.
Let nothing upset you,
nothing frighten you,
all is passing,
God is not moved.
Patience accomplishes all things.
He who is with God
lacks for nothing.
Only God is enough.
Occasionally, a passage has left me ravaged by its musicality, the sheer beauty of sound and image. Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer coupled to those incomparable sounds a powerful depiction of love’s folly, of the pain and pleasure of memory, of the incomparable mystery of time. This poem a masterpiece for all time.
Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar;
y otra vez, con sus alas a tus cristales
Pero aquéllas que el vuelo refrenaban
Tu hermosura y mi dicha contemplar,
Aquéllas que aprendieron nuestros nombres...
Esas... ¡no volverán!
Returning again the dark swallows
will hang their nests on your balcony
and again, they will tap their wings playfully
against the glass.
But those who paused in flight
to contemplate your beauty and my happiness,
Those who learned our names...
Those.... will not return!
García Lorca, thought by many to be Spain’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, left a book of verses that has held me in a state of wonder and awe for nearly forty years..... El romancero gitano... The Gypsy Ballads. This little book spreads before us unique portraits of human sensibilities, a gallery of life in southern Spain. The book begins with a haunting ballad of how a little boy imagines, and then encounters, death. In ballads that follow, we experience with a young gypsy her frightening transition from girl to woman, her first intimations of the hunger and violence that accompany sexual passion. In another, a young gypsy nun, living in supposed renunciation of the world, finds her conventual space adorned with brilliant colors, redolent of sensual odors, hung with vibrant embroideries. Her heart quickens as she sees dashing young men on horseback outside her convent. All five senses tease and tempt her. Sexual longings, like “rivers made to stand on end,” illuminated by the light of “twenty suns,” beckon to her. The gypsy nun hesitates momentarily, then sighs and continues quietly to sew as patterns of light and shadow seem to play a game of chess for her soul. For the Hispanic experience of life, our bodies and spirits strive in perpetual conflict.
Our next gypsy portrait depicts a young man, handsome and well-dressed, a bit of a dandy, dying as his cousins knife him to death, perhaps because he doesn’t fight like a man. Lorca hints that the cousins may be jealous of this cousin, too cute and too gentle. As the beautiful young man falls dead, Lorca captures in a description of Antoñito’s profile against the sky one of the most widely held convictions of Hispanic culture: each human being plays a unique, unrepeatable part in the human story.
Tres golpes de sangre tuvo
y se murió de perfil.
Viva moneda que nunca
se volverá a repetir.
Three bloody blows he took
and died on his back, his profile raised.
Living coin that will never be struck again.
From Antonio Machado, in the twentieth century, what for me is perhaps the most mysterious and haunting of all lines of Spanish poetry. Evening is falling, and the poet is walking along, with his feet on the Spanish countryside, his soul wandering through life.
Yo voy soñando caminos
de la tarde. ¡Las colinas
doradas, los verdes pinos,
las polvorientas encinas!...
¿Adónde irá el camino?
Yo voy cantando, viajero
a lo largo del sendero...
—La tarde cayendo está—.
I dream my way
down evening roads.
Gold hills, green pines,
and dusty oaks...
Where can the road be leading?
I sing my way along,
the road stretches away,
evening is coming on. (Tr. Alan S. Trueblood)
Machado’s lines capture a mystery felt throughout Hispanic culture— greatest confusion and greatest lucidity—a dreamlike walk down a dimly lit road.
Finally, and most profoundly, from Don Quijote, two parallel declarations, one at the beginning of the work, in Part I, the other near the end of Part II. Taken together, they are the clearest possible statement of the Hispanic conviction that we are who we are by dint of our will, our desire, our deeds.
In the first scene, Don Quijote, quite mad, lies beaten on the ground. A friendly neighbor and laborer, Pedro Alonso, comes along and puts the broken-up body of his friend on his donkey, and leads Don Quijote, Alonso Quijana, home. Along the way, the mad knight imagines himself and Pedro Alonso characters in a famous Moorish tale of love.. The startled peasant corrects Don Qujote: I am only Pedro Alonso, he insists, and you are my neighbor, Señor Quijana. Don Quijote protests:
Yo sé quién soy, y sé que puedo ser no sólo los que he dicho, sino todos los Doce Pares de Francia...” I know how I am, and I can be not just the ones I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France.
In Part II, Sancho finally gets his island to govern. After many cruel tricks played on him by the islanders, Sancho recognizes the difference between who he is and who he has imagined himself to be. He renounces his governorship and embraces the simple life he has known and the person he truly is—Sancho Panza.
Abrid camino, señores míos, y dejadme volver a mi antigua libertad; dejadme que vaya a buscar la vida pasada..... yo no nací para ser gobernador.
Make way, my lords, and let me return to my former freedom; let me leave in search of the life I once had. I was not born to be a governor.
The first, by affirmation, the second by negation, both scenes affirm the central theme of Cervantes’s masterpiece and a central truth of the Hispanic tradition: we choose who we are to be. By an act of our will, we forge our true selves. Each of the above lines of poetry, and the two scenes in Don Quijote have, over many, many years, reminded me of love, of pain, of beauty, of mysteries I can never fully comprehend, of the ineffable gift of freedom to craft my life, to discover and then to become the unique person that I choose to be. These texts hold before us depictions of the Hispanic experience of life, unique gifts for all humanity.
But what of grammar? I began these remarks with a description of the extreme position, the method we inherited from classical studies. While it is clear that we must devise another strategy, one suited to a spoken language, we must not fall under sway of the grammarphobes. In the study of modern languages, we do our students an unspeakable disservice if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that, because we are teaching a living, breathing language, we must quickly skip over grammar studies, or even more insidiously, we must go at it little by little , give a student time to “become comfortable with the language,” introduce grammar slowly so as not to bore or discourage our audience. A recently popular, graduated series for middle school and high school classes in Spanish and in French followed this approach, emphasizing so-called direct communication, keeping students in the present tense for much of the first year. They may have felt good about it all, but those classes were babbling baby talk.
Grammar maps the partially-logical structure upon which language is built. Amid tragic and unending disorder in the human family, grammar conveys linguistic order, allowing any part of the human family to share in the language and hence the experiences of another. We teachers must decide which points are indispensable for coherent exchange, and emphasize them from the first moments of study. In Spanish, I have learned that mastery of the verb system forms the axis around which the language spins. A first-year, non-native student of Spanish should be well into the irregular preterites by November. If they are not memorized absolutely and without hesitation, that student will never achieve more than a shaky hold on the language. If a native speaker does not master the verb system, teaching subtle nuances of the subjunctive will prove an almost impossible task.
Perhaps the study of grammar would not have suffered such pitiless rejection in our time if we had been a bit more inventive and connected, from the first days of the first year, our grammar lessons to great and accessible works of literature, short pieces of immediate appeal to be repeated and memorized, crucial first steps toward apprehending what and how life can be in another tongue. In Spanish, as my earlier remarks have probably suggested, poetry offers itself as our great ally in conveying, beginning in the first month of the first year, a deep feeling for how culture and language are one.
Whatever the language you teach, I am sure you can harness great poetry in the service of beginning language studies. In Spanish, both Antonio Machado and Federico García Lorca have written many exquisite poems in which all verbs are in the present tense, the vocabulary simple, the themes diverse and profound. Many of Machado’s best poems alternate between the preterit and the imperfect tenses, ideal for when we are about to teach that mystery. The principle is a simple one: find short and compelling poems whose grammatical structures reinforce a particular point of grammar under consideration. And most important, insist that the students learn the poem. In recent times, to ask a student to memorize something was akin to asking her or him to study grammar. We became terrified of being told that the exercise was boring. Such thinking is terribly flawed. It is like dreaming of building a cathedral, and then being unwilling to think of the bricks and mortar and wood. I have many times spent an entire class repeating and dramatizing a poem with students; at the end of class, everyone leaves the room having learned the words. Beautifully arranged words, grammatically correct, music to the ears, and a message for the soul.
I end with a poem that I believe offers us the Hispanic version of Robert Frost’s celebrated “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Both poems deal with travel, and both poems tantalizingly invite us to relate the journey in the poem to the larger journey of life, of the spirit. Frost’s poem is reticent, ambiguous, spare. It is about a journey interrupted, a brief cessation of motion. As he reflects upon the contrast between the woods, “lovely, dark, and deep,” and the long journey before him, Frost’s traveler may for a moment consider ending the effort. Is he willing to continue, “miles to go before I sleep?” Perhaps not.
Lorca’s poem, by contrast, thunders with energy, the frenetic, forward motion of the pony into the darkness and into death. Although the rider can see his destination, he will never reach that distant goal. We are not told why, only that death will cut short his journey. I cannot begin to tell you how many wonderful hours I have spent with students reflecting upon this simple little masterpiece. It is ideal for the last third of the first semester of first-year Spanish. In a course for native speakers, it could come in the second week.
Córdoba. Lejana y sola.
Jaca negra, luna grande
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.
Por el llano, por el viento,
jaca negra, luna roja;
la Muerta me está mirando
desde las torres de Córdoba.
!Ay qué camino tan largo!
¡Ay mi jaca valeroa!
¡Ay que la Muerte me espera
antes de llegar a Córdoba.
Córdoba. Lejana y sola.
Córdoba. Distant and alone.
A black pony, a large moon,
and olives in my saddlebags,
although I know the way,
I will never reach Córdoba.
Over the plain, into the wind,
a black pony, a blood-red moon,
Death is watching me
from the towers of Córdoba.
Ay, what a long road!
Ay, my brave little pony!
Ay, Death awaits me
before I reach Córdoba.
Córdoba. Distant and alone.