Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One Out of Three Say, De Gaulle Who?

Another week or so has gone by, so here’s an updated statistic on the responses to my WWII Political Leaders Opinion Survey. (I repeat: I won’t be sharing the important stuff until the polls close on January 1.) Unlike Churchill, Hirohito, Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, and Stalin, Charles de Gaulle went into office after World War II, but 65% of the respondents probably recognized him primarily for his leadership in the French resistance. It took some serious thinking, but I finally remembered a story that remotely connected with the forgotten Frenchman’s legacy:

One hot summer, I attended a math workshop at a university in the Inland Empire. (For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, that might as well be asking someone from Mediterranean to spend record hot days in the Sahara.) Like most campuses, the summer is the time for “road destruction,” as my father calls it. It was impossible to walk between the main parking lot and the campus, so students were transported by bus.

During one particularly miserable afternoon, I boarded an empty bus, only for the bus driver to inform me that he was going to wait another twenty minutes before heading out. Exhausted from hours of grueling brain activity and a long walk across campus, I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. However, the bus driver, probably bored and lonely, decided to make conversation…defined as trashing-talking Americans.

Every American probably experiences a variation of this conversation at least once in his life: “You know nothing about my country” followed by attack after attack about how close-minded, self-absorbed, and stupid Americans are. During the course of the conversation, however, the non-American’s comments usually just prove that those traits are prevalent worldwide.

Despite my partial dehydration and headache from the heat, I eventually got at the root of the problem. This guy was bitter because the inferior American universities wouldn’t accept his superior Algerian coursework, and he didn’t want to start from the beginning. So he was stuck working as a bus driver. I informed him that paperwork messes were a problem for everyone and that he should talk to an admissions counselor. He insisted that there was nothing they could do.

Okay. Well, some American university bureaucracies just might not be accustomed to dealing with Algerian students since, in relative terms, there aren’t very many of them coming here. I proposed that he complete his degree in a country that has had a longer and stronger relationship with Algeria, like France, then return to the United States to work.

“Why France?”

Pause. Well, I’d hope French universities know what to do with Algerian students. They’ve had at least a hundred years to figure it out.

“What makes you think that?”

Pause. Well, it’s generally common for students from a colony or former colony to attend the imperial country’s schools.

“How did you know that?”

Pause. Know what?

“That the French used to be in control.”

Umm…Image of a thin mustached man in uniform appeared in my head. My high school history textbook. Where else?

“Most Americans don’t know that.”

Really? I wonder how many he asked.