In the last blog, I raised the issue of integrating ‘values education’ with the teaching of a second or other language. A critical reflection on the values of your own culture, and that of the ‘other’ is an integral part of intercultural language education. There are issues about how to do it; one of the enjoyable but often confusing characteristics of conferences on intercultural studies that I attended in the 1990s was their eclectic mix of sociologists, cultural geographers, educationalists, EFL teachers, linguists, translators, literature specialists and critical theorists – all trying to find (or failing to find) a common language. It is not easy being interdisciplinary: you have to open yourself up to other people’s goals and methods of analysis. Often there are territorial lines drawn up between, say, linguistics and literary studies, practitioners in each discipline eyeing the other with deep suspicion. To cross a disciplinary line is itself a kind of intercultural wandering, or stravaigin, as we say in Scotland.
For the past 3 months I’ve been teaching a survey course on Scottish Literature at the University of São Paulo, in Brazil. This has been the source of some amusement and incredulity to those in my family back in Scotland who have long believed that employment in a university is a cunning means of avoiding real work: ‘What do Brazilians want to learn about Scottish Literature for?’ The question nagged me, before I started, for rather different reasons. I was anxious about crossing disciplinary lines. After all, I’ve never taught a course entirely about literature before, having traded professionally on my knowledge of English language studies up to this point. Would there be a mutiny in the lecture room when I turned up with my reading list of poems and fiction, many of which are in an unfamiliar language variety – Scots?
I shouldn’t have worried. The students have turned out to be a lovely mix of undergraduates in various years of their studies, ready to chip in with an enthusiastic response to the appearance of the devil in a ballad, or a Marxist slant on courtly love poetry or satire. The main course I’ve been assigned to is actually an elective called ‘Non-hegemonic literatures in English’ … Brazilian academics don’t go in for snappy titles. And so I should know my place: proudly at the margins of literary studies, wearing a kilt.
And yet. Last week we got to Sir Walter Scott. There are clearly problems treating Scott as a marginal, or ‘non-hegemonic’ writer, since his work was so popular and he practically invented certain ways of telling stories: the romantic personal narrative that takes place against a historical upheaval. He was Scottish, but he was also a great supporter of the Union, and you can argue that his portrayals of highlanders and Jacobites as doomed romantics was a way of containing, even neutering the more unsettling aspects of Scottish national aspirations. And yet…
We looked last week at one of his shorter stories, from Chronicles of the Canongate, a narrative called ‘The Two Drovers.’ My attention had been drawn to it by Kenneth McNeil’s excellent chapter in a recent guide to teaching Scott, edited by Evan Gottlieb and Ian Duncan. The story can be read as a tragedy of incommensurate cultural values. It revolves around the friendship of a Highland cattle drover, Robin, and an Englishman, Harry, who is in the same trade. They drive their cattle to a market in the north of England, where there is a failure in communication about grazing rights, causing the two friends to fall out. The consequences of the miscommunication escalate, so that, egged on by locals in a pub, Harry challenges Robin to a wrestling match. It is an uneven contest that Robin seeks to avoid, but Harry forces him into a confrontation in which the Highlander is beaten. To avenge his honour, Robin takes his knife and murders his friend, before giving himself up. The story ends with a judge’s summing-up of the affair: he regrets that a clash of honour codes has resulted in an unnecessary death, and he expresses a sympathy for the Highlander’s dilemma – and then he sentences Robin to hang, a judgement that the Scot accepts as just.
McNeil presents the story as a parable exploring the limits of multiculturalism: the two drovers build their friendship on shared professional experience and expertise, but their different backgrounds have bred into them a fundamentally different set of values that, given a slight provocation, cause an escalation of violence, leading to death. Scott skilfully structures the story as an almost ethnographic description of the two drovers’ backgrounds, followed by an account of their quarrel, and, finally, a transcript of the judge’s speech, which functions as a kind of unreliable ‘moral’ that forces the reader back to the narrative, to reflect on its significance – and to wonder if there could at any point have been effective mediation to prevent the tragedy from occurring.
To my surprise and relief, enough of the students had persevered to the end of the story to discuss it in some detail and with real engagement. Some saw it as a narrative of colonialism and its inevitable violence: the cards were stacked against the Highlander from the beginning. He was physically smaller than his friend and rival, he had journeyed into a foreign country, he was outnumbered in the pub where the hostile encounter took place, and he was ultimately tried and sentenced by the laws of the dominant culture. Had he been tried in the Highlands, some argued, the verdict might have been different. Others disagreed: allowing for the fact that capital punishment is barbaric, the English judge was acting according to the civilised norms of his time. Had he acted otherwise, he would have endorsed individuals seeking violent revenge. Some, happily, saw the entire incident as the fault of a constable who had failed to prevent the quarrel at an early stage – but how was he to predict its fatal outcome? By the end of the discussion, we all had a sense – I hope – of Scott as a writer who was concerned with cultural crossings and their outcomes; a commentator whose subtlety embraces the real difficulties inherent in cultural mediation, and the challenge of drawing easy conclusions from conflicts and their too frequently tragic consequences. Far from attempting to contain the unruly values of the Highlander in a neat narrative whereby civilised rules are reasserted by the power of law, he treats the judge’s final speech ironically, inviting the reader to make up his or her mind about the rights and wrongs of the incident.
In my background reading for the lecture, I learned that Scott’s story is, in fact, sometimes used in legal education to raise issues of cultural conflict. It can be used to illustrate the development of literature in Scotland as part of a survey course, too, obviously – but I guess my real interest is in how the story, nearly two hundred years old now, still has the power to disturb. Some students had worried at length about the judge’s summing up – did he adequately comprehend the nature of the cultural clash, and his own role in its unfolding?
One of the goals of intercultural language education is described by Mike Byram as savoir comprendre, or ‘knowing how to understand documents or events from another culture.’ To develop this aspect of intercultural communicative competence, learners are sometimes invited to reflect upon – and perhaps re-work – literary texts, such as Scott’s ‘The Two Drovers.’ They can mine the text for ethnographic detail that informs the characterisations, and plot the incidents that lead to a ‘critical incident’ such as the quarrel between Robin and Harry. They can learn how to understand how intercultural encounters can have a dark side. But, like the judge, they then need to take a stand, they have to act. Following Homi Bhabha and Claire Kramsch, we sometimes formulate the idea of a ‘third space,’ a liminal space between cultures where the intercultural voyager can appreciate the values of both, and seek to explain one to the other. The difficulty is – as one of the students pointed out last week – is that we can never fully disentangle ourselves from our own cultural values when we are making judgements. Decentring has its limits.
Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The location of culture. London: Routledge.
Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McNeil, Kenneth (2009) The Limits of Diversity: Using Scott’s “The Two Drovers” to Teach Multiculturalism in a Survey or Nonmajors Course, in Evan Gottlieb and Ian Duncan (eds) Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels. New York: MLA, pp. 123-129
Scott, Walter (2000 ) Chronicles of the Canongate, ed. Claire Lamont. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.