When colleges and universities revamp curricular requirements, disciplines can become winners or losers. Those fields that are required (or that have many courses that meet requirements) enjoy assured enrollments. So when a college votes down a foreign language requirement, as faculty members did last year in the arts and sciences college of George Washington University, that can be a blow to those who teach languages.
But at George Washington, the final package of reforms -- adopted by arts and sciences faculty Friday in an overwhelming vote -- went even further. The college had required two courses in foreign languages or cultures -- and that requirement is gone. The college's new requirements for various kinds of learning outcomes (such as critical thinking) have been set up in such a way that introductory foreign language courses will automatically not count toward the fulfillment of any requirement.
Given that the new curriculum is designed to promote student learning in areas such as global perspectives and oral communication, some foreign language professors believe that the reforms are misguided and unfair.
"It's one thing to say that you don't have to study a foreign language, but to say that if you want to study one, we won't give you credit for any requirement? That's actively discouraging study of foreign languages," said Richard M. Robin, director of Russian language study at the university. (George Washington's executive vice president for academic affairs comments on the controversy in the comments section of this article.)
The dispute at George Washington is notable because the overall reforms being adopted have attracted strong support, and because the change comes at a time when many foreign language faculty nationally are feeling less than secure about their fields' status within academe. While GW is not eliminating any departments, the last year has seen a number of foreign language departments eliminated (especially in German ) and more departments remain in danger, especially in California.  In the discussions of many of those proposals, foreign language professors have said that they fear their colleagues don't understand the role they play in a liberal education. And at GW, the debate has forced a discussion of just what one learns in introductory foreign language courses.
Is it critical thinking? Or is it grammar?
At GW, no one has spoken out against foreign language study. The focus of the curricular reform -- several years in the making -- has been to shift students into a more thoughtful and less consuming general education experience. The arts and sciences college has until now had a general education requirement of 50 credits of work, focused on certain subject areas. The new system, in which only 30 credits will be required, is focused (aside from writing requirements) on learning outcomes, not subjects.
Teresa Murphy, an associate professor of American studies at the university and chair of the faculty committee that developed the new curricular requirements, said that the old system wasn't working -- in part because the large number of credits required was taking up too much time and wasn't encouraging good planning by students. "We had students who were still fulfilling the requirements in their senior year. There were so many that they were learning a little bit here and there, checking off boxes, and not having time to find their intellectual passions and pursue them."
The new approach is based on taking courses that fulfill a series of learning outcomes. Several of the categories -- including critical thinking, creative thinking and quantitative reasoning -- are based on students being able to demonstrate analytical skills. Other categories focus on types of learning and outcomes. For instance, students must take courses to show a global perspective and a cross-cultural perspective. And students must take courses designed to help them demonstrate written and oral communication.
For each of the different kinds of requirements, the plan offers specific criteria for inclusion. So the critical thinking requirement is fulfilled by courses in which students show that they can "analyze and evaluate abstract information," or "understand and analyze scholarly literature and argument, particularly with respect to theoretical orientation and sources of support" or "formulate a logical argument based on that analysis."
A global perspectives course must teach students to analyze "the ways in which institutions, practices, and problems transcend national and regional boundaries or link those regions and boundaries together. A global perspective might include, but is not restricted to: the analysis of multi-national or multi-regional efforts to address global problems such as climate change or poverty; the examination of the global circulation of ideas and media images; the global impact of religions; or the impact of diasporic movements of peoples (past or present)."
The reforms, over all, have strong backing. But some foreign language professors believe that their introductory courses meet these criteria. (The plan leaves open the possibility that senior-level language courses might qualify, just not introductory courses prior to reasonable levels of proficiency.)
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, chair of East Asian languages and literatures, circulated a letter in advance of the meeting in which she argued that introductory foreign language courses should be counted.
"Language acquisition requires highly analytical and communicative skills and, when it is a matter of second language acquisition, directly helps develop diverse perspectives. It has long been proven that learning one’s own language is not an automatic process done by constant imitation but a result of children's repeated revised hypotheses, based on the data available, until finally they reach adulthood," she wrote.
"Language acquisition is also entirely a creative process. Modern linguistic theory and pieces of research on language acquisition have proven this with scientific studies. In fact, the goal of language courses is not for each student to spit out the exact words and sentences listed in the book or presented in classes, but to give proof of acquisition by showing what they could do with the contents learned in a given period."
Kim-Renaud also rejected the idea that these benefits kick in only with more advanced instruction. "Even if one does not achieve 'useful' proficiency, the very experience of learning a new language is opening a door to a whole new world, for it goes without saying that languages reflect the cultures where they are spoken, different ways of analyzing the world, and human relations, and different ways of communicating and dealing with myriad aspects of the human condition," she wrote.
Further, she wrote that the faculty's action would devalue the role of foreign language -- when the country needs to be doing the opposite. "Especially when GW is seeking excellence in everything we do, this kind of unfortunate treatment of foreign language education also sends a wrong message to the world. The best argument for learning a foreign language should be the delight and respect it gives the students as pure, intellectual pursuit, without anyone feeling the need to justify it on the basis of its practical value," she wrote.
Other foreign language faculty members offer a different argument.
Robin, of the Russian department, said that "it would be hard to make an argument that first year or second year Russian teaches critical thinking. Indeed we are doing a lot of memorization." But he said that the real question should be why the university would discourage students from getting through those first two years. "You are robbing students of a great deal of possibility," he said. After they finish those years, "suddenly you have a whole new world before you."
He said that he believes that the university should at a minimum say that the introductory language courses fulfill requirements for oral communication. Failure to do so, he said, will have real consequences. First-year students want to know that they are making progress at finding the right major and fulfilling requirements. It will be very hard to attract students to Russian or Asian languages -- the very languages that many experts say that the United States needs more people to learn -- if they can't get any gen ed credit.
"The bar has just been raised in a way that will discourage students from ever getting to those upper division courses," he said.
Russian and Slavic language scholars nationally who have been discussing the situation at GW online have been quite critical, with one calling it "a sad day indeed when those who have little appreciation of the critical thinking component of seeing the world through the eyes and thought of others ignore the special nature of all language, that which makes us human."
Murphy, the professor who led the process of defining the new requirements, said that the faculty decision wasn't one of devaluing foreign language, but of carrying out earlier votes by the faculty to reduce the number of requirements and to put an emphasis on agreed-upon learning outcomes.
"Our learning outcomes include the ability to analyze and evaluate information, understand scholarly literature and argument, and formulate a logical argument based on that analysis” and so forth, she said. Introductory foreign language may be "very important and very difficult," but it does not do that.
Critical thinking, she said, "isn't learning grammar."