One of the first to enter the classroom, I sat next to a painted banner proclaiming free abortion. On the opposite wall huge posters called for social justice and Marxist revolution.
Watching me taking a picture of the banners, the woman next to me, a retired teacher, asked if this was my first time in Argentina. No, I said, it was my third but I was still amazed at the tolerance for political dissent. It seemed the whole building was covered in protest.
As we spoke, more students began to enter, taking almost every seat. Then the instructor arrived, Jerónimo “Jerry” Brignone, an author and director of plays and movies, translator, actor, and also professor of modern Greek. Jerry had invited me to do a series of presentations at the University of Buenos Aires and the Medical School (whose Dean makes it mandatory for advanced medical students to hear a lecture in the humanities every week). On that particular day I attended his first-year Greek class.
As Jerry began to distribute the introductory material, more students arrived and, finding no seats, left the room. I thought they would drop the class but they actually reappeared, carrying their own chairs. Within minutes every conceivable space had been filled. But still more students came. Where would they all fit, I thought? Undaunted, each recent arrival left the room and reentered, holding a chair.
Someone squeezed through with a portable microphone. But once Jerry began to recite a poem in Greek, he realized that it did not work so he turned it off. But more students appeared, looked around in dismay, departed and returned with a chair. Each new entry led to more creaks and scratches on the floor.
Why are they coming, I thought? Why don’t they switch to another class? Sensing my bewilderment, the retired teacher explained that this is what it meant to study in Argentina.
At one point students had to place their chairs in the hall and all around Jerry, leaving little air to breath. I began to perspire, wanting to escape, my sense of claustrophobia overcoming me.
Then as Jerry was outlining the phonetic system, a female student got up in the back and shouted something I couldn’t understand in the echo. What’s going on, I asked my neighbor? Was this a protest? Gradually there was mass movement backwards. “Please shove your chair back,” a long-haired student in front of me said. “We need to make room for everyone.” En masse we all slid about three feet back into I don’t know where. Everyone in the hall was now inside and the door was finally closed, 45 minutes into the class.
As I looked around, no one complained, rolled their eyes at the latecomers, or huffed in disgust. No expression of outrage, contempt, or misery. A female student with dark complexion and silver earrings smiled at me, shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, this is the way it is here.
And I thought about the class I was about to teach at Ohio State in a couple of days where I had two assistants, two screens, PowerPoint, a flawless PA system, and business-class seats with online access.
Jerry has no PowerPoint, no assistants, no visual aids, just his exuberant energy to teach the class for four hours straight each week. And the students sat enthralled. I looked often to see if people were checking their phones; everyone was paying attention or taking notes.
When the resources are so few, Jerry told me, you don’t need to motivate anyone. Students understand the value of what they are doing. He expected the students to learn the bulk of the information at home by themselves. There is only so much he could do with the large group of students. After all, 105 students in a Modern Greek class is extraordinary. At Ohio State we are grateful for 25.
Why are so many students taking Greek, I asked, especially under these conditions? While Jerry could not provide a complete answer, one factor is that people still believe in the humanities. (There were five bookstores within a five-minute walk from where I was staying.) Moreover, not speaking in an imperial medium like English, students are open to minor languages. There is also the commitment to intellectual inquiry for its own sake and less obsession with goal-oriented thinking.
Indeed, what makes the high enrollment even more striking is that the Modern Greek course does not count as a credit and is not part of an academic program. Students take Greek even if it offers no instrumental value. For me this was the most astonishing thing to learn, at a time of precipitous drops in humanities enrollments in North America.
But perhaps most astonishing was the fact that Jerry has been teaching this course for free since 2007. On top of that he has organized a series of lectures, “Cariátide,” since 1997 without any remuneration. From time to time he also offers courses on Greek literature and culture. And he has a popular radio program, Las palabras y las notas: pasiones líricas, léxicas, helénicas y otros dramas, (The Words and the Notes: Lyrical, Lexical, Hellenic Passions and other Tragedies) in which he invests many hours.
Those labors include not just preparing for interviews, but he also assembles operatic pieces, other types of music, literary and film quotations, all around the guest. When I appeared on August 20, 2016, he had created a whole program around boundaries and empathy, from the recent opera, "Brokeback Mountain,” to popular Greek music, to the Brazilian film, “Orfeu Negro,” to Mario Varga Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, to the New Orleans-based, indie band, “New Thousand.”
So why does he do this for free? Well, that’s a very north-American question.
Not independently wealthy, Jerry makes it to the end of the month through translating and private tutoring. He undertakes all this other work because it would not get done otherwise. This is his job, one that he just does not get paid for.
We should not see his “outreach” as volunteering in the Anglo-Saxon way, that is, having a full time job but doing good things on the side, such as helping in a soup-kitchen. Rather than “volunteering,” Jerry, and others like him, do unpaid work.
In a place of diminished resources, Jerry told me again, cultural work takes on a different meaning. In other words, not everything in life leads to money or practical purpose.
This very commitment to non-instrumental learning enveloped the class I was attending. The students who received no academic credit and the professor who got no pesos were united in the understanding that they were doing something very important—learning an insignificant language.