Archives for category: Uncategorized

There is a classic “death spiral” for a liberal-arts college. Enrollments decline a bit, so programs or services must be cut. That makes the school a little less appealing, so the college puts more money toward financial aid to attract the entering class. In the biz, this is known as “raising the discount rate,” that is, maintaining the tuition rate, but raising the number or size of financial aid grants. But applications keep declining, so the college cuts programs and services more; the quality declines further; more money goes to financial aid. That’s the death spiral.

Putting money toward financial aid, making college more accessible for folks of limited means, sounds like a very good thing. Financial aid can be seen as enacting social justice, like progressive taxation; the rich pay the full tuition, and the not-rich get financial aid appropriate for their needs. It’s impossible to argue against financial aid. One institution might target its financial aid to help it get the most well prepared students. Another institution might target its financial aid to help it get strong student athletes. Another might use its financial aid to help it build the ethnic diversity of its student body. Whatever the values of any particular liberal-arts college, reduction in programs or services to raise the discount rate drives the death spiral.

Enrollment in classical languages is way down all over, and classical antiquity has lost much prestige as an object for scholarly inquiry. Liberal-arts colleges looking to cut programs to help financial aid naturally think to trim low-enrollment courses, especially when those subjects no longer lend prestige. STEM subjects are the most reliable draws for applicants, so those can’t be cut, even though the institutional costs for STEM instruction, labs and equipment, are much higher than for, e.g. Philosophy. The arts have high instructional costs, but liberal-arts colleges are expected to provide experiences in art, though the number of majors tends to be low. The Social Sciences are a mixed bag; some disciplines are doing well with enrollment, others not. But the Humanities are hurting at many liberal-arts colleges, though that’s the broad area most associated with the liberal arts. Languages are difficult for liberal-arts colleges, for they require lots of resources for staffing. If a college offers the beginning level of a language, it is obligated to keep offering that language through all four years. Language instruction is also labor intensive, with many language classes meeting more frequently in a week than other subjects. Dead languages are an especially hard sell, for they don’t directly help with communication in the global marketplace, and they are just plain difficult.

There’s a liberal-arts college that is expanding its STEM curriculum dramatically and cutting its humanities offerings, all in an effort to resist the pull of the death spiral. It makes sense. Insofar as colleges must cater to the educational preferences of their clientele, building STEM and diminishing Humanities may be the best way to go. I wonder if that will be enough to resist the death spiral. I wonder if diminution of the Humanities will make a liberal-arts college more desirable or less desirable to applicants. I’ll be curious to see whether this particular liberal-arts college will go down the drain of the death spiral or transform into a successful technical college.

Pre-Christian Greek writers use the term λόγος (logos) in a startling variety of ways.  It can mean something as simple as a word uttered by a voice, or it can mean the reason that underlies the uttering of that word.  It can mean a story told, or a rumor heard.  It can mean the capacity for reason, or it can mean the orderly structure of the universe.  Even someone with a Ph.D. in ancient Greek, one who has read the word λόγος countless times in Greek literature, must sometimes pause to consider what the word might mean in a given context. Sometimes classicists will get it wrong, for we often need to adapt our own understandings of the word to a particular literary context.  That’s half the fun of classics.  It is illuminating to have one’s preconceptions challenged.  It’s good to have to think about what a given word might mean in a given passage.  The old name for classics was Philology.  Philia is Greek for a certain kind of love (that’s a tricky word too!), and the last part of that word is λόγος, so Philology is a love of words.  This is a discipline which has often been mocked as nit-picky, myopic, and pedantic.  Philologists try to figure out what words mean.

Consider the first lines of the Gospel of John, ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.  οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν, “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was in the presence of God.  And the logos was God.  This was in the beginning in the presence of God.”  God gets second billing to the λόγος, or maybe the λόγος is God.  Or maybe God is the λόγος.  What does John mean?  The λόγος appears to be something that exists in the universe prior to God, but is also identified with God.  That suggests that the λόγος might be atemporal or transtemporal; it must be something untouched by the flux of history and events.  The λόγος must be somehow transcendent, bound to the limitations of matter or space no more than to the limitations of time.  Later in his gospel (1:14) John says that this λόγος “became flesh” at the incarnation of Christ, but before that happened, the λόγος was not flesh.  That is consistent with the idea that the λόγος is to be understood as unbounded by matter, space, or time.

The Greek word for hatred is mîsos, so the term Misology refers to the hatred of the λόγος.  In this case, λόγος means something rather different than a word appearing in a work of literature.  Misology usually means a hatred for reason. (Misology was first coined in German by Kant in 1781, as he simply translated the cognate Greek term.)  Notice the inconsistency between the two etymologically cognate terms: Misology is a hatred for reason; Philology is a love for language.

I won’t here rehearse the Misology of the current moment, neither from the political right nor from the political left.  The λόγος is not thriving.  So what’s a philologist to do?  Shouting and sputtering about the merits of reason is surely a fool’s errand, and it only shows the philologist to be a lover of reason rather than a lover of language.  In the context of a contempt for reason philology can offer, at best, a pleasing haven.  Parsing Aeschylus may now be more valuable than calling for evidence-based arguments in Senate hearings.  Nearly no one cares what anyone thinks of the syntax of a line of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, but that’s the beauty of it.  We can think about that line and come to a richer understanding of it without running afoul of the misologists, for they have no interest in the pursuit.  Here, let’s see.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 181, contains the phrase χάρις βίαιος (charis biaios).  The second word is easier than the first.  The word βίαιος is an adjective made from a noun that  means force or violence, so Aeschylus’s word means violent or forceful.  The first word in our phrase, χάρις, is very difficult.  It is used in the Christian bible to refer to God’s free gift to humans, and then it is translated as grace.  In classical Greek it can refer to the beneficence of a giver and to the gratitude of a recipient.  It can operate on both sides of a transaction of goodwill.  Indeed, it can mean the goodwill which underlies a transaction or gift exchange.  In our passage, Aeschylus is pushing hard on the complexity of this word, for his “violent grace” is said to come from the gods and to exercise a kind of control over humans.  Something outside of this world gives us a gift which serves to regulate, but that gift is violent, coercive.

Notice that the analysis above has not resolved Aeschylus’s two-word phrase into a perfectly simple meaning.  We still don’t quite know what he means by the phrase, but we do know more than if we hadn’t thought about it, and we see more depth and ambiguity in the phrase, even as we see its meaning a little more clearly.  Philology doesn’t work by syllogism; it labors under no quod erat demonstrandum, no QED.  Philology pokes under rocks and stares at sunsets; it doesn’t claim to offer truth or justice, but it does find beauty, and there’s a certain calm it offers amidst the din of those claiming to know truth or justice.

In the crowded lunchroom of a Sri Lankan university, an older visiting American professor, wearing a white, collared shirt and black pants, is looking for a seat. He sees a group of young Buddhist monks, wearing saffron robes and with heads shaved. He asks if he can sit at their table. In a tone of indignation, a monk says, “No!” and waves him off. Surprised, since sharing tables is the norm in this lunchroom, the professor looks around for a place. At another table sits a group of young Muslim women, identifiable by headscarves, and engaged in animated conversation. Worried that this group might be uncomfortable about a request to sit down on their bench, the professor keeps looking for a spot, now seriously considering leaving the staff room of the cafeteria to go sit with undergraduates in their larger hall. Deference to rank means that students would certainly not deny a request to be seated at their table, so this seems the best option. The professor finds a spot and enjoys his lunch, smiling at the students of his table, but not really joining in their conversation.

Intercultural communication requires imagination. As I thought about approaching the group of Muslim women, I had to imagine their response, even though I didn’t really know what that might be. Perhaps they would have welcomed an opportunity to chat with a visiting American, but I thought their religion might make them uncomfortable having a male so closely in their midst. I used my limited understanding about gender separation in Islam to guess what might be the right move. Maybe I missed a chance to have a lively conversation; maybe I was courteous. Either way, I had to use my imagination.

The monks just pissed me off. Who do they think they are haughtily dismissing someone twice their age and higher in academic rank? Calming down a little later and putting my ego on the shelf, I tried to use my imagination, coupled with some cultural inquiry. I learned that monks in Sri Lanka normally don’t eat with laypeople, and that they are traditionally limited to two meals a day, which in ideal circumstances come from begging. These monks hadn’t begged for their lunch, but those cultural details lay in the background. I needed to use my imagination to understand why I’d been waved off. I needed to see things through the eyes of the monks, for whom my request must have seemed transgressive.

It’s hard to see things through someone else’s eyes, especially when that other person comes from a world that’s far, far away. The pressures of living abroad, of never quite knowing if we’re doing the right thing, help us develop a habit of trying to use our imagination to figure out what someone else might be thinking. But imagination alone isn’t quite adequate. For the Muslim women, I used some of my limited knowledge about Islam; for the Buddhist monks, I had to inquire about their perspective. That is, I had to have good will, but I also had to have some information.

My intercultural communication in the Sri Lankan lunchroom is defined by the spatial distance between my normal home and a university on the other side of the world. As a professional classicist, my most customary form of intercultural communication is defined more by time than by space. To read Euripides thoughtfully, I need to imagine the perspective of a world very far from my own. I don’t always do that very well; sometimes I think I know what Euripides is saying when I really don’t. Libraries are full of volumes written by scholars arguing about what he might actually be saying. Classicists are professionally obligated to use historical imagination for intercultural communication. Sometimes we do that pretty well; sometimes not so much.

To use historical imagination we need information (hence the volumes in the library), but we also need good will. Thomas Jefferson has been in the press on and off in recent years. The author of the Declaration of Independence held slaves and fathered children on at least one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. That makes for a confluence of racism and sexism that invites our condemnation. As moral folk of the 21st century, we should certainly reject the racism and sexism, but extending the condemnation to Jefferson himself, appealing as it may be, shows a lack of historical imagination, arising from a lack of good will and a lack of information. Moral perspectives have changed radically over the centuries. It was once considered morally obligatory for men of a certain class to engage in duels with pistols in cases of verbal insult; now that just seems silly. To impose the moral perspectives of the present upon prior centuries may be soothing to our sense of superiority, but it is a sign of a lack of historical imagination. Can’t I condemn Jefferson’s racism and sexism even as I admire his defense of liberty and his elegant prose style?

The book of Leviticus notoriously describes homosexuality as an “abomination” (18:22), and those who utterly lack historical imagination adduce this text as an argument for 21st-century discrimination against homosexuals. Some defenders of gay rights point to other opinions in Leviticus, like the statement that one who curses a parent should be killed (20:9). Such draconian laws, which few today would actually defend, might be taken as evidence that all the moral perspectives of Leviticus should be summarily dismissed. But that argument also shows a deficit of historical imagination. The book of Leviticus gives us a window into an ancient perspective. If we too readily embrace or reject that perspective, we miss an opportunity to understand the perspective itself. Leviticus is mostly a legal document showing the views of a priestly caste of Jews living in a multi-cultural world they see as threatening to their own cultural integrity. Modern readers might use this text to better understand the virtues and vices of preserving cultural identity in a world of diversity.

The students in the lunchroom eat with their hand. They have a sheet of paper, or a plate, with rice and several kinds of curry, each with its own sauce. They like to massage the rice into the various curries, creating a little cone of rice with many flavors, before lifting that to their mouths. Several students often eat from the same packet of lunch, or several students with different curries in their own packets will share, either distributing their own lunch to their friends, or reaching from another’s lunch to get a piece of tasty stewed fish or maybe a bit of cooked mango curry. There are several sinks in the lunchroom, and when you’re done eating, you take your curry-covered right hand to the sink to wash it clean. I’ve learned how to eat with my hand. At first, I was a little timid and thought that massaging the rice and curry into a mound was indecorous. But I learned that it makes for a tasty morsel that can be more easily transported to the mouth. I don’t reach for someone else’s curry, nor do I invite others to take some lunch from my plate. I’m not about to give up my own perspectives entirely; I am, after all, an older visiting American professor. Sometimes I get things wrong and offend my hosts. But I’ve learned some things about eating with the hand, and that required a little bit of good will and a little bit of information.

Should justice be sought for its own sake, or is it a means to other goods? Mr. Spock, dying in one of the Star Trek movies, when saving him means endangering the crew, says, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one.” That’s a consequentialist perspective, in which an action, allowing the death of Spock, is chosen as a means to other goods, in this case the survival of the crew of the Enterprise. Most of us have a pretty easy time seeing how that works. The other perspective, seeing justice as a good to be sought for its own sake, is harder to understand. When I’ve taught this in the States, I’ve sometimes used the story of the Dutchman hiding Jews in his basement. A Nazi officer knocks on the door and says, “Are you hiding Jews in your basement?” If the Dutchman says, “yes,” the Jews all get killed, so the consequentialist would argue that the Dutchman should lie. But if he lies, he’s doing something immoral, so the hard and fast defender of the idea that justice is a good which should be sought for its own sake, a deontologist, would argue that the Dutchman should tell the truth. This perspective is hard to present persuasively, but it’s associated with some big names in moral theory, like Kant, and some big names in religious thought, like Jesus of Nazareth.

This semester I’m teaching in Sri Lanka, a largely Buddhist country, and I thought my students here might have some interesting perspectives on this distinction. One student, using common sense, affirmed a strongly consequentialist perspective when I shared the Jews in the basement story, and that’s what my American students usually do. It’s hard to imagine that the Dutchman has any moral duty to an SS officer, and Kant’s idea that he has a duty to the moral law itself is a stretch. As we struggled to see why anyone would argue that the Dutchman shouldn’t lie, another student said that she knew a similar story from the Buddhist tradition. A monk was friends with a butcher, whom he visited often. One day, the butcher handled a precious gem with bloody hands and left the soiled stone on the counter in front of the monk to go into the back room. In the butcher’s absence, his pet bird devoured the gem, thinking it to be a piece of bloody meat. The monk observed this. When the butcher returned, he saw that the gem was gone and accused the monk of theft. The monk, however, did not tell the butcher of his pet bird’s meal, for he feared that the butcher would kill the bird to retrieve the stone. The monk preferred to be thought a thief, even by his friend the butcher, than to cause the death of the bird. As it turned out, the butcher had occasion to kill the bird anyway. He discovered the stone in the bird’s gullet and realized that the monk had accepted the guilt for a crime he did not commit, rather than be the cause of the bird’s death.

The tale of the monk and the butcher’s bird strikes me as wonderfully deontological. It shows a moral agent refusing to perform an action which would have a consequence favorable to himself, and it has him doing so for the sake of an apparently insignificant creature. If it is hard to see the Dutchman having a moral duty to the SS officer, it is equally hard to see the monk having a moral duty to the bird. Partly, this Buddhist tale depends upon the notion of a moral duty toward non-human beings, and it gets its zing from the monk’s surprising respect for avian life.

This all took place in a class on Plato’s Republic. At my home institution in the States some students, but not many, read ancient texts from the Pali canon of Buddhist literature, and some of those students have read Plato. In an American class on Plato, however, I can’t assume a broad knowledge of Buddhist literature, and I don’t possess such knowledge myself. Here in Sri Lanka, I can assume a knowledge of Buddhist literature. So teaching Plato in Sri Lanka puts me in the enviable position of learning from my students. I often learn from my students in the States. One knows about musical theory and makes a comparison between poetic meter and musical rhythm; another knows about African history and draws a connection between Rhodesia and the Roman Civil Wars. But such moments are unsystematic; maybe they happen, maybe they don’t. Teaching outside my accustomed culture, in a land where most everyone is familiar with a set of ideas different from those I know, lets me be a learner in a more vivid and consistent way.

I’m not sure who’s getting the better deal here, me or my students. They need to develop skills of critical thinking and of composition in English; I can help with that. For my part, I want to get new ways of thinking about things I’ve been teaching for thirty years; they can give me that. All in all, it seems beneficial for both parties.

Last week I stayed in a rural village in Sri Lanka, at the home of a Sri Lankan I’d gotten to know in the States. My experiences are worth reporting because I got an exceptional opportunity to live intimately in a culture far different from anything I’ve known. A friend, colleague and neighbor of mine has traveled to Sri Lanka repeatedly, and for extended periods, over the last 25 years or so. He’s an American scholar of South Asia; he and his American, teenaged nephew brought me to the village.

They called my friend Sudumaama. Sudu means “white” in Sinhala, and maama is “uncle.” He consistently referred to his nephew as puta, which means “son” in Sinhala. The villagers called the nephew Suduputa. Familial relationships are everything in the village, so people often refer to others by relationship rather than proper name. There were about five houses in the immediate area, and all residents were related either by blood or marriage. It was quite a challenge for me to keep the relationships straight. All the doors were always open, and folks moved freely among the various houses. When parents went to work, grandparents or others took care of the little ones.  I noticed how the kids played together and were included in the adult activities. There seemed to be far less separation of the generations than in the States. The littlest kids were usually being held by someone, a parent, an uncle or aunt, or an older child. I can’t imagine these kids ever being bored; they were certainly never neglected. No one lacked for company.

Life was constantly communal. I’ve traveled enough in Latin America to have expected that, but this village was far more communal than anything I’ve experienced. I found it tiring, for I’m not used to being in a group of people all day and night, but it was also inspiring. Folks really care about one another, and anything that happens to one is known to all immediately. One evening I stumbled into a ditch and scraped my elbow and shin. Everyone expressed genuine concern, and word spread that I’d hurt myself. Folks came to see my wounds and recommend treatments. It’s hard for me to imagine this environment creating the lonely mass killers now so typical of American culture. These folks can’t become alienated. Sudumaama reported that young couples sometimes complain they can’t get a private moment to make a baby; there’s always someone else in the room.

As soon as it was light, I could hear the women working in the kitchen next to my room. All three meals were the same, but every meal was different. There was a bowl of rice, grown by my host, and three or four bowls of curries, with an additional bowl of fried chilies and papadam. The food was consistently outstanding, with each curry centering around some vegetable flavored in a special way. I love spicy food, but I found it difficult to eat chilies three times a day; still, it was hard to say “no” to such tasty food. We held our bowl in one hand and ate with the other. You’re done eating when you take your bowl back to the kitchen and wash your curry-covered right hand.

What goes in must come out. The latrine was a small shack with a squat toilet, a water tap, and a bucket. These facilities can only be used wearing a sarong. You hike up your sarong, squat over the hole in the floor and do your business. Then you fill the bucket from the tap and pour the water over your genitals while splashing it onto the soiled region. There’s no toilet paper. You wash your hands, stand up, and your sarong falls back to its normal position drying your wet butt. From this description, it sounds unclean and/or unpleasant, but I found it to be a most satisfactory form of defecation, and it showed me how this basic act is a cultural construct. All the parts fit together. There’s no need for toilet paper or towel, and the only waste product is the fecal matter gone down the hole. The floor of the latrine is wet, but clean. You are barefoot in the latrine, but you come out feeling clean and satisfied. I became convinced that the squat position makes everything come out gracefully, easily, and completely.

Since Sri Lanka is near the equator, the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year. It was very hot and humid in the village, so I was usually miserable by about 5 pm. But the best part of every day came around 5:30, when folks went to the nearby lake to bathe. Everybody does this every day. There are small man-made lakes, called tanks, dotting the countryside. The water is used for irrigation, but also for bathing. There is a sloping section with sand extending out into the lake, so you can stand comfortably on the sand and keep your feet away from mud. You bring a bar of soap, a towel, and a fresh sarong. Men and women are somewhat separate, but not by more than a few yards. Everyone is clothed during bathing, but it’s easy to soap up, rinse and get changed without any immodest revelation. Maybe it’s because people live so communally; folks have learned how to be modest, even in company. The architecture of the sarong helps enormously.

It would be very easy for a feminist such as myself to reject this culture as sexist. The women do all the cooking. Men eat first, with other men, and the women clean up afterwards. But the men aren’t getting a free ride; my host went to his paddy fields often, to irrigate or fertilize, and he had plenty of duties with childcare. Both my host and his wife worked in an agricultural development office. They got dressed up for office work in the mornings, she in a saree and he in black pants and white shirt. When they got off work, he switched to a sarong and she to a shirt and wide skirt. He wore his sarong to go to the paddy fields. The family’s income depended on both the office work and the agriculture. My host showed me a back room of their house with thousands of pounds of rice he’d grown. Next to that room was the kitchen, where only the women worked.

Sudumaama gets well taken care of. The women of the village compete for opportunities to feed him, and everyone was eager to offer hospitality to Suduputa and me. When Sudumaama walks through the village, his passage is very slow; he stops at most houses and is invited in for conversation and tea. On our first day, Suduputa and I accompanied Sudumaama, and we stopped in at the house of an elderly ayurvedic healer. The old man was very frail, but he happily roused himself to greet his guests. He offered us drinks and sweets, followed by betel nut. I’d never chewed betel, so Sudumaama had to show me how to do it. The taste wasn’t bad at all, and I definitely got a head buzz that lasted about an hour. The old man had been chewing betel all his life and scarcely had a tooth left in his head. Dental problems aside, this seemed a pretty appealing drug for daily use; it is a mild stimulant. When we took our leave of the old healer, Sudumaama worshipped him. This had happened to me when I’d been teaching at the university in the city, but it somehow carried more weight in the village. My friend knelt before the old healer and touched his forehead to the ground. The elder stroked my friend’s head in blessing. Worshipping like this is done by younger folks to show respect to elders.

Sudumaama has a gaggle of age mate friends in the village. One afternoon a friend came by on a motorbike and announced that a herd of elephants had come to a tank down the road. We all piled onto motorbikes and drove down the road to see the wild elephants. The herd was reported to be 60, but we only saw about fifteen. We humans were about the same number, and we walked out onto an embankment above the tank to get a good look at the huge beasts. Everyone said that this was some of the best elephant viewing they’d had in years, for we had a body of water between the elephants and us. That allowed the elephants to feel less nervous about our presence and vice versa. Villagers talk about the elephants nearly daily, for they are a danger and an economic problem. They come to the paddy fields and eat the crops, and they come into the gardens of the houses and eat the fruits and vegetables. An uncle of the family had been killed by an elephant several years ago, causing much heartache. On two of my nights in the village, an elephant came into the yard and did some damage. But our viewing across the tank was outstanding. Water buffalo wallowed among the lotus flowers; ibis birds waded and soared; and four of the elephants came right to the water, including two babies. They drank and splashed, and we got to watch from very close by.

The group of us watching were sharing an experience. We were quiet, to avoid scaring the elephants, and we’d point out individuals to one another. It felt good to be a part of that group, especially because I often felt alienated by my cultural cluelessness and my lack of Sinhala. For hours every day I’d sit and listen as Sudumaama chatted in Sinhala with his friends. On the last evening, we dined at a different house, and I felt more included. Three of this family’s daughters were teens or young adults, and they had studied English in school. It wasn’t easy to communicate, but we did so anyway, driven in large part by a charismatic young woman who was eager to take advantage of a rare chance to actually speak in the language she’d learned mostly as a book subject. Trying to give her opportunities to speak, I asked her if she had any hobbies. She said that she liked to sing, so we asked her to do so. After much blushing and hesitation, she sang a song of exceptional beauty. I’m not accustomed to this form of music, so it sounded wonderfully exotic, with vocal modulations not used in western music. But most of the charm came from the generous performance and the lovely moment of sharing. We all applauded when the song was finished, and the singer announced that her younger sisters were good at dancing. So four six-to-ten year olds sang a little song to accompany themselves while dancing. They had synchronized gestures for parts of the song, and they loved being the center of attention. After the dancing and dinner we chatted more, until I was nodding off. The younger dancers had already gone to bed. I rose to leave, and the three older girls offered me the worshiping I’d seen earlier in the visit. I was most touched to be so honored.

Sudumaama has a special relationship with this little bit of paradise. I couldn’t possibly live like these people live. I need my space, as they say; but I admire how richly these people live together and care about one another. All that togetherness also means that they cared about a visitor from far away. Their hospitality and generosity were outstanding and showed me some of the benefits of living as a village.

English is hated as a foreign tongue imposed by colonialists but is loved as a means to status and power in Sri Lanka and abroad. This love/hate relation to English exists all over the world (I saw it clearly while teaching in Costa Rica), but the situation in Sri Lanka is far more complex than in Latin America.

Sri Lankans speak one of two languages as a native tongue, Tamil or Sinhala, and nearly all Sri Lankans learn some English in school. Since Tamil, a Dravidian language, and Sinhala, an Indo-European language, are not mutually intelligible, citizens depend upon English as the lingua franca for communication between the two groups. In Latin America, Portuguese speakers and Spanish speakers can achieve some degree of communication through the similarities of the two languages, but that’s not possible for the two languages of Sri Lanka. Tamil is the minority language, and the Sinhala majority has defeated a Tamil faction in a protracted civil war. Two Tamil speakers at lunch the other day affirmed that there are more Tamils who speak some Sinhala than Sinhalese who speak some Tamil. I have no idea if that is true or not, but my lunch companions’ assertion reveals something of the tensions between the two language groups.

Sinhala is not spoken outside of Sri Lanka, and Tamil is spoken only in southern sections of India. In contrast, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Since neither Sinhala nor Tamil is a global language, Sri Lankans are also dependent upon English for participation in a worldwide discourse community.

During the last weeks, I’ve been doing two distinct kinds of teaching here. I’ve been teaching my normal subject area, Ancient Greek Literature, in English, and I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language to a group of undergraduate Law students. All my teaching has taken place at the same large, public university, mostly in the same building, but the English language ability of students in the two groups is quite different. With the Classics students I’m working on academic writing and literary analysis. It’s not that different from what I do back in the States, though I need to avoid American slang and very rapid speech, and I need to make slightly shorter reading assignments. For the Law students, however, I’m working on basics of pronunciation and grammar. The strongest English speakers among the Law students are not as strong as the Classics students, and the weakest are very weak indeed.

English, Tamil and Sinhala are the three languages of subject-area instruction for Sri Lankan universities, with some programs, including Law, offering instruction only in English. My Law students need to bring their English up considerably, if they are to follow the lectures in their subject-area. A separate unit of the university is responsible for English language instruction. All students are required to take courses from this unit, or to place out of the requirement by testing, but academic credit is not awarded for English language study. The English language teaching unit is huge and is staffed largely by recent graduates on short-term contracts. Working with very limited resources these young instructors are also tasked with teaching some basic academic skills, such as note taking. A heavy instructional burden falls upon an inexperienced and largely temporary cadre of instructors. They report that student absenteeism and plagiarism are both high.

My understanding of the issues is surely distorted by the limited information I’ve gotten, by my own cultural misunderstandings, and by the interests of my informants. I know how complex academic institutional politics can be, so I am confident that there are more factors at play than I can possibly imagine. But I can report what I’ve heard, and that reveals something of the tensions and struggles surrounding English.

I have heard tales of regular faculty members looking down upon the English language instructors, even when those regular faculty members have a weak English language speaking ability. I have noticed that many regular members of the faculty speak graceful English, though I have had serious difficulty understanding some. That may be my problem rather than theirs; the language of importance here is Sri Lankan English, not a North American or British dialect I would find easy to understand. Still, I have little doubt that there is some significant variation in the comprehensibility of professors’ spoken English. I have no doubt that language instructors are looked down upon; they hold a lower academic rank and have short-term contracts. Academic status comes from subject-area expertise, so mere language teachers everywhere are often given scant resources and respect. The English language teaching unit here has been given a massive task, so it may then be blamed, justly or unjustly, when that remains unaccomplished.

On several occasions I’ve been told that English is sometimes called the “sword,” and that it is a tool for humiliation. English language ability in Sri Lanka seems to map fairly closely to socio-economic status. The stronger speakers of English use that superiority as a “sword” against their lower-class neighbors. In my class of Law students I have noticed more anxiety about speaking from the weaker students than I would have expected. The stronger students in any language class often lord it over the weaker, but there is more going on here than simply a pride in language ability. Here the weaker students are far more embarrassed, and the stronger students far more proud, than in Costa Rica. The “sword” appears to remain in play.

Hazing is a vile practice at any educational institution. Here it has a special connection to English. The university wisely sets aside the first two weeks of the students’ first academic year for intensive instruction in English. The language instructors get an opportunity to bring the new students into a university-level English discourse community. Unfortunately, those same two weeks also include a vigorous dose of hazing, including sleep-deprivation and various forms of abuse. The English language instructors report that part of this hazing includes inculcating a contempt for English language instruction. I don’t know how much of this is true, but, again, the fact that it is being reported shows that there are serious issues involving the status of English at the university and in the culture.

These stories show some of the problems for English language instruction in Sri Lanka, but there is also much goodwill and serious intellectual effort. During teaching workshops for instructors, I’ve seen sophisticated familiarity with contemporary issues in language pedagogy; I’ve met young instructors who are interested in pursuing doctoral study in Applied Linguistics; I’ve talked with more advanced instructors who have shared subtle analyses of the social and political forces affecting English language teaching at the university. The language instructors know that they are in a difficult situation, to be sure, but they work hard and recognize how much is at stake for their students, who need this “medium” for success in their own country. In Latin America students need English for success in fields related to North America or to a global economy. In Sri Lanka students need English simply to follow the lectures in their chosen area of study. I admire the instructors and students who are working well under these challenging circumstances.

 

Students continue to amaze and delight me. I’ve taught a few classes now, and each one included moments of student brilliance and engagement.

In a small writing workshop for the classics department on the Apology of Socrates, the students had done a bit of freewriting. They passed their writing to their neighbor, and I asked each to identify the best idea in the document they’d received from another. The first to speak stood up and delivered an eloquent precis of her classmate’s hastily composed paragraph. The speaker generously offered a defense of an argument that was not her own.

Another class of about 30 students is reading the Hippolytus of Euripides. I had been a little anxious about this, for I worried that a tale so rife with tortured desire and malevolent gods might offend conservative religious sensibilities. These young adults, however, were eager to understand how Greek tragedy was approaching the fundamental problems of the human condition. I’ve used that last phrase with increasing anxiety during the last ten years or so, for my young colleagues back in the states are deeply suspicious of claims to universality. They prefer to attend to differences in Weltanschauung and like to affirm that the apparently essential is actually constructed. I agree in many respects: gender, race, class, etc., but I’m not as interested in what makes humans different as I am in what makes them the same. These Sri Lankan 20-year olds, several self-identifying as muslim by their clothing, had no problem working to find the human condition within this play written so long ago and so far away. They unpacked the problems of desire with maturity and subtlety. One young woman in headscarf proposed that Hippolytus’s distance from sex revealed his distance from humanity. At the end of this period I reproached myself for my worries about easily offended religious sensibilities. These students were reading this difficult play with precision and care.

Finally, I taught a lower level class in what is truly ESL. There were about 30 students, and I was asked to teach them how to give an oral presentation. The University often uses oral presentations as part of end-of-term evaluation, so this is a skill the students really need. I had prepared some materials and had determined that I’d build our six two-hour sessions as the steps in generating a presentation, complete with performance. It soon became clear that some of the students were quite comfortable in English, but others could scarcely understand my instructions. I did some theatre exercises to warm up their speaking apparatus, and then we turned our attention to phrasing. Students proposed the placement of pauses in the transcript of a spoken text, and, as expected, they came up with different places for those. What most impressed me was their willingness to engage the differences of meaning potentially created by these different pause points. ESL students are often looking for the right answer, and some of the styles of pedagogy these students have encountered would tend to foster that preference. Students were working against some of their training as they sought to understand how a tiny difference in form necessarily entailed a difference in meaning. The strongest had to give up their sense of superiority to risk accepting the validity of an answer other than their own, and the weakest had to risk being seen as mistaken in the eyes of their more advanced peers.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” as I tell myself several times a day, but neither is this place as strange and unknowable as I had expected. The students are energetic, open, even daring. They want to learn for learning’s sake; many have chosen to read Euripides just because it expands their thinking. They also want to make the world a better place; the ESL class consists of law students, and most professed a desire to bring legal services to their country’s poor. I am blessed to be able to work with such students, just as I’m blessed to be able to work with my students back in the States.