First Collection 2012: Aurora Camacho de Schmidt

Professor of Spanish  Aurora Camacho de Schmidt  joined President Rebecca Chopp, Dean of Students Liz Braun, and  Ian Perkins-Taylor '13 in welcoming the Class of 2016 to Swarthmore. During an event that evokes the College's Quaker roots, this student-designed tradition is held during each new student orientation in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater.





In Search of a Learning Language

Good evening!

Are you ready to be in Swarthmore College?

Are you ready to work very hard?

Are you ready to have fun?

Are you ready to make friends?

Are you ready to walk into unknown places?

Are you ready to be perplexed, mystified, stumped, puzzled, bemused?

Are you ready to be dazzled, astonished, awed, stretched?

How about occasionally bored, occasionally tired, occasionally frustrated?

I wish to welcome you on behalf of the faculty, as I thank President Rebecca Chopp, Provost Tom Stephenson, and Dean Liz Braun, for the kindness of their invitation to speak to you in this special moment.

I would still like to insist in asking: are you scared? Just a bit?

Let me tell you how scared I must have been many years ago, when I first came to the college as a visiting professor. The night before classes started, I dreamt a virus had entered language. Not our computers, that were relatively simple machines in those days, but language. We spoke, we wrote, we raised our voices, we used signs, and it was all rubbish. Not a plurality of languages as in the Tower of Babel-that would have been great! No, no language at all! We could not say. We could not express. We could not reach out. We could not teach! I woke up in a sweat of terror. And no need for Freud to help me interpret this dream . . .

I will go back to discuss language and literature (my trade), but before I do, I wish to speak about this moment, this time, measured by the sound of the cicadas and created by your expectation and our enthusiasm in receiving you. It is a perfect moment, a beginning, an origin. It has been taken out of ordinary time by virtue of the special space where we are, the fact that you are together, and the presence of fire in the ritual we share. You are constructing yourselves as a class here and now, the Class of 2016, as you share fire and light in the darkness of a late summer evening. You are here as a beautiful presence, not only the children of our society or our species going back in time, but also the children of this earth, springing forth from its millenary history, and indeed, from the universe. Who knows how many languages you are made of, how many migrations, how many explorations and conquests. Just as your body registers faithfully those long lineages across continents, the languages you speak contain linguistic DNA created by human beings from long ago and not so long ago - your parents, your grandparents, as much as the first human beings who gathered around the fire in a night not unlike this one to share stories and food. "For we have been expected upon the earth," says the German social and literary critic Walter Benjamin in his study of history.[1]

It has taken an unfathomable depth of time and a formidable effort on the part of the universe for you to come here. And now you are here to explore that very universe that made you! In English this is a college. In Spanish es una universidad, a university, because there is nothing here that is not an object of study and discovery-the universe we see in the sky on a clear night, where two of my colleagues and their students recently discovered two more planets, and the universe of the infinitely small, like the Higgs particle or boson, described last July by an international group of researchers, or the sex life of fruit flies, explored by another colleague and her student here, in this small university. But I would not throw out the word "college," because if you open that word like a nut, you see that little word's own majesty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "college" means "a body of colleagues, a guild, fellowship, association." I used to think the word rather came from co-legere, to read together, and that served me well enough, because that is what we do in many of our classes. Here you read books, but you also read the world, read the times, not The New York Times only, but the time you live in, you "discern the signs of the times," as my Jesuit college professors used to say. Because here, even when you are separated from the rest of the world in order to give focus and intensity to your academic, social, and athletic pursuits, you also mature into social actors. Indeed, you will be historical and political actors. Your personal development and process of maturity are of the greatest significance in the four years ahead of you. And you engage in those processes collectively, collegially. Among other opportunities, November's presidential election is looming large in the semester, and many of us on the faculty and administration will be deliriously happy if we see the same energy on campus that we saw four years ago: students organizing, registering others to vote, discussing the issues thoughtfully and openly.

Many years from now, as you remember your college days, you will also think of the great events of our time within the last decade: the rise of the extreme right wing in politics and the rightist radicalization of many fundamentalist churches; the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi; the recession as a result of banks and real estate speculation; the loss of funding for many institutions of higher education that has made the venture you are about to start almost the privilege it was before World War II; the election of Barack Obama in the United States; the beginning and the end of the war in Iraq; the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, and the execution of  Osama Bin Laden; the further deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian relations; the African genocides; the great earthquakes in Haiti and Japan; the Iranian protests; the European financial crisis; the displacement of the War on Drugs from Colombia to Mexico; the so-called Arab Spring, the Syrian uprising, the criminalization of labor migration, and so many more.  Somehow your life on campus will be marked by the aftermath of all these events, and you will be responding to them.

You are already the Class of 2016. But in the next months and few years you will be giving weight and structure to this relatively abstract collectivity. Just as the Higgs boson is suspected to lend mass to energy (and I ask the forgiveness of physicists because I don't know what I am talking about), you will truly become a community; you will gain mass. Here, close to you, are people whom you will befriend for life. Here, in the same unit of space, in the same frame of time, are co-learners, fellow travelers, the men and women with whom you will have some of the best conversations ever, who will walk out of some classes speaking with you non-stop about what you just learned, or sit next to you in McCabe Library for four hours straight, sometimes with an epiphany, most times without any epiphany at all . . . Or who will be in the same soccer team, or will create music, or poetry, or theater, or a painting and a sculpture that will knock your socks off. Your delightful task is to discover them very soon, to create alliances with them, to enjoy being colleagues and friends. May I say that you will learn enormously from one another, and that this is one of the reasons why our office of Admissions actually crafts a class, fashions it, imagines its dynamics and power in its plurality of origins, interests, and desires. And yet to be immersed in this rich version of humanity that you are is not without tensions and obstacles. To understand each other is not easy. It demands hard learning as much as even harder un-learning, leaving behind the old skin of limited understanding and self-centered approaches to life as a student among students.

For me, the best metaphor for human multiplicity is language, or I should say, languages. What could be more remarkable than the coexistence and promiscuity of languages? Ariel Dorfman, who started life as an Argentinean and Chilean of Jewish origin, and became an exile in this country, speaks about this phenomenon in his remarkable essay "The Nomads of Language."  He says:

If I am optimistic about bilingualism it is because I believe that languages . . . have themselves always been maddeningly migrant, borrowing from here and there and everywhere, plundering and bringing home the most beautiful, the strangest, the most exciting objects, learning, learning, taking words out on loan and returning them, in different, wonderfully twisted, and often funny guises, pawning those words, stealing them, renting them out, eating them, making love to them, and spawning splendidly unrecognizable children.[2]

To be as "maddeningly migrant" as words, what a glorious destiny! Entities like human beings and languages (and many other living things) are not self-contained. To be self-contained spells death for biological organisms. Can I jump on the hump of a metaphor to tell you that the disciplines you study are not self-contained either? That the journey that you start next Monday will be all the more exciting if you allow your courses to talk to each other, to borrow from each other, to plunder each other, as in Dorfman's vision? In your passionate search and journey as a Swarthmore student the power to create a synthesis will take you far. Interdisciplinarity has grown at the college in exhilarating ways, opening avenues for cooperation among faculty and students of different divisions and departments. In a way, what you come to do here is to acquire a new or renewed language, richer, flexible, capable of crossing disciplinary borders and embracing doubt, ambiguity, irony, humor, but also precision, rigor, and a sharp inquisitive edge-a language in movement, like the ocean.

And yet not all language is safe, nor free, nor life giving. In 1993 Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers the United States has produced, received the Nobel Prize in Literature with a fearsome speech about the astonishing power of words to build, but also to destroy. Here is what she warned against:

[Oppressive language] . . . whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.[3]

But against this language that kills, Mexican author Carlos Fuentes opposes with unique eloquence the literary language that restores life, not only to individuals, but also to communities and nations. For him, the great novel of the Spanish Renaissance, Don Quijote de la Mancha, is "...our great book, the one that brings into crisis all the certainties and absolute dogmas." And he calls it "A book that builds a world of tentative edifices, subject to modification, because of the liberty of saying and naming."[4]

What are our sciences, social or natural, but tentative edifices subject to modification? Is not the craft of philosophy richer precisely because of its power to go against itself when it needs to start anew? Isn't any great symphonic poem built on oppositions, reiterations, negations, and unexpected flight? Each book of labor history, each study on urban education, each exploration of the fantastic in Japanese or Russian literature is a step in a continuum that waits for a deeper, wider angle of vision. The job is never done.

For the 20th-century French philosopher and playwright Gabriel Marcel, human beings face two kinds of objects of knowledge or engagement: problems, and mysteries. A problem is objective, outside oneself. It can be described and analyzed, and it requires a solution based on that analysis. But a mystery surrounds the subject that faces it. The person is implicated in the very phenomenon to which he or she tries to respond. Mystery defies analysis, and requires engagement. I suspect that at Swarthmore we start by being analytical and therefore problem solvers, and later, on the basis of that work, we plunge into what Marcel calls "mystery," not to mystify the phenomenon, but to give it its rightful ascendancy over us. Marcel says that the distinction between what is in me and outside of me breaks down as we face mystery, for example, each other. We know each other and ourselves as mysteries, and the quality of that knowledge includes a dynamism that is absent when we face a problem.

Many of you will be invited to work outside the college in communities, and your learning and personal transformation will be of a special quality. You will learn about social justice not in books, but in the men and women for whom the socioeconomic system has no use, the casualties of extraordinary financial growth in the 90s, the families whose lives their nations could not sustain, and had to migrate in a dangerous world, where their act of survival constitutes a violation of the law punished not only by the legal system, but also by hatred, suspicion, and misunderstanding.

Whatever you do, you will be involved in passionate searches and quests, personally, but also corporately. Inasmuch as you become a class, a corpus, that is to say, a body, you will be there for each other when frustration arises, when you are misunderstood, or when you feel like you are about to fail in spite of your efforts. You will bring out the best in each other, as Professor Ken Sharpe told the class of 2012 in this very amphitheater only three months ago.

You are now charged with a mission. Become a body of learners. Hone your language skills. Four years from now, you will be back in this place, Class of 2016, and you will say farewell, after fulfilling that mission. And we will say with T.S. Elliot, the Anglo American poet of The Waste Land: "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."

Are you ready?

[1] Benjamin, Walter. "On the Concept of History," II (1940).

Accessed August 27, 2012.

[2] Dorfman, Ariel. "The Nomads of Language." The American Scholar. 71:1 (Winter, 2002), 89-94.

[3] Morrison, Toni. "Nobel Lecture," December 7, 1993.

Accessed August 29th, 2012.

[4] Fuentes, Carlos. "El poder, el nombre y la palabra". Diario El País. Madrid, 9 de octubre de 2002.