Hugging the Whole
Reflecting on Bill Weir’s 2017 ACTFL Keynote
Before he was a famous journalist with his own show on CNN, Bill Weir was a disengaged language learner making life difficult for high school World Languages Teachers. He opened his ACTFL 2017 keynote by letting us know that he hoped his talk would help him atone for who he was by sharing who he now is. He got off to a strong start:
For my super power, I’m torn between time travel or speaking every language — Bill Weir, The Wonder List
Weir’s show, The Wonder List with Bill Weir takes viewers to magical places around the world. He was quick to stress the importance of Language and Intercultural skills. “Translators and fixers are the gatekeepers who really open things up.” They are the ones he credits with creating the magic that gets shared with viewers.
While some attendees expressed that they would have preferred he used the word interpreter instead of translator, Weir’s message was one of clearly valuing the impact they bring to travel and exchange. “The difference in traveling with a translator,” said the guy with the enviable job of being a world traveler on TV, “is they are people who can take you into the heart of understanding of a new place.” A lot of heads nodded in agreement. Helping students grow into seeking and embracing the heart of understanding of a place and its people is at the heart of what we do as language educators.
One of the really compelling moments of his talk was a clip Weir showed in which he was speaking with a remote islander and showing how he and his family lived. The video romanticized their simpler life in which days involve waking up with the sun, deciding whether to pick food or fish for it. They have no electricity, no paved roads, no burdens of modern metropolitan life. It’s a day-to-day existence that many of us save up our money in order to afford to experience as a vacation.
The cautionary tale in the subtext however, is that the day after his crew filmed and departed the island for their own contemporary comforts, a category 5 hurricane hit the island. It is in these moments that we confront the reality that the simplicity and sincerity of a life free of the hustle bustle hassle that is our familiar experience is also one deprived of 21st Century amenities like quality medicine and access to internet communication.
Another moment that stuck out for me: Weir claimed that professional wrestling is now the most popular television show in Bhutan. We don’t think about people living in an exotic place with an exotic lifestyle nonetheless seeking escapism in their entertainment.
Weir went on to share a local story from Bhutan: Many years ago, a foreign traveler condescendingly asked the king what his country’s Gross National Product amounted to. According to Weir, he responded, “I don’t care about Gross National Product, I care about Gross National Happiness.” Because of this style of ruling, he and his family are revered and our speaker claimed that it’s led to increased health, longevity, environmental stewardship in their country.
His travels and his own aging has led Weir to think about his own mortality. This got him interested in so-called Blue Zones in which people live on average more than 10 years longer than the rest of us, and do so while experiencing lower rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia. They are living both longer lives and good lives.
This led him to take his crew and explore the Greek island of Ikari, famous for it’s long-living people. His arrival began with advice from a customs official in the airport: “Americans don’t do well in Ikaria. Take off your watch and learn to relax!” He found that people in Ikari ate well and drank well but that their real recipe for healthy living is what he called “inoculation against loneliness.” There was a great deal of idealism realized in these folks’ living.
“The daily rituals. Dominos to take our minds off of stress. Family first. Keep aging parents nearby. Curate a great group of caring friends who will rejoice with you as well as nudge you to walk instead of drive.”
The impressive lives shared in his stories were on the one hand inspirational and admirable. On the other hand, they included details about a woman still going to work each day at 104 years old. There was also an elderly couple who, despite age-related health issues, could not afford to leave their home for one that could better meet their needs. Whether Weir intended it or not, I couldn’t help but pick up on a bit of caution in his tale.
The way Weir attempted to bring it home and tie a bow around his talk was to transition to a framing of America as it is perceived versus as it actually is. He circled the message back to Language and, even more so Culture, serving as the most effective ways to open doors to compassion and understanding.
“The indelicate truth is that what makes these people so happy is also what makes America such an impossible experiment.” The reason we can’t get along, which has been so prominent in politics and media over the last year and change, is that we’ve never been able to get along. He recommends the book American Nations by Collin Woodard, which argues that our One Nation is actually better considered as a mashup of 11 distinct countries. We have a diversity of cultures, backgrounds, languages and all of the myriad factors impacting the last 400 years of human migration. This creates natural divisions that Weir believes will only increase as we move forward. And the key to us becoming our best selves, to becoming a truly united nation, is to accept and seek to understand and embrace our differences.
For me, his concluding take felt a little contrived, the takeaway forced and the quotable lines cliched, especially given the audience. He offered, through his stories, what I believe was a more powerful message, even if it wasn’t the one he overtly emphasized. It’s the danger of romanticizing the microcosm and confusing it with (or willfully regarding it as) the totality.
The serene and simple life the TV depicts on an isolated island, for example, is quickly transformed to a destitute, helpless and life-threatening situation when natural disaster strikes. Likewise, the relaxed lifestyle on Ikari that emphasizes family, togetherness and happiness can be glamorized by CNN cameras as leading to longer and more fulfilling lives, though we hold more pity than envy for the elderly living and struggling in poverty.
If we think about what gets shared on Facebook and Instagram, to consider another example, it is not the whole picture. It’s often void of struggle and imperfections. The authentic messiness of real life is missing. Similarly, places and cultures are not their postcards any more than people are their head shots.
And therein lies the real powerful message I took away from the keynote: Part of the embrace and acceptance Weir encourages is rooted in giving hugs to the whole, not just the posed glamor shot.
Forget me. What did others have to say?
For some, I think it’s safe to say Weir’s mission of atonement was a success!
Some of the other great takeaways my colleagues shared during the talk:
As always, there was thoughtful pushback that deserves our attention and reflection:
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If you are unfamiliar with ACTFL (The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), please do visit their website. It is a great professional organization supporting educators and language learners, promoting language proficiency and advocating for quality language teaching and policymaking. The annual ACTFL conference is in a different city each year and attracts thousands of passionate language teachers for 3 days of learning and sharing.