What can one say after a half century in the limelight attempting to profess life’s insights, share knowledge and skills, arouse curiosity, stimulate interest, as well as confess ignorance? Prudence urges silence. But it is time to turn the page, and a moment of introspection suggests acknowledgement of indebtedness and gratitude would be in order.
Fifty-four years ago I enrolled at the City College of New York and have been privileged to live and thrive in academic communities ever since. For the opportunity I am profoundly grateful to Divine Providence and the people who made a difference – my parents who not only gave me life but also guidance on how to live it; Oksana, my partner in life, love and laughter, who has been not only a devoted, indefatigable wife and mother, but also successfully pursued her own calling in education; our sons, both Muhlenberg graduates, both making a Dean’s list, one the academic Dean’s, the other the Dean of Students’ list; as well as my sister, brother, in-laws and other extended family members, and of course, my many teachers and professors, later colleagues and friends, and particularly the Muhlenberg community over the last 46 years. Among the latter, I wish to thank the members, past and present, of my department, of the many administrations, of the numerous campus programs and undertakings in which I participated, as well as my many students over the years who made my journey through professional life a truly fascinating hill and valley learning experience.
The experience did not lack memorable moments. I fondly recall presenting what I thought was an indisputable, convincing argument, to the dean, who after a short pause, simply retorted “Al, this is not heaven. This is Muhlenberg.” Noteworthy and laudable was the dedication and enthusiasm of students of German to successfully meet the challenge of staging selected scenes from Goethe’s FAUST, Part I, on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the author’s death.
Unforgettable is the student whom I advised to consider the study of Russian to fulfill the College’s language requirement. “No,” the student replied unflinchingly, “I do not want to deal with the – eh – acrylic alphabet.” I cannot forget the admirable courage students displayed on a trip to the Soviet Union when a member of our group was detained for unspecified reasons at the Moscow airport prior to our departure for New York. For three hours they sat on the floor outside the departure gate and refused to budge until their colleague was released.
Nor will I forget the students who presented me with a copy of the then latest study of “Thank you for a year of learning and laughter in the Russian language!”
Language, literature and culture were my passion. I aspired to share it. Language is, of course, the material of literature and the carrier of culture. So allow me a few words about it.
Language aficionados have noted innumerable times that language, which grows out of life, its needs and experiences, is mankind’s most important invention. Moreover, they have been fascinated by the functions and magic of language, and have observed that language and knowledge are interdependent, indeed “indissolubly connected.”
Where would we be without language? It is after all our means of communication, our means of understanding ourselves and our fellow human beings. Paradoxical as it may seem, language can also be a barrier to those ends if we do not study our own and that of our neighbors around the world. While one may still argue about the validity of linguistic determinism, i.e. the extent to which language determines the way we think, it is fairly obvious that language affects our thinking and influences the way we perceive and remember. Moreover, our use of language conveys personal identity by revealing a great deal about ourselves, thus assuming a central integrating role across all spheres of our life.
Recent studies on the future of languages indicate that the status of English as a global language will eventually peak and suggest that the vision of English as the lingua franca of the world is no longer realistic. To be sure, English is well established and will continue to dominate scientific fields: 90% of their journals are printed in English today. But, population growth has been greater among speakers of languages other than English and is expected to stay the course, thus ultimately creating a “new linguistic order” in which monolingual speakers may find it difficult to fully participate.
The fact that you and I speak English is the luck of the draw or simply an accident of circumstance.
That does give us a linguistic advantage in today’s world. Just how well the world knows English is perhaps interestingly illustrated by a few examples of translation howlers encountered abroad. These verbal quirks often have a charm that lingers in my – and other’s – memory. We must, of course, remember that the rest of the world is far better at English than we are at German or Mandarin or Russian; it nevertheless seems hard not to smile/laugh when a hotel lobby sign alerts you to “Beware of your luggage” or to “Please leave your values at the front desk,” or a dry cleaner invites you to “Drop your trousers here for the best results,” or a launderette sign reads “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” I also enjoyed the hotel room notices that inform you “In your room you will find a minibar that is filled with alcoholics,” or in case of emergency “Evacuate yourself with the staircase.” Regrettably I never did get to ask the tailor “how’s business?” whose shop sign urged customers to “Order your summers suit now, because is big rush, and we will execute customers in strict rotation.” And how about a restaurant menu that informs you “Our wine list leaves you nothing to hope for”?
But, “hope springs eternal in the human breast…” Mr. Pope observed, and hope was and is a key concept in life and literature, “the real expression of all higher culture.” I speak here of course of literature as an art form, of works of aesthetic worth and general intellectual distinction, which are a significant reflection of life, an imaginative extension of its possibilities and offer vicarious access to the most intimate inner recesses of the human mind and soul. As such, they invite us on an expedition to compare, contrast, and expand our previous experience with life and with language. That is literature’s power – past and present. By passionately embracing its language, narrative and imagination, we broaden our horizons and thereby enrich and make us more humane human beings. In recognition of that, I tip my hat to the foresight and generosity of former Allentown banker and businessman John and his wife Fannie Saeger, who supported educational and cultural endeavors in the Lehigh Valley that included the endowed professorship in Comparative Literature at Muhlenberg. Due to inflation, the chair is now what the Germans call a “Titel ohne Mittel” (a title without means); the College could use more friends like the Saegers today.
To be born within days of the outbreak of World War Two would hardly seem auspicious. And it was not at the outset. Bombardments, ruins, fear, hunger, suffering, deaths and insecurity are one part of my earliest memories; but, caring and courageous parents are another. Moreover, I grew up bilingually, acquiring command of Russian and Ukrainian the natural way, and subsequently learned first German and then English the “hard” way – initially through formal instruction, then via total immersion. As such I understood the challenges Muhlenberg’s students were facing in their efforts to acquire second language skills. My challenge – met with varying degrees of success – was to convince them of the discipline and dedication needed to do well. The Muhlenberg Weekly headlined in my second year of teaching at Muhlenberg (“Mill Hill” in German) “Kipa animates language class, stresses responsible ‘freedom’.” At times some students subsequently would portray me as “authoritarian” or as a “slave driver,” although I only expected accountability from them.
During the 46 years of my tenure at Muhlenberg, I saw the College grow and prosper from local to semi-national prominence. Its strength was rooted in its students and faculty. The latter’s diversity in academic preparation and pedagogical methodology provided a variety of learning experiences for the former. The College in turn supported the faculty’s scholarly endeavors to foster its intellectual and interdisciplinary growth.
At the conclusion of these not particularly sophisticated, but rather sentimental reminiscences, I wish to repeat my sincere thank you, danke schön, дякую, спасибо, merci beaucoup, muchos gratias, gracie, tak sa myket… to the members of the Muhlenberg community for the privilege and opportunities accorded me during the past 46 years, and to extend my wishes for health, wealth and good cheer – as well as the time to enjoy all three! in the years ahead in the important work of advancing and transmitting knowledge and cultivating new generations of intellectually curious and passionately engaged independent young people striving toward a humane and safer world for us all.