A retired professor reconsiders his education
By Guy Benveniste
I was born in Paris into a large immigrant family that had fiercely adopted French culture and language. My parents spoke French; my father did not know English. My numerous cousins, aunts and uncles all spoke French.
In 1936, when I was nine, my mother’s sister moved to Paris from Prague and enrolled her two children at The Elms, the MacJannets’ school outside Paris. My aunt arranged with Donald MacJannet to allow me to attend some classes and activities at The Elms on Thursdays and Sundays, when the French schools did not hold classes. That summer, my cousins went to the MacJannet Camp in Talloires, and I joined them there for the summers of 1936, ’37 and ’38. I also went skiing with a MacJannet group led by Donald’s brother-in-law, Emory Foster, in Caux and Font Romeu in ’37 and ’38. By then my English had improved. (I learned to sing “Our Indiana,” the fight song of Indiana University, from one of my camp counselors.)
In 1942, when my parents and I left France for Mexico, I was still flunking English in the French Lycée. But the MacJannet experience had changed my outlook. I had become aware of different cultural attitudes, of different ways of behaving and especially of American ways and styles.
In Mexico City, I attended the American School full-time. Thanks to my MacJannet experience, I was able to transfer from the French program directly into the American high school. I graduated in 1944, age 17, and was accepted at Harvard.
Harvard was another cultural adaptation: a university in a country at war. So once again, I had to adapt— not only to speaking English continually, but also to being in a different country with different customs.
Once again the MacJannets came to my rescue. Conveniently, they were then at Tufts, just north of Cambridge. They invited me to garden parties, where I met new friends. In fact, I started dating a young woman Tufts student to whom they introduced me.
I graduated from Harvard in 1948 (with Bobby Kennedy) and went on to a complex international career. I helped launch an international program at the Stanford Research Institute, served in cultural affairs at the State Department during the Kennedy administration, went to Afghanistan for the World Bank, and joined UNESCO in Paris. In 1968 I obtained a Ph.D. from Stanford and joined the University of California’s Berkeley faculty during that year’s student turmoil.
Looking back, my preparation in acculturation enabled me to have a life experience I never would have dreamed of when I first attended The Elms in 1936. That is what the MacJannets did: They gave their students and campers the equivalent of a Ph.D. in acculturation. Between them, they taught me to adapt.
In today’s interconnected word, understanding and being able to deal effectively with other cultures acquires far more importance. This is why the work of the MacJannet Foundation has so much more significance today than it had, even in 1936 .
Guy Benveniste is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. For more MacJannet tales, see his memoir, From Paris to Berkeley.
Leave a Reply.