One of the factors about my up-bringing that I rarely mention these days –– in part, I admit, out of concern that people might label me a certain way and think of me as less intelligent because of it –– is that in the 1970s I went to a private Christian high school: an abstinence only approach to sex, homophobic to the max, unapologetically creationist, the whole nine yards. I don’t want to go into an evaluation of my socialization into that sort of belief system just now though. I mention it only as necessary context when I say that I had a few outstanding teachers there who found subtle ways of encouraging me and my classmates to think outside of the box which that system created. One in particular was an English teacher by the name of Charlie Reed who tried to “save our souls,” in a less religious sense of the term, using the writings of Mark Twain. One of the most interesting and memorable parts of these lessons had to do with chapter 14 of Huckleberry Finn.
Due to lesser teachers’ lack of capacity to bring such literature to life for students, this book has frequently been banned in American schools. I have little sympathy for such perspectives. Sure, there’s a certain amount of risk involved in considering the slave-holding society of the 19th century south –– including their use of the word “nigger” –– in such a sympathetic way, but the greater danger is in ignoring that era and its effects in terms of on-going problems in social dynamics in the United States and the post-colonial world elsewhere, or failing to consider the humanity of all those involved. In his masterpiece here, Sam Clemens / Mark Twain tells a particularly exciting and funny story which opens a window into the diverse mentalities of those living along the Mississippi, with all their profound virtues and vices clearly on display. Thus anyone who would use passages like the closing line of chapter 14, “you can’t learn a nigger to argue,” as a racist joke is either showing their own incredibly blatant stupidity or reflecting the gross incompetence of their teachers in terms of introducing literary context.
This chapter came to mind for me last week, as I sat through some less than thoroughly stimulating lectures on the question of the connections between language learning and culture learning. It occurred to me that these professors could learn a lot if they would start reading Mark Twain rather than European Union directives on these matters. The problem, I suspect, is that they’ve never learned the former language. Twain was a pioneer in the art of writing so as to capture the subtle nuances of the heavy dialects spoken by former slaves, which makes his writing particularly difficult to grasp for those who have never heard such speech. Professors such as Mike Byram who have recently declared themselves to be the arbitrators of “intercultural competence,” in turn, write in the largely incomprehensible dialect of European Union directive-writing bureaucrats. I got the impression that, somewhat ironically, those in this particular “chattering class” are rather uncomfortable stepping outside of their mother tongue of Bureaucratese, and they are blissfully unaware of the extent to which teenagers and non-academic working folk find their language far less comprehensible than the dialect writings of Mark Twain.
The lecture series I’ve just completed seemed to have been intended, more than anything else, to provide the equivalent of CLIL –– “Content and Language Integrated Learning” –– in Bureaucratese, for aspiring bureaucrats and for the sort of academics who wish to reach a point in their careers where they no longer have to deal with people. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, very few of us taking the course actually had those particular sorts of ambitions. I actually consider such ambitions to be a particularly pernicious form of social maladjustment, and for those who suffer from such I’m not sure if anything can be done to fix it. I don’t think bureaucracy addicts and anti-social academics can be forced to acknowledge their problems and seek therapy, and I don’t think they can be educated out of it. (Actually believing such problems can be solved by means of theoretical education is part of the problem.)
The best hope I can offer is for them to carefully read and consider the sub-text of Huck’s debate with Jim in this cultural classic. The original is freely available on line, but I suspect that translation will be required. Hence this essay.
Briefly setting the narrative context, Huck, the poor white boy with extremely limited education, who has run away from his foster mother, “the widow,” and Jim, the escaped slave owned by the widow’s sister, have just had a spot of particularly good luck: successfully stealing a boatload of loot from some riverboat thieves, including a small library and a few boxes of particularly good cigars. This in turn led to them having a rather philosophical discussion about the concepts of “nobility” and “cultural difference” in general, setting the stage for much of the conflict which is to follow in the novel.
Their discussion is intriguingly multi-layered in that it involves abstract discussion of exotic “others” that neither of the conversers really knows anything about, the partial deconstruction of power dynamics in both familiar and exotic cultures, and an exploration of assumptions about the communicative implications of what it means to be human. In short it covers the full thematic range which Byram & company have attempted to communicate about.
The discussion begins with the general topic of kings. For Jim the concept of a culture of kingship opens up a whole new range of ideas for contemplation. His previous associations with the word “king” had been limited to the biblical character of Solomon and the cards ranked between queens and aces. There is a brief discussion of the economics of being a king: how much they make in exchange for doing what sort of work. Huck clearly has no reliable data about this target group, but he relishes in the opportunity to step into the role of “expert” based on having read more than Jim about the matter. Yet from the start of the discussion Jim is able to point out inconsistencies and likely errors in Huck’s account. Huck finds this in turns intimidating and frustrating, but he continues to play the “expert” role as far as he can on an improvisational basis. Thus within this passage there’s a powerful implied moral critique regarding how expertise is constructed in academic contexts in general.
Eventually the discussion comes back around to the assumption that, like Solomon, kings tend to have thousands of wives. Solomon being the only king Jim had ever heard of by name, this premise goes unquestioned. Jim, as the student, follows up on this shared assumption that Solomon at “had about a million wives” with pertinent questions about what that would imply regarding Solomon’s legendary wisdom. Even discounting for all of the factual errors and inter-cultural misunderstandings involved in the dialog, most contemporary theologians would have to admit that Jim has a valid point here: The inevitable domestic friction and the lack of appreciation for individual intimate relationships that would result from polygamy on such an absurd scale certainly call into the question the wisdom of any man who would crave such a lifestyle. Huck, as teacher, argues back against these claims with a somewhat weak appeal to the widow’s authority as a higher academic expert in such matters, but not having been properly socialized into the academic tradition of citing established authorities as a means of proving points, Jim refuses to accept this rebuttal.
He goes on to further argue his point by citing the narrative from 1 Kings chapter 3 –– of Solomon settling the argument between the two women as to whose child the live one was and whose was dead one was by offering to cut the live child in half –– as evidence of Solomon’s hyper-polygamy having numbed him to the human value of children. Here Huck points out, correctly, that Jim has broadly misunderstood the context and intent of the king’s command, but as Huck lacks the intellectual sophistication to explicate the psychology of Solomon’s bluff as a test of maternal affection, he replies with a line that’s actually been tossed at me by a few of my own teachers over the years: “You don’t get the point!” This in turn leads to a bit of a power struggle over the question of who is entitled to determine what “the point is.” Not being able to argue through this impasse, Huck switches topics.
He picks up on the matter of Louis XVII of France, the son of the king beheaded in the French revolution, who presumably died of disease while being kept imprisoned and in isolation by the revolutionary authorities, about whom there were also some rumors that he had escaped to America. Here Huck’s information is surprisingly accurate, including his reference to this would-be king as “the dolphin,” which is actually the literal meaning of his French title of “Dauphin”. And in fact there was a pretender to this title who was active as a missionary to the Native Americans on the north end of the Mississippi River valley at the time depicted in the novel. Jim in turn found the idea of a young king living on in America both comforting and disturbing. If I translate his concerns about the matter into the sort of English that even bureaucrats might understand, Jim says, “He’ll be rather lonely though. There aren’t any kings here for him to associate with. Nor will he be able to find employment in his own profession. So what might he end up doing?”
Huck answers these concerns by stating that a French noble in the United States stood a reasonably good chance of getting a position in law enforcement, or as a teacher of French as a foreign language. This leads to a particularly interesting comic exchange in which Jim is baffled as to why anyone would want to bother with such a thing. From his perspective the only natural way for humans to communicate would be in some variation or another of English. He might not even have known the name of the language as such, no name being necessary for what he considered to be such a universal aspect of the human experience. There is a particularly funny line where Huck asked Jim what he would think if someone were to say to him, “Parlez-vous français?” Again, translated into what bureaucrats would consider to be a “standard speech,” Jim’s response was, “I wouldn’t think anything; I’d hit him in the head, hard –– as long as he wasn’t white. I wouldn’t let any black man call me that!”
The ensuing debate over whether French is a natural way for humans to communicate with each other has Huck trying to justify the concept of people speaking different languages using an analogy of animals speaking different languages within their respective species. Cats and cows each have their own natural languages which are incomprehensible to us and to those of other species. So just as nature allows for many different languages among various species of animals, it is perfectly natural for nature to allow for many different languages among humans. Jim deconstructs this analogy, however, with the simple question, “Is a Frenchman a man?” Huck doesn’t actually know any Frenchmen, but based on his reading on the matter he assumes that this would be the case. From there Jim goes on to ask why a Frenchmen don’t talk like men: my title question here.
Comic jabs as Francophiles aside, this portion of Twain’s text invites the reader to explore his/her own prejudices as to what forms of speech and action might be considered “natural” for humans in general. One theoretical approach to this matter, seemingly popular within Bureaucratese culture, states that there are particular proper forms of action and codes of behavior that are properly associated with given linguistic spheres. Humans are inherently flexible as to how they learn to act and communicate, but together with each particular form of communication we as humans develop, there comes a proper set of cultural expectations that should be learned together with the language. Teaching students to be able to switch back and forth between these codes –– to appreciate differences in language, and as part of that, differences in culture –– is intended not only to expand the range of individuals with which the student can communicate, but also to deepen the student’s understanding of and appreciation for her/his own language and culture. Exploring such matters with confidence, while still allowing a privileged position for those who have attained a particular bureaucratic status, is the intent implied in the title of the book I have sitting next to me at the moment (left over as background reading for the lecture series I’ve recently endured): Becoming Interculturally Competent through Education and Training.
The problem, however, comes when “culture” becomes a normative rather than an analytic concept. It is one thing to say that the French tend to be a particular way; it is quite another thing to insist that someone must be a particular way in order to qualify as Frenchman, or as a participant in French culture. The epitome of using “culture” in a normative way is what is known in philosophy as the No True Scotsman Fallacy.
There is some potential value and some potential bovine excrement involved in an assertion that education and/or training can and should bring about “competence” in basic human inter-relational skills. In order for each of us to be able to accept others as people –– to relate to them in a way that automatically assumes neither superiority nor inferiority, nor automatically prioritizes conformity to a particular set of linguistic/cultural norms –– each of us needs to be personally secure in where she/he comes from. We need to both recognize the value in the way we were raised and to see that this isn’t the only way things could have been done. We also need to see how others, who were raised in significantly different ways, have certain advantages and disadvantages in terms of what they are consequently capable of and how they view the world. Ideally we should develop a capacity to learn by comparison, to search for “best practices,” and not to assume that our own cultures have already found all of them. Education can help with that. Genuine human interaction with those we are prone to think of as “other” can help much more. But there are some forms of insecurity and maladjustment that neither social interaction nor education can fix. I believe we’re best off just recognizing those problems for what they are.
In the story of Huckleberry Finn, the “poor white trash” boy learns that the black man, in spite of his dehumanizing background, and in some cases because of it even, has developed many particularly important and useful skills for wilderness survival. He also comes to see the black man’s feelings and intuitions as important, and he adjusts his moral practice accordingly. He becomes “inter-culturally competent” in ways that no bureaucracy or contemporary education program would sign off on, but in ways which actually matter in real life. He still considers liberating slaves to be socially unacceptable, and he still doesn’t categorize an anonymous “nigger” getting killed as a human tragedy; but he’s willing to repeatedly risk his freedom and his very life to protect his black friend, and his friend more than returns these favors.
The question of how one should be expected to talk and act in order to count as “a man” –– as a human being entitled to rights as such –– remains open here. Our standards for speech and cultural action always have room for improvement. Blatantly abusive language and prejudiced practices certainly need to be reduced, where they can’t be curtailed entirely. But far more important in practice than such bureaucratic measures of “intercultural competence” is a practical capacity to form interpersonal connections with “the other”. The more native speakers of Bureaucratese learn to “talk like men” in this regard, the more functionally competent they will actually become.