To understand a language is a lot more than simply vocabulary and grammar, it requires cultural understanding. With this in mind, the American Language Center in Fez has been running an ambitious project that spans history, music and philosophy. As Suzanna Clarke reports, it is a virtual tour of the American mind
|Students and teacher Jamal Morelli, left, listen as Raja Bouyahiaoui makes a point|
“I witnessed the Civil War. I was deeply affected,” claims student Khamlichi Amjad.
The 30-something Moroccan isn’t suffering from delusions – he’s role-playing the part of Top Flex, the subject of his imaginary biography. Top Flex is a figure who represents late nineteenth and early twentieth century American thought, which the students have been exploring for the past three semesters.
It’s all part of an engaging tour through the American mind that takes place weekly at the American Language Center in Fez for post-graduate students of English.
During the past year, the class has moved through the Civil War, the impact of industrialisation and the First World War, and is now well into the Civil Rights movement.
Teacher Jamal Morelli explains, “The things that these students know could put the average American student to shame…and they are doing it in their second language.”
When students began the classes, they were convinced by the stereotypes of the “fun-loving”, tolerant American. “But this concept didn’t really exist more than 60 or 70 years ago,” Mr Morelli says. “What makes this class unique is that it disputes every single stereotype.”
Mr Morelli points out that in going to America, the Puritan settlers were pursuing their own brand of narrowly defined Christianity. Little more than a decade later the Ivy League university Harvard was founded, followed by Yale and Princeton – all following principles of Calvinist orthodoxy.
It isn’t until more recent eras that the kind of thought and behavior that the world recognizes as American has emerged.
Far from being a dry, academic exercise, in the Advanced American Studies class students are encouraged to think about their own responses to what are sometimes controversial concepts, before exploring the historical facts.
“This class gives them a wonderful laboratory for thinking themselves. They come up with their own philosophical ideas; then we discuss the history. It can be really fun,” Mr Morelli says.
“For example, when we had the class about American socialism, we started by thinking about what capitalism is and how it affects the working class,” he says. “Then we looked at how members of that class could potentially deal with its exploitative treatment.
|The Pullman Strike of 1894 by American Railway Union members|
“Everyone had to defend his or her position: whether to use violence, or revolt in a specific way such as striking, or if it was possible to use writing to spread the idea of rejecting capitalism because of the way that basic rights were not protected, and to gather people to defend this cause. Then, we were able to explore the historical facts: who the thinkers were who rejected capitalism; what socialism actually is and events such as what happened in the Pullman strike.”
The students’ experience is enhanced by the use of multi-media. On the evening I visited the class, a segment of the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times was used to illustrate the way the individual succumbed to being, literally, a cog in the machine of the Industrial Revolution.
|Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”|
Each week the music of renowned composers such as Stephen Foster and Gershwin are featured, as well as readings from the work of significant American poets such as Auden and Robert Lowell.
“I spend time introducing music and paintings and poetry written at the same time history and philosophy that was written, so it doesn’t become too heady,” Mr Morelli says. “You get it within five seconds, which is better than 10 minutes of lecture.”
As well as enthusiastic debates, the students’ engagement with the topics is reinforced by artistic projects, such as creating a physical map of the American Mind; blueprints for a house representing American intellectual history; and delivering their final analysis of the semester in the form of a mini-documentary video instead of an essay. Some of the results, from students who have never done artistic work or made videos before, are surprisingly professional.
While many of the participants find the modern student-centered method of learning stimulating, others more used to the traditional approach, where a teacher recites facts, can find it a challenge.
Raja Bouyahiaoui has no doubt which approach she prefers. “School should be a democratic experience,” she says. “Philosophy can be used to make important points about morality and ethics, and it can also be used as a weapon. Without philosophies, we cannot do anything.”
Mr Morelli says that the Advanced American Studies class is a means of building bridges between cultures. “It’s showing them how profound, challenging and far reaching American intellectual history is; how deep American minds are. America sells itself as a “can do” culture. But a lot of thought takes place.”
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