Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Interview: Polyglot and self-educator Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D. (Part 2 of 2)

(This is part two of my two-part interview with Alexander. The introduction and first part of the interview can be found here. Thank you, as always, for reading.)

Wide Awake Minds (WAM): Your educational accomplishments, style, and scholarly output seem to be quite different from those of most people in academia. For instance, it seems like you may have originally chosen your particular Ph.D. program (in History of Religions at the University of Chicago) because of what you wanted to learn and know rather than because of your desire to join that particular field as a scholar. Is that true?

Alexander Arguelles (AA): Yes, it is true that I never aspired to join the particular field of history of religions as a scholar. Right after college I did have some other reasons for ending up there, but the main one was that I believed I could do more comparative historical philological work there than I could anywhere else, and I think I was right in that. Quite frankly, I don’t see a Ph.D. as a certificate to be a specialist expert in the narrow realm where it was minted, but rather as a license to learn, and as proof that one has completed the whole formal schooling process. That’s what going there meant to me – completing the schooling process. I discovered when I was quite young that getting good grades was easy and brought many rewards (such as scholarships) in terms of both being taught some things and being given the freedom to teach oneself even more, so that is what I kept on doing as long as I could.

Unfortunately for me, my concept of what a Ph.D. represents is rather rare, and as a result my own academic career has definitely suffered. I was happy to head out into the wider world to get actual exposure to languages when I was a bit younger, but now I would be quite content to go “home” and have an office on the Quads or in Morningside Heights or any other Ivy League town. It doesn’t seem I’ll ever get one, though. I’ve applied for a fair number of professorships advertising for people with international experience and innovative approaches to foreign languages, but I’ve never been gotten any interested responses. It appears I have published in the wrong way – I’ve been told that full-length books like my multilingual dictionary and my analytical guide to Korean verbal conjugation - which I think are far more scholarly than my dissertation and which certainly took a lot more time and energy – are “just reference works” and that they “don’t count” – the only thing that counts being articles in scholarly journals.

I clearly remember my first advisor at the University of Chicago telling me to enjoy my graduate school years because, once I was a professor, I wouldn’t have nearly as much time to continue to explore and learn new things. As I’ve since had occasion to observe, he was all too often right. Many of my colleagues, instead of continuing to widen their horizons throughout their careers, only have time to delve deeper into their specific area of specialization. I think that is a shame, for I believe the primary duty of a scholar ought to be to continue to learn and study new things throughout life. Particularly in the area of foreign language learning, I think it is a travesty that linguists conduct research by theorizing and by testing on and observing others rather than by learning languages themselves so that they know first-hand what works and how that process works.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interview: Polyglot and self-educator Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D. (Part 1 of 2)

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D.

Self-educator’s position: Language Specialist, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization

Date: 21 December 2010

A "polyglot" is a person who knows many languages, and Alexander Arguelles is one of the foremost self-taught language learners in the world. In many ways, Alexander embodies the ideals of self-education and liberal education that are promoted on Wide Awake Minds. He has spent countless hours over the years on self-directed education with the aim of developing an "encylopedic mind," and he sees the learning of languages as his "passport" on a lifelong educational journey.

Alexander grew up hearing his father, another self-taught polyglot, teach himself languages by reading aloud from foreign language texts. By the time he was completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Alexander had been exposed to the "Great Books" method of liberal education and had "obtained a solid foundation in six languages: French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit."

After graduating from Columbia, Alexander pursued a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation on Old Norse and developed his abilities in a number of other ancient and modern languages while making the decision to work systematically at becoming a polyglot later in life. After graduate school, Alexander gravitated away from traditional academic research and toward a career of language learning and teaching. During one five-year period, Alexander devoted himself nearly full-time to the study of languages.

Alexander's website reports that he has achieved his goal of being able to comfortably read classic books in their original languages with little or no use of a dictionary in over 30 languages, but he has a considerable knowledge of many others as well. He has managed to build a personal library of language learning resources for over 150 languages, and he has reviewed different language learning materials in a series of YouTube videos. His published books include a multilingual dictionary as well as reference materials on Korean, German, and French. His website, www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com, is a treasury of resources on language learning, great books, and liberal education, and self-education.

Here is a video of Alexander demonstrating some of his language learning routines to Michael Erard, a writer who profiles polyglots (among many other fascinating projects); my interview with Alexander begins below the video:

(This is part one of my two-part interview with Alexander. The second portion of the interview will be posted in the next few days. Thank you, as always, for reading.)

Wide Awake Minds (WAM): When did you first take an interest in learning? Why did you decide to make it your goal to "develop an encyclopedic mind," as you put it - and what do you mean by that term?

Alexander Arguelles (AA): I have always loved learning. I have been an inveterate reader from my earliest years, and from boyhood onwards I have always carried several books around with me wherever I go, together with a notebook for writing down quotes as well as my own observations and reflections. By early adolescence, I had developed a taste for both serious literature and for histories of all sorts: chronicle-type (important names, dates, battles, events, dynasties, etc.), historiography, the history of ideas, histories of philosophy, histories of literature, other cultural histories, etc.

I don’t remember just when I first consciously articulated the desire to develop an encyclopedic mind in those precise terms, but it was certainly a long time ago, and even before that I was working in the same direction.

What do I mean by the term? There are three main components: first and foremost, I want to have a wide ranging and well organized knowledge of facts; second, I want to have a deep understanding of both the true connections between those facts that are actually related and also of the patterns that are represented by those that are merely parallel phenomena; third, I want to digest all of this, to have it available for immediate access right inside my head.

Why? Well, I suppose I am simply enamored of the idea of making my brain a repository of knowledge, a primary reference source that goes with me wherever I go and in which I have facts ready at hand without needing to look them up in external sources. What do you do with all the footnotes at the bottom of the pages of an annotated scholarly work? I suspect most people tend to skip them altogether, but if you do read them the first time you read the work, and you then read it again, it is simply a much richer and more meaningful experience upon that second reading because you already know the content of the explanatory footnotes. Going through life with an encyclopedic mind is rather like that, that is, a more satisfying experience when you know most of the context that you otherwise have to get by reading footnotes if you even bother to look at all. Conducting yourself in the conscious light of what others have done and thought is more fulfilling than living without that awareness.

There is so much to know that there is always something new to learn, and while it is always wonderful to do so, still it is somewhat mortifying to first realize that you are completely ignorant of something. I mean, when I first learn the name of an important historical personage or of an ancient civilization, I am excited to add that information to my encyclopedia, but I also feel a twinge of shame that I knew nothing about it before.

In reality, whenever I move around the world I ship a large physical library around with me, but I really like the idea of having no possessions, and I think it would be nice to have nothing physical, but to still have a full rich world of knowledge inside my mind. I haven’t written it yet and maybe I never will, but I have a fleshed-out dystopian novel in my head in which exactly that is all that is left – what is inside our heads. I fear that for most people that would leave them with very little indeed, but I think it would be magnificent to be able to sit down and write out an encyclopedic work such as Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Maius.