Last Friday, my French professor led one of my favorite class discussions I have ever been a part of.
Dr. John Akers, Associate Professor of Modern Languages, started class with a French song and shared a few tidbits of French culture that he has witnessed firsthand. The song, “La Rage” by Keny Arkana, features a strong message of unrest and discontent. Dr. Akers went on to explain that French students are encouraged to think of the world as an unfinished product, something that they alone, the youth, can change. This led to a very interesting discussion about culture in general and the power of youth that is often under-appreciated.
First, he warned us not to judge other cultures without understanding them first. This way of thinking, he explained, can be harmful and limit our potential for knowledge. He added that there are more ways of thinking than the American way and challenged us to go see the parts of the world that aren’t marketed to tourist Americans such as parts of Africa or the rural towns in France. In our studies, he also encouraged us to live with a host family as we study abroad; this is when the true learning takes place, when we are out of our comfort zone and forced to sit down and have a meal and conversation with someone completely different than us.
Dr. Akers told us to do this while we are young and still hungry for knowledge and understanding of the world. He then went on to share a great story from his youth.
Akers has shared several times that his favorite college experiences transcended the classroom– the different cultural events and lectures he attended influenced him and his life as much as the things he read from books or learned in class. He was in college in the 1960’s, a troubling time for American students as they were forced to ponder the morality of the Vietnam war and the implications of the civil rights movement. During this time, his school invited Martin Luther King, Sr. (father of the man who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech) to speak. The auditorium filled with students as Mr. King arrived. Akers says they wanted to know how to be leaders in their unrest and how to quench their thirst for change. The students wanted something specific they could hold onto through all the struggles they would face.
The old man slowly climbed the stage and gave a short speech with a powerful message.
Mr. King’s advice was simple: “Don’t come down.”
Akers told us this advice has stuck with him, explaining to the class that as time passes and you grow older, it is hard to find that passion for change again. We grow complacent as we grow older and we lose the spark that leads us to imagine ourselves being a catalyst for change. This is the true power of youth, that spark.
Akers warned us not to come down from where we are now, in our youth, with the world before us– not to come down from our peak of imagination, our heightened sense of exploration, nor our high expectations in our search for exaltation because once we come down, we can’t go back.
I really enjoyed this story from Dr. Akers and I think his advice will stick with me as Mr. King’s stuck with him. Dr. Akers is a very knowledgeable man who speaks multiple languages and has lived in several different parts of the world; I have a hunger for travel and I hope to one day be as well-versed in different cultures as he.
I plan on traveling to France or another French-speaking country during my time here at Wofford (it would be required if I do end up majoring in French) but this talk has opened my eyes to the possibilities that exist outside of Paris or other tourist locations. I’m sure those cities are wonderful and I will undoubtedly visit them sometime but beyond that, my purpose for traveling would be to understand a different culture and I think this could be accomplished where Akers suggested, a small town that doesn’t get much tourism.
I understand the spark that Dr. Akers describes and I have made a simple promise to him since that wonderful discussion:
I won’t ever come down.