April 8, 2022 | NEWS | By Sabrina Brewer | Photo Courtesy of Alberto Hernandez-Lemus
Alberto Hernandez-Lemus, a professor of philosophy, discusses student protests at CC, learning new languages, and the importance of talking about death. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Back then, in the 80s, we were protesting all kinds of things. We were protesting the US involvement in El Salvador. We had a war with Nicaragua, as well. We were trying to get the college to divest from South Africa. So, we were constantly protesting and constantly occupying the president’s office. I don’t see the president’s office being occupied very often anymore. I think students are more well behaved or more content with the state of the world. And that I find a little troubling, to be honest with you, because the world hasn’t gotten any better. If anything, it’s gotten more difficult. I think there is a lot that students should be protesting about, but they’re not. Not to say that we were, you know, clear minded, or that what we did changed the world in any way, but I think when you’re young, you have to want to change the world. And you have to not behave so well.
I think that since the Enlightenment, the dominant philosophy has been a liberal philosophy of one individual, one vote. The idea that an individual and a citizen is first and foremost a consumer, that we vote with our purchases, with our dollars. I think for the last 300 years, we have been cultivating a very, very individualistic way of conceiving of the human. And I think we have become domesticated to that idea that we are first and foremost individuals. As a result, education caters to that individual. We want them to succeed, we want them to get jobs, and so, the emphasis today is on the individual, even more so than in the 80s when I was a student. I think the critique that the student body of CC is not as involved as it used to be or as engaged or as critical as it used to be is something that applies throughout the world. In a way, we are the product of a philosophy that has been successful in emphasizing the individuality of humans. And I don’t think that’s the only way to be.
I grew up in Mexico City, and I did all my schooling from age four until age 19 at a Swiss school. It was a Swiss colonial school, you know catering to children of Swiss people and Mexicans, you know, I’m Mexican. When we started, everything was in German. We started Spanish when we were in first grade, that was the only class that was not in German. Then we started English when we were 11. Then I, on my own, started learning French when I was 16. And then Italian when I was 19. All these languages were like little windows into different worlds. Different ways of experiencing the world, of seeing the world or even tasting the world, right, with the gestures, with the rhythm of the language, the way you say things, the way you think about things, the way you see things.
So I’ve always cultivated that interest in other cultures, but I’m also a product of my own education. I’m 61 and I’ve never studied any languages that are not European languages. So, beginning when I’m 62, I’m going to learn my first Native American language and study Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.
I mean, we are the products of rough chance, you know, the way that we were thrown into the world, but then with the way that you were thrown into the world, you have a responsibility to make do with that, and then do other things. So I hope it’s not too late to learn about non-European experiences.
I do several things outside of teaching at CC. I teach in the prisons. I’ve been teaching in elementary schools. And I also am going to start training to become death doula, or something like that. So next week, I’m going to start a program to accompany people in the process of terminal stage of life. In that capacity, it’s not that I will be teaching people anything, but more just being with them when they’re wrestling with these issues. Being philosophically minded, I think we can have all kinds of cool conversations about this. Difficult conversations, meaningful conversations.
My mother is a former school psychologist. And a few years ago, when her eyesight was starting to go bad, she couldn’t read anymore. She started asking me to look for books on thanatology, the discipline of death or something. So, I went with her to look for books on that. And then I started reading to her, and so we started having that discussion maybe five or six years ago. And now she’s 91. Now, you know, it’s more and more urgent that we have these conversations.
As you get older, a lot of people that you know start dying, and that’s kind of like a new phenomenon. My father died five years ago, friends, colleagues here, some of the people that had kind of put me under their wing when I was a student, they started dying. I remember having conversations with them when they were very, very ill, and very old. And I’m not sure that my conversations with them were that great. I need to think about this more, and also kind of experience it more, so that I can have a more meaningful conversations when people are in that position.
You realize that you could benefit from a little bit of thinking and training and help. This was an aspect of life that I had not thought about. And so now I’m curious to learn about helping people overcome that reluctance to talk about it and overcome the anxiety that comes with the topic.
I think the greatest inadequacy was my own discomfort with the topic. Very often, when you’re uncomfortable with something, instead of trying different ways of approaching it, you just avoid it.
In Mexican tradition, death is something that’s always around. It’s not something that exceptional. Día de Los Muertos, for example, is the moment in which the dead come out, you know, but they’re there the whole time. They manifest themselves to come and drink or eat what you leave for them, but not that they were gone the whole time. I think that kind of familiarity and that kind of acceptance of death is something that is inspiring, in that we could maybe incorporate in our way of thinking, in a way that doesn’t make it so exotic or so sad or so devastating. I’m not sure exactly what it is that I will find, you know, but I’m interested in exploring it.”