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Tilting at Windmills: Teaching Don Quixote is Fajardo’s personal quest

By : Sandy Paniccia

For Salvador Fajardo, teaching Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha is more than his job, it’s his passion. Fajardo, a Binghamton University professor of Spanish, has been teaching the classic work to teachers at special summer workshops every other year for over a decade.

Supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fajardo held his first summer seminar in 1992. Teachers from all disciplines gather for three hours three times a week to read and discuss the adventures of the elderly Quixote, who, inspired by tales of chivalry, sets out on a personal journey to prove himself as a knight.

Although the seminar is designed primarily for teachers, Fajardo accepts others into the discussion group as well. “Participants include English and foreign language teachers, but I’ve also had math instructors, school administrators and principals take part,” he said. “And because many participants come from other areas and disciplines, I’ve also learned much from the discussions.”

According to Fajardo, the seminar provides a much-needed respite from their usual pursuits. “Participants really want to have an intellectual experience while enjoying their stay here,” Fajardo said. “The seminar provides intellectual conversation. When you give intelligent people a chance to have a serious conversation on a text that is so subtle, so multi-layered, they really enjoy it.”

But why Don Quixote? What lessons can be learned today from the fictional 16th-century gentleman who careens around the Spanish countryside tilting at windmills and challenging sheep to battle? Fajardo says that Don Quixote’s quest, as comically absurd as it may seem, is the journey of an idealist — and therefore is timeless.

“[The book] has a generous view of humanity, coupled with an acute understanding of our own foibles. It is part of that view of humanity that believes ‘Yes, we can do great things.’ For a Spaniard like me, it is the sum of what the language can do as well,” Fajardo said.

As Quixote lived his life with passion and discipline, so too does Fajardo. “I feel a missionary zeal for this book because it’s such an extraordinary text,” he said. “I look upon this book as a manual on how to read literature. It is a text to teach us what texts are.”

According to Fajardo, it is the kind of book that inspires several books and hundreds of articles yearly. “Of the few great classics in literature, after the Bible, it’s probably the book that has been translated the most,” he said.

Fajardo embodies the main character’s sense of chivalry in more ways than one. His workshop group meets many times at his home.

“My wife and I throw picnics and put on dinners for them,” he said. “We have their mail delivered to us and we deliver it to them. We spend a great deal of time together on a social level. It is a real family experience.”

Fajardo’s passion for the Spanish culture and his love of literature have generated a productive career. He has chaired the Romance Languages and Literatures Department and is the author of books on the French Nobel laureate Claude Simon, the Spanish poets Luis Cernuda and Rafael Alberti, editor of various collections of essays on 20th-century Spanish poetry, and co-editor of a recently published Spanish edition on Don Quixote.

Fajardo says he re-reads the classic text every year, “as did Faulkner. No matter how many times I read it, I still find something new. And I always laugh.”

Fajardo hopes that, through the workshop, his enthusiasm will find its way through teachers to the children they teach. “This is a book that produces changes,” he said. “It causes people to look at things differently. We in the humanities have the view that part of our mission is to give students some background on how to be a complete human being through literature, art and music. It is important that children have access to universal texts like this. Don Quixote is the kind of book that can make an impact on a person’s life.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08