The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. Koïchiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, has said: “Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context.” To achieve these goals, cultures and languages can and should play a central role at all levels of education. The United States, in particular, must abandon its exclusive short-range, 9/11-sparked, tactical emphasis on just-in-time, emergency-responsive study of specific languages to meet economic challenges and security crises. In its place, the U.S. needs to establish a longer-range strategic emphasis on the study of cultures, and widespread educational use of languages, to prevent such crises from occurring in the first place.
How do we achieve these goals? Should we restore and expand upon the pattern of high school and college language instruction that existed in my youth, when four times as many college students studied “foreign languages”? Well, yes, but the world has changed since then. The world’s children, including children in the U.S., need higher levels of competency and competency in a larger number of “world languages” than have ever appeared in any country’s standard curriculum.
The present essay lays out a position to which I have gradually and grudgingly been arriving over my nearly 50-year career as a student and teacher of languages and cultures. I was spurred to express this position publicly by recent global and national initiatives in the area of language education but also by an e-mail I received nearly a year ago:
I teach French, Spanish, and an Intro to World Languages class at a public middle school in a rural community in Virginia. I am eager to understand the current Foreign Language trends in the U.S. and am puzzled by the decreasing enrollment in specifically French classes. I am trying to promote the necessity of French as an essential international language, but is my thinking back in the dark ages?
I understand the rise of Spanish in light of the USA's changing demographics, and the wave of Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese with regard to global commerce and homeland security, BUT WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE FRENCH? Do you believe the need for French in the American classroom will continue to decline and become obsolete?
What follows is my latest, fullest response to this question, which I have been pondering ever since.
French was the first language I studied and the one I studied to the highest level academically. My Francophile father spent a year in Tours after he retired to enhance his fluency in the language; my mother chose French to fulfill her doctoral-level language requirement; my sister majored in French; and I have cited and written about French scholarship in my publications as an academic linguist. Despite having studied a half dozen other languages since, and lived for nearly a year and half in Mexico using Spanish (and Yucatec Maya) daily, plus another year using Romanian in Bucharest, French is still the language other than English in which I am the most literate, however outdated and rusty my knowledge.
Despite this deep-seated allegiance, I do regretfully conclude that the recent and projected continuing decline of French as one of the most widely studied languages in the U.S. is both inevitable and appropriate. My late father would be distressed to hear me say this, but, as director of international admissions at the University of Michigan in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he probably saw it coming himself.
Last November’s Modern Language Association enrollment update provides an authoritative overview of where languages currently stand in U.S. higher education. Although college modern-language course enrollments as a proportion of total enrollments are still little better than half of what they were in the 1960’s (8.6 percent in 2006 compared with 16.5 in 1965), they have grown steadily along with college enrollments overall during the last decade (from 7.7 percent to 8.6), and world language demographics and increased global awareness have shifted college-level language enrollments heavily away from the previous near-monopoly of the Big Three of previous generations (French, German, Spanish). Although Spanish increased its share from 32 to 52 percent. French went from 34 percent to 13 percent, while German dropped from 19 to 6 percent.
In the last near-decade (1998-2006), although the Big Three shared in the overall growth in language enrollments, their shares continued to decrease: Spanish slipped from 55.0 to 52.2 (a 5 percent decrease), French from 16.7 to 13.1 (a 22 percent decrease), and German from 7.5 to 6.0 (a 20 percent decrease). Sizeable increases, on the other hand, were experienced by Italian (from 4.1 to 5.0, a 23 percent increase), Japanese (from 3.6 to 4.2, a 17 percent increase), Chinese (from 2.4 to 3.3, a 38 percent increase), Arabic (from 0.5 to 1.5, a 200 percent increase), and “Other languages” (from 1.5 to 2.1, a 40 percent increase). The world’s languages still lag behind the Big Three, but they are gradually supplanting them in the postsecondary enrollments.
These shifts in student demand will almost certainly produce major shifts in the allocation of resources for the study of specific languages in the coming years. Indeed, some institutions have already experienced a loss of “critical mass” in enrollment for German. Most recently the University of Southern California has announced the elimination of its department of German, which lost its doctoral program a decade ago and in 2008 has only 10 undergraduate majors and 10 minors taught by three tenured faculty and three full-time adjuncts.
We can expect such dislocations to increase in the coming years as the more populous of the world’s languages take their place in the college curriculum, but the prospects for achieving college-level proficiency in any languages will remain small in the absence of the development of language proficiency in secondary school. In light of these considerations, the most desirable outcome of the rise in the diversity and popularity of world languages at the college level would include two major changes in elementary and secondary education and set the stage for a new level of importance for languages in all fields of postsecondary education.
The first K-12 change would be a widespread initiative to mandate the mastery of English and a language other than English (LOTE), in K-6 education, and the continued meaningful use of that LOTE throughout the 7-12 curriculum. Spanish is the obvious first choice of LOTE for most schools because the U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Languages other than Spanish (LOTS) would present themselves in many locales and neighborhoods: French in upstate New York, Polish in near-north Chicago, Mandarin in San Francisco’s Chinatown, etc.
To get an idea of how numerous such locally-significant languages might be nationwide, visit the Modern Language Association Language Map Data Center. Based on official 2000 and 2006 Census figures, this site provides information regarding the numbers of speakers of literally scores of languages from location to location across the U.S.
Regardless of the choice of language, high school students in the U.S. -- or college-bound students, at any rate -- ought to spend at least half an academic year in a school where a LOTE is the primary language of instruction. In the case of Spanish, the default K-12 LOTE, this study abroad might best occur in Latin America. Exchange programs for both students and teachers could make this a win-win bilingual educational effort for our Latin American neighbors and, for LOTS, visitors from other nations. Family-to-family home-stay exchanges could bring the Americas and the world together in a very intimate and mutually rewarding, to say nothing of cost-saving, way.
The second desirable change in K-12 education would occur in grade seven. Having become functionally bilingual in English and Spanish (or some other language) by the end of elementary school, children should be encouraged and college-bound students required (and find it relatively easy) to begin study of a third language. The available choices would rightly vary in accordance with personal, local, regional, national, and global needs, resources, and opportunities. The goal would be to have a large majority of high school graduates functioning at a high level of literacy in English and another language (typically Spanish) and at an intermediate level in a third language.
On this plan, which draws major inspiration from a 1996 proposal for education in France by Claude Hagège, individual learners in college and the workplace would bring additional languages into their repertoires as a function of chosen career paths and intellectual interests. Equally affected by this obviously audacious plan, college and university curricula would of course need to include a much wider range of course work in world languages and cultures.
To reach the full range of fields of study, colleges would also need to employ the proven methods developed by Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) practitioners to enable students to acquire and make ubiquitous meaningful use of their multilingual skills and international knowledge. Examples of CLAC methods include non-language courses taught in a LOTE, add-on LOTE “trailers” or course modules, and study groups in which students in an otherwise English-only course pursue substitute assignments employing LOTE materials (see the CLAC Consortium Web site for details).
To encourage multilingual educational initiatives of the above sorts, local, state, and federal agencies, as well as employers of all kinds, could offer incentives and rewards for the study and meaningful curricular use of high-need languages at all educational levels in all fields of study and in all lines of work in the global economy.
So where does that leave French? Clearly French would survive the above-described process, but with only a fraction of its current share of total language-learning enrollments, and with a much broader coverage of the many dialects, postcolonial cultural traditions, and socioeconomic circumstances that exist in 21st century Francophonie. The French-speaking world uses not only European French but also the Frenches of the Canadian Québecois and of the numerous former French colonies in Africa and on many islands around the world. Spanish, though instructors also need to recognize Spanish dialect diversity, is probably the only one of the Big Three that will remain in the top 10 in U.S. education by the end of the 21st century. Likely members by then include Arabic, Bengali, Hindi/Urdu, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Turkish.
Whatever our language choices and their respective global “ranking”, we can hope that a large number of languages find their way into our K-21 curricula (and lifelong-learning options) in response to the twin forces of economic globalization and cultural internationalization.
Is the above merely the hope-induced pipe dream of an ivory-tower academic out of touch with political and educational realities? I hope not. Playing to the catchwords of the day, I can cite the priorities of global commerce (U.S. economic competitiveness) and homeland security (monitoring terrorist communications and communicating with non-English-speaking allies and enemies) in support of the above initiatives. Especially at the federal level, though states and municipalities have also expressed support for greater language study in our post-9/11 era, we find many examples of urgent calls for enhanced linguistic competency in the service of these priorities.
In June 2004 the Department of Defense, with cooperation from the Departments of State and Education, sponsored the first-ever National Language Policy Conference. Representatives of government at all levels, industry, and K-16 academe endeavored to define the full range of needs and describe the resources necessary to meet our society’s needs for greater intercultural and global knowledge and skills, with a focus on the expansion of linguistic competencies. This proved to be but the first in a number of federal, state, and local initiatives, running from the establishment of tens of two-way immersion elementary schools, mostly in English and Spanish, to the recent Senator Paul Simon Foundation legislation, aimed to increase the number of college students studying abroad by a factor of four in the next 10 years.
Encouraging widespread two-way bilingual K-12 education, in which native speakers of English and other languages learn to use each other’s languages, and vastly expanding the range of languages taught in U.S. schools and colleges may sound preposterous in the face of popular negativism about increased immigration and the alleged (and largely imaginary) refusal of immigrants to learn English (when they are in fact giving up their native languages at least as quickly as previous generations of immigrants). However, surveys of college-bound high school students and their parents have increasingly revealed their desire that a college education include language study and time abroad in order for graduates to compete effectively in the global economy.
The recently released UCLA Higher Education Research Institute Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey data show yet a further increase in college freshman interest in learning about other world cultures, rising from 43.2 percent in 2002 to 52.3 percent in 2007. College students come desirous but ill-prepared to study languages and cultures but find the current college curriculum unresponsive to, and even incompatible with, their needs.
In short, both the population at large and leadership in virtually all arenas have come to realize that the solution to global problems, including the establishment of a sustainable "new world order" (do you remember that benign vision, so quickly displaced by a New American Imperium?) in which all the world's peoples can live in peace and attain prosperity, depends upon increases in international understanding and coöperation of a sort that only widespread multilingualism and intercultural interaction can produce.
Call it public diplomacy or global competency or inclusive humanism; our goal should be to make everyone in the world safer, healthier, and better educated about each other’s shared values, diverse lifeways, and unique cultural achievements. We have had enough of xenophobic fear-mongering, hypocritical ethnocentrism, and Doomsday rhetoric. If the worst scenarios do indeed come to pass, it will not be because they are unavoidable but because we have diverted too many of our resources into preparing for those pessimistic scenarios and too few into warding them off.
A competitive, power-driven view of the world's future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that, in the end, no one can survive. A cooperative, posterity-driven view of the future includes the ubiquitous study of world cultures and languages, and use of this acquired knowledge and skill to build international bridges and address global problems. To paraphrase an aphorism about education penned in 1920 by H.G. Wells, human history has become more and more a race between catastrophe and international education.
H. Stephen Straight
H. Stephen Straight is professor of anthropology and of linguistics, and vice provost for undergraduate education and international affairs, at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is a member of the executive committee of the Association of International Education Administrators.
The University of Southern California’s April announcement of its plans to close its German department has sparked a discussion within American higher education about the future role of the traditional “big three” foreign languages in the United States: French, German, and Spanish. USC defended its decision with the argument that it needed to focus resources on other languages, particularly Chinese, in response to the growing importance of Asia for the world economy in general and for California in particular. In a letter to USC’s president, Steven Sample, I argued that in response to obvious deficiencies in American students’ foreign language preparedness, American universities need to radically increase overall investments in foreign language teaching, and that such a radical increase can not be achieved by simply shifting resources from one language to another, i.e. that enhancing language education in the United States should not be conceived of as a zero sum game.
In an article last week on Inside Higher Ed, H. Stephen Straight, a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the State University of New York in Binghamton, argued for precisely such a radical increase in foreign language education not only at the college but also at the primary and secondary levels. Straight contends that the U.S. should “abandon its exclusive short-range, 9/11-sparked, tactical emphasis on just-in-time, emergency-responsive study of specific languages to meet economic challenges and security crises.” I could not agree more. However Straight also concedes that in spite of his own love of the French language “I do regretfully conclude that the recent and projected continuing decline of French as one of the most widely studied languages in the U.S. is both inevitable and appropriate.”
I do not agree with this conclusion; in fact I believe that the traditional “big three” languages still have -- and should have -- a good deal of life in them. The case for Spanish is relatively easy, since it is by far the most popular foreign language in the United States, due to the proximity of Mexico and Latin America, as well as massive immigration to the United States of Spanish-speaking people. However there is also a good case to be made for French and German. As a German professor, I admittedly have a subjective interest in this matter (my love of the language and culture as well as my loyalty to my profession); but I think there are good objective arguments to be made as well.
Both the USC administration and Professor Straight argue from a primarily pragmatic economic and political standpoint, i.e. they both assume that one studies a foreign language and culture primarily because of the economic or political importance that such a language or culture has or might potentially have in the world. Therefore because China and Japan have great economic and political importance in today’s world, some significant number of American students should study Chinese and Japanese. There is a good deal of persuasiveness to this argument, and undoubtedly economic and political pragmatism is one of the primary reasons why American students should study foreign languages and cultures. The world’s economies are indeed becoming increasingly interconnected, and the health of every national economy is more and more dependent on its competitive success with respect to the other nations of the world. Foreign languages often have very direct benefits not only to nations but to individuals: Many of my own students, for instance, have graduated from college and gone on to work for major German companies like Siemens or Bayer.
Professor Straight is also right that it is not sufficient for a nation like the United States simply to start pushing the study of particular foreign languages after the need to learn them has become obvious to all. For instance, after 9/11 was far too late to begin pushing the study of Arabic in the United States; it would have been far preferable if American students in large numbers had been studying Arabic before 9/11. There is an old barnyard adage about closing the barn door after the cows have escaped that seems to me to apply to the U.S. approach to Arabic and to other languages belatedly deemed important for national security. Learning a foreign language takes many years of work and study, and that work and study need to happen before a national security catastrophe, not after it, since one of the primary goals of such work and study will naturally be to prevent national security catastrophes. (It doesn’t matter how much intelligence data the CIA collects in Arabic if no one can read it.) Of course, even here, better late than never. But early is always better than late.
Even if one accepts a purely pragmatic and political viewpoint, however, one cannot really conclude that a 6 percent overall share of foreign language enrollments is too high for German (6 percent of the rather small 8.6 percent share of foreign languages in total college enrollments, that is: 0.005 -- half of one percent). The fact is that the German economy continues to be the third largest economy in the world, with a 2006 gross national income of $2,901,482,000,000 -- closely followed by China, which had a gross national income in 2006 of $2,641,846,000,000. Germany is also one of the richest nations in the world per capita, with annual per capita income in 2006 working out to $35,110, compared to China’s $2,035 per capita. The average German, therefore, is 17 times richer than the average Chinese citizen. This means that the Germans, on the whole, have more money to buy things than the Chinese. While France has a lower gross national income than Germany ($2,256,465,000,000), it is still one of the richest countries in the world, and its per capita income is actually higher than Germany’s ($35,725). Even though the Chinese economy continues to grow, therefore, it is unlikely that it will soon outpace France and Germany combined, let alone the entire European Union. On purely pragmatic economic and political grounds alone, the study of Germany and France, and of the German and French languages, should continue to be an important part of American higher education.
Moreover, if one accepts -- as I do -- the premise that the United States needs to radically expand education in foreign languages and cultures for the globalized world, it is possible for German and French to maintain their absolute numbers of enrollments while declining relatively in comparison with languages like Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. The reason for that is simple: those three languages simply did not previously exist at many institutions of higher education, and therefore their emergence and growth will necessarily lead to relative declines in other, traditionally studied languages, but not necessarily to absolute declines.
However, as important and valuable as pragmatic reasons are for studying foreign languages, I do not accept the premise -- whether implicit or explicit -- that they are the only reason why one should study foreign languages. One of the most remarkable things about recent debates about foreign language education is precisely the exclusive focus on a not-very-well-defined pragmatism at the expense of a more expansive vision of liberal learning. Not so very long ago (as recently as the 1960s and even into the 1970s and 1980s) there was a general consensus in American higher education that a liberally educated student should study the best of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, from Plato through Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche, and that such a student should also learn at least one of the ancient or foreign languages at the core of that western tradition (Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) -- with English, of course, also (thanks to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton) being a language at the core of the Western intellectual tradition. That consensus was challenged in the 1970s and 1980s by various attempts to relativize the Western intellectual tradition, as well as -- far more serious, I fear -- by creeping monolingualism; but nevertheless the absence of references to fundamental European intellectual traditions in the most recent debates about foreign language education is remarkable.
It is as if the late Allan Bloom had never written The Closing of the American Mind, a book in which -- already in the 1980s -- he deplored American higher education’s turning away from Europe, and from European traditions. Of course Bloom was politically and philosophically conservative; but it is entirely possible to defend the study of European cultural traditions -- including Europe’s key languages -- from a liberal point of view as well. (After all, liberalism itself emerged from the European intellectual tradition.) And even if all one wants to do with the academic study of European intellectual traditions (liberal, conservative, Marxist, etc.) is to criticize them, it will still be hard to argue with the proposition that of all the world’s intellectual traditions, it is the Western one that has had the most profound impact on the world today -- for good or for ill. It was in the West that Christianity emerged; it was in the West that capitalism emerged; it was in the West that democracy emerged; it was in the West that colonialism and imperialism emerged; and it was in the West that Communism emerged.
Given the centrality of European intellectual traditions to the world’s history, it seems to me that there continues to be a very powerful case for studying these traditions, as well as the primary languages at their core. If we do not commit ourselves to the study and teaching of these traditions, we are leaving our students ill-equipped to understand them, and therefore ill-equipped to understand how today’s world has been shaped at its very core. This seems to me to be the most important intellectual and educational reason for studying the key European languages. It is not an argument against the study of Asian, African, or American Indian languages, which ought to be encouraged as well; it is simply an argument for the study of European languages. Again, I do not see the study of languages as a zero-sum game, and Americans would do well not to think in these terms either.
But there are at least three other very good reasons for studying foreign languages. The first is that, quite simply, foreign languages are a lot of fun. Over the last decade and a half there has been one formerly less-studied European language that has grown considerably: Italian. Why? Is it because of Italy’s pragmatic political and economic significance? Probably not -- although Italy’s economy is hardly to be sneered at from a global perspective. Is it because of Italy’s cultural significance as part of the European core? Possibly. (I can imagine no more beautiful depiction of medieval Catholic cosmography than Dante’s Divine Comedy, and after all that is the cosmography that immediately preceded the modern one.) But even more, I suspect, it is because Italy and the Italian language are perceived as beautiful, fun, and sexy. And why not? I can’t see anything wrong with that.
The second good reason why one studies a foreign language is to go abroad and live in a place where the language is spoken. And here too Europe seems to me to have considerable advantages over a good many of its competitors: It is safe, comfortable, has a good infrastructure, and is welcoming to foreigners. Europe provides an experience of foreignness and openness to the world that is very important for young Americans today, but it does so in a relatively safe and unthreatening way; it is, in a sense, a gateway to the larger world. And French wine and German beer (and cars) will continue to be powerful draws to our students, whether we like it or not.
Finally, one should never underestimate the role that ethnic and cultural heritage play in students’ choice of foreign languages: It is probably no coincidence that German has traditionally been one of the “big three” languages, given that German-Americans were traditionally the largest ethnic group in the United States. Such ties continue to play a role well into the fourth and fifth generations: I still get large numbers of students with German surnames in my German language and culture courses. I suspect that such ethnic and cultural reasons -- which also, by the way, enter into the growth of Chinese and Japanese enrollments in the U.S. -- will apply in the future almost as much as they have applied in the past, given Americans’ avid interest in their geneology and ethnic heritage.
There is a final reason for studying European languages, and it is fairly straightforward: European languages are easier for native speakers of English to learn than non-European languages because they are genetically related to English. All foreign languages are difficult, but some foreign languages are more difficult than others. It takes a native speaker of English a good one-two years of additional study and hard work to become proficient in a non-European language than in a European language. If our goal is to encourage widespread foreign language proficiency in a realistic way, then we should encourage students first to learn a European language (and thus get the knack of learning any foreign language at all) and then to take on the added difficulty of studying a non-European language. This may seem like a trivial argument at an abstract level, but in the real world of actual language teaching and learning, difficulty plays a huge role that many language teachers may not like to talk about, but of which students are well aware.
For all these reasons the European languages will continue to play -- and should continue to play -- an important role in American higher education. Above all it is important for us to understand that a really massive increase in focus on foreign languages and cultures -- and there can be little doubt that we need such an increase -- will necessitate not shifting resources from “old” languages to “new” ones but rather enhancing foreign language study overall. The United States has seen enough either-or, zero-sum thinking about foreign languages; it is time to change our approach.
Stephen Brockmann is professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University.
Recent moves by the University of Southern California to abolish the German department prompted Stephen Brockmann, a professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University, to write “A Defense of European Languages.” Brockmann freely concedes both his “subjective interest” in and his “loyalty to [his] profession." Nevertheless his contribution, while reflecting the views of many who teach European languages, systematically fails to address the strategic choices at stake.
Though I myself specialize in European history, learned my own German at a California university, teach with pleasure a course on the “history of the German-speaking peoples,” and share professor Brockmann’s affection for the European cultural tradition, I support USC’s actions: The United States needs to focus away from European languages, and USC’s decision to abolish German makes sense.
The fundamental flaw in Brockmann’s argument lies in his thesis statement: “enhancing language education in the United States should not be conceived of as a zero sum game.” For USC, I suggest, the relevant issue is not how language education is “conceived,” but how it is funded. Funding issues may not technically be a zero-sum game since the possibility of increased spending always exists, but at present, the possibility of increased spending strikes me as rather theoretical, at least in the humanities.
All funding decisions, however, must take into account that financial resources are finite. No matter how much enthusiasm lawmakers or foundations may unexpectedly develop for foreign language education, every German professor’s salary will still cost money that might have paid for a professor of, say, Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Tagalog (Filipino), or Vietnamese. Universities must make choices.
Brockmann goes on to argue that Spanish, French and German “still have -- and should have -- a good deal of life left in them.” This statement as it stands is absolutely true. However, it also holds for Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Tagalog or Vietnamese, all languages that have -- and should have -- a good deal of life left in them. The issue is not the continued vitality of the language, but the resources devoted to its study. Enrollment figures, however, suggest that German receives a disproportionate share of attention in California. In 2006, with 7,647 enrollments, it enjoyed greater numbers than Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Tagalog and Vietnamese combined (respectively 3,556, 727, 1,025, 384 and 1,815 for a total 7,505 enrollments, according to figures from the Modern Language Association.
Brockmann then appeals to “the centrality of European intellectual traditions to the world’s history,” yearning for the departed consensus of “the 1960s, and even into 1970s and 1980s” that a liberally educated student should study the best of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, from Plato through Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche, and that such a student should also learn at least one of the ancient or foreign languages at the core of that western tradition (Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian and Spanish).
I have no memory of this bygone era; I did my own undergraduate training during the late 1980s, during which the backlash against “dead white males” may have reached its crescendo. An implicit and perhaps unintended Eurocentricism nevertheless pervades Brockmann’s argument. Surely, however, Brockmann would concede that students who study Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Tagalog or Vietnamese also acquire a liberal education?
One might argue that the study of classical European languages does not prevent students from studying other languages. Presumably, Brockmann and I would both welcome an increase in the number of students taking any and all foreign languages. Brockman’s emphasis on “enhancing foreign language study overall” nevertheless remains disingenuous. Even doubled or tripled enrollments, like university budgets, remain finite; even the biggest pie must somehow be divided. Individual students must also make choices. The decision to study language A is inevitably the decision to not study language B; even the exceptional student who studies both A and B still decides not to study C, D, or E. The undoubted benefit of students learning German must therefore be weighed against the opportunity cost of students not studying Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Tagalog or Vietnamese.
Speaking as a Europeanist, I would argue for a light bias in favor of less studied languages. My own idea of a general liberal arts education requires some familiarity with the world as a whole, not merely one of its many cultures. Confucius, Buddha and Mohammad should receive as much attention as Jesus and Moses; Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah requires as much study as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
The education of American high school students certainly leaves much to be desired, but I feel confident predicting that more incoming freshmen are familiar with Goethe than Rumi. My own high school education, in Irvine California, covered Kafka’s Metamorphasis and a segment from Faust, but nothing at all from China or India, to say nothing of Armenian, Arabic, Tagalog or Vietnamese. (Persian may be an exception; I remember reading the Rubayyat).
Brockmann, finally, warns that “one should never underestimate the role that ethnic and cultural heritage play in students’ choice of foreign languages,” suggesting that German-American immigration explains the importance of German in American education. This argument, however, strongly supports USC’s decision to abolish German. The University of Southern California, after all, is located in Los Angeles, a city whose German speakers (29,002 in 2000) are outnumbered by speakers of Arabic (37,148), Armenian (138,105), Persian (138,015), Tagalog (195,967) and Vietnamese (71,664). (See the Los Angeles Almanac.) The national prominence of German-Americans merely underscores that USC is justified in turning its resources to other ends: students wishing to study German, even in California, have no shortage of options.
Alexander Wellington is a lecturer in history at Victoria University, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Among the thousands of students beginning classes this week, a surprising few gained admission to their university by analyzing a speech of Barack Obama. They are students at the flagship public institution for engineering and the sciences in France, the Polytechnique. Entrance requires passing nine examinations, including an oral on general culture. In this competitive research environment akin to that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this exam often proves decisive, opening or closing the door for applicants to the Parisian school. This time around, they were tested on the Philadelphia speech of an American presidential candidate, in French.
The oral is a defining ritual in French education. Students must demonstrate in the moment not only their sharp thinking, but their eloquence. Typically they are given the work of statesmen -- Victor Hugo speaking in favor of Italian independence or Jean Jaurès, the fiery socialist who spoke on behalf of striking workers. Or they square off with that of intellectuals who are not French -- Victor Klemperer writing against totalitarian language in Hitler’s Germany. Yet no matter the culture or the historical period of the text on the table, the challenge remains the same. In less than 30 minutes, improvise an argument about a work that they are receiving for the first time, and field questions about it with aplomb. For the class of 2008, why choose Obama’s political writing?
One of the Polytechnique examiners from the University of Paris system, Jean Delabroy, had heard a singular voice when Obama was introduced on French radio some 18 months ago. Like many, he was intrigued by the senator of African descent, and in the heat of the primaries, began reading his speeches that appeared in translation as well as in their original in the major newspapers. Long before Obama became a European jet-setter in Maureen Dowd’s jargon, he represented, in the view of the French press, an orator standing in the line of a classical tradition. While Democrats clamored for him to substantiate his call for change, Delabroy decided that the American’s language, rich and complex, merited explication.
Choosing Obama for this year’s oral was good pedagogy to my colleague, who directs the department of literature, arts, and film at the University of Paris-Diderot. But to me, and I imagined, to many colleagues outside of France, it was an unusual move, and thought-provoking. When he told me about the long days of questioning the students, I wanted to find out why Obama could serve as a model speaker for them.
The choice had everything to do with the strategic force of his public speaking, Delabroy explained. He’s a reflective thinker, an example for Polytechnique candidates of articulating a political position persuasively. The opaque tones of a young voice made his text an even more interesting case.
What exactly did these students discover speaking about Obama’s speech: “Two hundred and twenty one years ago in a hall that still stands across the street”?
Class entwined with race in the day-to-day bargaining of life in America. They thought about Obama describing in one breath the working and middle class, black, brown, and white. They examined the ways he outlined their similar dilemmas: keeping a well-paying job, educating their children, staying healthy. One student was moved to think further about social class, as a mirror blinding many Americans of different racial backgrounds to what they have in common: poverty. In a piece that was quickly named in America “the race speech,” the students in France found Obama puncturing the illusion of a class-free society, confronting the taboo subject of economic inequalities.
In the process, Delabroy their examiner, recognized a public figure who was critical of his own and loyal. He heard someone who did not silence the contradictions that filled the statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but on the contrary sought to understand them even while he judged them severely. Obama spoke, Delabroy discovered, in order to reckon with the conflicted experience of black activists who spoke out in the 60s and 70s, and he did so on behalf of his generation -- of all backgrounds -- and of the next. Obama’s openness was telling: He took on his personal quandary over his former pastor so as to deepen the analysis of the legacies of slavery and immigration. And he spelled out the record to give the electorate choices: how will you respond now to divisions that are so deep-seated?
Delabroy’s understanding was tinged with longing. Today in France, the Left is made up of an old guard called in mock affection, the elephants, and a new one still searching for its voice. It is hard to identify a well-spoken public figure who is grappling with all the repercussions of race.
The surprise of the Polytechnique oral for many outside France is, precisely, the minor importance given race. There is no more current cliché about the French than their difficulty in working through the tangle of race relations. With the rioting of thousands of young men and women of African and Arab descent in over one hundred urban areas during the fall of 2005, the malaise intensified. The official government commemoration of French slaves the following January 2006 could hardly begin to answer the need for a full debate on the question. And the trompe l’oeil of a rainbow coalition in the present government of Nicolas Sarkozy has something perverse about it. The Polytechnique candidates are coming of age in a political era when their minister of justice is a woman of Moroccan and Algerian descent, and the foreign affairs secretary with the human rights portfolio, a Senegalese woman; but it is also a time when the Right has yet to articulate fully a cogent argument about institutionalized barriers limiting the development of young people of color from Martinique to the neighborhoods of Toulouse.
Studying Obama’s Philadelphia speech makes, then, for a timely lesson. It is tempting to imagine these students in France taking his language as an incitement to consider the situations they encounter. How could his analysis of legal discrimination and the contradictions of racist behavior help to advance debate in their country? When the candidate visited Paris for a day in late July, the French-speaking Internet lit up with hopeful queries whether he could show them something more of liberty, equality, fraternity.
This generation in France is primed to analyze clearly and openly their Republic’s original sin of slavery, the social and economic conflict it continues to create. Perhaps it will present a leader capable of addressing the anger over education jeopardized and jobs blocked in towns that burned across France in 2005.
In June, a few Polytechnique students were glad to have had the chance to think through Obama’s speech. They thanked Professor Delabroy for making their oral such a worthwhile exercise.
For those of us on American campuses, the many possible lessons are different, but no less challenging.
As I prepare to go into the classroom again in the battleground state of North Carolina, I wonder, for one, when will we make the political writing of contemporaries abroad a part of our general culture and debate?
Helen Solterer (with Jean Delabroy)
Helen Solterer teaches French literature and culture in the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University. Jean Delabroy teaches literature at the University of Paris-Diderot.
We don’t know how soon it will happen, but it is happening and it will be consummated soon. The commodity of the book, as we have known it for the last few decades, is vanishing and being replaced by new electronic media. Paper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records. The age of the massive emporium bookstore is coming to an end under the crushing, virtual weight of the Internet. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader is doing well and it promises to get better and cheaper in the future. Textbook companies have developed publishing platforms, like www.ichapters.com, for textbooks to be digitally delivered to students through a price-per-chapter system. And worst of all, if you’re a paper-and-binding book lover such as myself, people are reading less paper than before.
In the diverse, mostly Latino first generation student population that I teach, responses to the paper-and-binding book are often mediated by practical economics. A few years ago I assigned Antonio Skármeta’s beautiful, hardcover children’s book about dictatorship, The Composition,to a Latin American literature class. The Spanish edition I assigned cost about $25, which I didn’t consider to be too much, especially because the total cost for all the books in my class was under $70. All but one of the books I assigned were books that I thought were beautiful as artifacts and as stories. These books, I believed, would command students’ minds and hearts to such a degree that students would want to keep them after the class was over. Most of all, Skarmeta’s book, with its color illustrations and poignant lessons about life and death issues was a book that I was excited to teach to my students. When we got to discussing the book in class, several of my students did not have the book, only black and white photocopies because they could not or did not want to buy the book. I felt a strange mix of powerlessness, disappointment and distance. I had conscientiously made my class inexpensive compared to other classes, but it was not inexpensive enough.
Lest you think that this was an isolated situation, a few examples from one of my current classes come to mind. I have one student who has not bought any of the books on the syllabus because he reads the 19th-century classics I have assigned off of the Internet on his laptop, which he brings to class for discussions. Another student has already begun returning the books we’ve read in class so far, after confirming that they would not be covered in the final exam. A third student, a talented and curious young man who arrives to class with an ipod plugged into his ears, is a graduating senior who had never read a novel before my class. They are all bright, responsible and hard-working students but they are not consumers of books. This is also reflected in the reaction that dozens upon dozens of students have had upon entering my office over the years and noticing my 5 or 6 huge bookshelves full of books. They ask: “Have you really read all of these books?” Which sometimes leads to an interesting conversation about my library, in which I explain which parts are my teaching reference and which parts are the books that I’ve read cover to cover.
The fate of the book in the university classroom is impacted by many factors: the use of instructional technology, the economics of textbook publishing and the pedagogical idiosyncrasies of professors, who either promote the disappearance of the paper-and-binding book or try to reinforce its value in the classroom. Let’s look at each one of these factors for a moment. Naturally, in some contexts and disciplines, it is relatively easy to teach a class without books thanks to the wealth of realia and sources on the Web, whether they be freely available, or available through institutionally subscribed databases. In fact, I find great material online and value its role in my courses. I think that we can agree that some material may be best taught off of the Internet.
The economics of textbook publishing is a little bit more complicated and ties in with the surprising choices some faculty members make as teachers. The bottom line is that a lot of textbooks are just too expensive for what you get. There are certain kinds of textbooks, ubiquitous in certain disciplines, that have become monsters of paper and color, a carnival of colored insets and attention-getting graphic design and layout. They are alternately exciting or stupid, but always exhausting. Worst of all, they are dreadfully disposable. The dizzying rate at which one edition substitutes another so that a publisher can make a profit or stay in business makes these books as valuable and as enduring as colored photocopies. This wasteful, pathetic cycle is the best argument for doing away with over-saturated textbooks altogether and going to an online, subscription model.
Other textbooks are more modestly priced and dispense with the graphic fireworks and multiple editions. These thoughtful anthologies or edited volumes are reasonably priced and straddle the border between textbook and stand-alone book. You can see their classroom application immediately but you can also see these books sitting on a public or university library shelf, and yes, even resting on your average reader’s night table. These books are the innovative work of professors, not a corporate marketing team, and are designed for other professors to use in their classes. Although reasonably priced, you would be mistaken to think that all professors value such books. Many professors will spend countless hours putting together elaborate and voluminous course packets of photocopies for classroom use (I used to be one of them). And now, it is more frequent for technologically minded teachers to file-share large numbers of PDFs through password protected sites on campus. This is so wrong it hurts. We are killing our own chances to have readers in the future or be remunerated for the scholarship we do. It’s not only about the modest royalties that faculty authors may or may not receive, it’s about the principle of valuing each other’s scholarship and editorial work. I order good, attractive and useful paper-and-binding books or textbooks for my classes because I want there to be a system in place to support my work as an author and editor in the future.
If the paper and binding book vanishes as a dominant commodity, as it seems to be, maybe the new virtual system of book distribution, reproduction and delivery will allay some of the problems I describe in relation to photocopies and PDFs. It is becoming increasingly easier to put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense. If this wave of the future takes hold and becomes the new standard in textbook publishing, I think it will be good for all parties involved. But what about the paper-and-binding book? Say you are teaching David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and you had a choice between an excellent paper-and-binding edition by a major academic press, with useful footnotes and front matter, and an electronic edition that students could download to their handy e-book readers, along with selected secondary articles you have selected for them to read? What if their e-book readers had a stylus and/or a network that enabled the class to annotate those assigned texts, and share them over the class network? I don’t think anyone’s nostalgia for paper-and-binding can replace the pedagogical value of my not-so-fanciful or far-fetched e-book scenario.
And yet I am sad about the fading of the paper-and-binding book and I am not going into the good night without putting up a good fight. I am committed to making the cost of my assigned books affordable. I order my books with care and I try to use them in their entirety, so that students get affordable books that are actually used in the class. This does not mean that I limit myself. I do use the occasional supplement (or two or three) and I share with my classes my disagreements with the books or textbooks that I am using. I continue to pick books that I believe are worth keeping and treasuring, both for the words they contain and for their tactile beauty as works of art and design. I want the books that my students hold in their hands to have the heft of what is important and of what is beautiful. I want that student who never read a novel before my class to value the physicality of the reading a paper-and-binding book. This endangered act, after all, will connect him to a centuries-old, vanishing tradition that has touched the lives of millions and altered the course of history on many occasions. That’s just too good to pass up.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and faculty co-chair of the University of Texas Arlington One Book Reading Program. He is currently editing a book designed for classroom use that will be very reasonably priced.
My fantasy is that I pick up a novel or story in Russian and I don’t realize I’m reading Russian. I smile, full of the story, excited and exhilarated as I turn the pages, and it’s only when I set the book down that I notice it’s not in English.
Another fantasy is that after walking over from the college where I teach in Brooklyn, I’m waiting for the train at the subway stop in Brighton Beach, and two Russians are sitting on the bench discussing Dostoyevsky, and I, ignored by them as I sit down, throw in a comment in Russian, and they, in disbelief, as if a kid has walked onto a baseball diamond and lined a fastball from Roger Clemens off the fence, throw me questions at the same time, and I respond in perfect colloquial Russian. We continue discussing Russian literature.
In real life, I have been studying Russian on my own, every day, for the past year and a half. What works for me is reading stories and scenes I already know very well in English. My literary divinity Tolstoy said the best way to learn a language was to pick up your favorite book and start reading it in that other language. (He used the Bible; I used my bible, Anna Karenina.)
In St. Petersburg last winter I bought a Russian-language CD of Chekhov’s stories and I listened to an actor read “Dama s sabatchkoi” (Lady with Little-Dog) about 20 times. Sometimes I looked at the text as he read. He elided words and sounds that I never would have guessed could be elided. His pronunciations and emphases were little like the ones I managed as I read it aloud to myself.
I read the opening chapter of Anna Karenina and I divined many words. But there they were, in Russian! How delightful! It’s the difference between seeing a painting in a book and seeing its original hanging on a wall. Well, there it is! You can’t get any closer than that!
I studied every day, wandering, doing what I felt like doing. When I didn’t want to read, I listened, and I told myself I needed to listen. I listened to vocabulary tapes, grammar tapes, spoken-word recordings of Chekhov and Pushkin. I listened to Lev Tolstoy himself on a Web site.Bozhe moi! There he is!
I did anything that seemed easy. I avoided the grammar, trusting myself to pick it up as I needed.
Then one late night, when I was visiting St. Petersburg and I couldn’t sleep, and I retreated to the hotel lobby to read a biography of Pushkin lest I wake up my roommate, a friendly woman sat down on an adjoining couch and volleyed my bad Russian with her bad English, and we worked out a classroom-like conversation about the weather, education, sports, music. After I declined her invitation to a massage to help me relax, and we said our do svidanyas, she advised me, kindly: “Nuzhno pravila.” (“Grammar is needed.”)
Yes, it is.
And that’s what my Russian-speaking friends tell me. Rules are necessary.
But then I wouldn’t flow with the rhythm of my interests and desires. I resist. I take the easiest route. I take the road that beckons me. And yet, having it all my own way, avoiding the dictionary (I sometimes go days without checking a dictionary, telling myself that, well, I’ll just look for the words I know or can figure out from context), avoiding any method, I find myself in the same boat as many of my students.
I remember last fall my student Irina, who came to the United States two years before and who’s my age, saying, “My English … shame!”
“I feel ashamed of my English.”
“Shame of my English.”
“Yes, a-shamed. Ashamed.”
How ashamed I was thinking of my Russian!
But how happy I am with my students who plunge ahead, never faint-hearted, making lots of mistakes. How well some of them write in spite of the incorrect grammar, in spite of the limited vocabulary — how fresh some of their descriptions. They have to describe what they see without any pre-mixed colors and scarcely any canned language. How I admire them, how much I admire, for example, Lingtong! She came here at 16 from the south of China, without any English, and she threw herself into learning the language from her teachers, from her books, from experience on the job. How well she speaks, how hard she continues to pick up refinements in idioms (her grammatical mistakes are those of native New Yorkers).
And yet preying on me so much of the time — I feel it and it shows up in my journal entries about my Russian — is the shame of not knowing anything. Besides it not being very becoming of me, besides it contradicting my feeling about my own ESL students (that they have nothing to be ashamed of, that they are climbing a mountain, that they are doing something extremely difficult), I continue to complain of and feel ashamed of my lack of knowledge of Russian. On the other hand, I really am proud to have learned so much on my own. I am proud of figuring things out about the grammar simply from reading from Anna Karenina and “Lady with Little-Dog” and knowing that this belongs to that, and he (the character) would not say that, so maybe it’s this, and how this must be an object and this an adjective.
Of course through my self-teaching I’m understanding better the agony of some of my students, how Irina would turn to her compatriot Sofiya with a look of panic on her face, and how she and some of my Chinese-born students watch my mouth for clues — sometimes, a moment later, repeating or mouthing my phrasing; wincing, lost, some of them eager to be asked the very question they know how to answer, but no other question! The complaints about synonyms! Why? Why are there two words for this? Well, I explain, there are three. My Chinese-born students complaining about my correction of words they looked up! “Is right! — Why not right, Professor?”
“It’s right, but there are other words that are better — that mean just what you mean, but don’t mean the other things anybody would think of before that. It’s ambiguous.”
Russian students know that word.
The hopelessness of learning a new language.
I realize that it’s good my students hear their writing out loud. I like my short assignments where they write an anecdote or a poem and I collect them and read them all aloud. Under pressure of time, yet free of the pressure that it has to be an essay or good or finished, they write with the words they have. They work with the tenses they have.
As for reading, it is so hard! And of course it’s good that they read a conversational voice. Langston Hughes’s "Simple" stories, for instance, have voice in the narration and lots of dialogue. My students get the humor. I wonder what humor I could possibly understand in Russian. I have read with feeling the passages where both Annas (in both Anna Karenina and “Lady with Little-Dog”) break down in tears. I have been refortified by remembering the significance that Irina attached to her breaking down in tears while reading in her education course Torey Hayden’s One Child. So I know that my ESL students are way ahead of me, but that they were all where I am now. That makes me hopeful that I will eventually reach their fluency.
But I will never, unless I change my personality, have Russian the way Lingtong has English.
I imagine myself visiting Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, next summer, and I will be or feel humiliated. But look how far I’ve come! Look how far! That will be running through my head in my humiliation. We are not humiliated by what we’ve fallen to, but by what we are striving to attain.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
When the young François-Marie Arouet was a student at the Jesuit collège Louis-le-Grand in 18th-century Paris, he spent many of his classroom hours studying Latin, along with a little ancient Greek. Had he ventured over to the nearby Collège Royal, today the Collège de France, he could have also taken lessons in Hebrew, Arabic, or Syriac. During a subsequent two-year stay in England, Arouet made it a priority to learn English; he would later pick up Italian. Upon his return, he published the Letters Concerning the English Nation (subsequently renamed the Lettres philosophiques), a founding text of the French Enlightenment, which established its author’s reputation as the philosophe called Voltaire.
As any foreign language instructor knows well, the study of languages alone does not a genius make. But it is easy to forget today the central place that language instruction once occupied in humanist curricula. Tradition is an insufficient argument for the continuation of past practices, yet at a time when foreign language requirements are embarrassingly minimal, and enrollment in foreign language courses (with the exception of Arabic and Chinese) are largely below their 1960-80’s levels, the critical importance of knowing more than one language cannot be stressed enough – particularly as the recession has led some universities to further reduce their language requirements, substitute classroom instruction with online courses, or even to close some language departments entirely.
Not wishing to be overly alarmist, I would nonetheless submit that the very future of liberal education depends on our students’ ability to becomeproficient in more than one language. Monolingual students will struggle to achieve the critical distance that foreign languages provide from their culture, history, language, and even their own thoughts.
The arguments for studying languages are legion. Many have noted the lasting importance of speaking more than just English for business ventures and other international professions. There are geopolitical reasons to study languages, as well: if we can’t speak Arabic, Russian, Urdu, or Chinese, we have little chance of engaging effectively with large segments of the world. And if English has become the lingua franca of science, this is far from being the case in the humanities or social sciences. By reading only scholarship in a single language, students (and dare I say some faculty?) are missing out on a wide array of arguments and experience. Hence, the grudging recognition that foreign language requirements must be more strenuously enforced for graduate students in Anglophone humanities departments.
Most of these arguments emphasize the utilitarian advantages of foreign language acquisition, stressing the “cultural skills” and “linguistic proficiency” that it conveys. In most cases, however, such intellectual strengths do not translate as directly into professional or civic achievements as, say, writing composition or American history. Sadly, one of the reasons so many articles — present company included — continue to be written in defense of foreign language instruction is that it is an uphill battle: as a recent study by the American Council on Education found, “fewer than one in five” American universities and colleges have “a foreign-language requirement for all undergraduates.” At my own institution, Stanford University, students are only required to fulfill one year of instruction: Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, recently told the Chronicle that this is “like taking one year of piano lessons or math. It’s just not enough to give you all the immersion that you would need to get some lasting and significant benefit.”
In an ideal world, of course, students would learn a foreign language well before they arrived at college, back in elementary school, when their minds were stillwired for language processing. There is admittedly something remedial about obliging undergraduates to learn a foreign language. But then again, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to teach them composition skills, either, yet we recognize that their high school training is often sub par in this domain. While it is debatable exactly how much language instruction is needed to acquire “some lasting and significant benefit” — and the amount of time will vary from language to language — it is generally accepted that at the very least four semesters of study are necessary to acquire intermediate-level proficiency in a cognate language (as opposed to, say, a non-Western language).
“Proficiency,” here, is a bit of a misnomer, since professional language programs require the equivalent of 10 semesters (720 hours) to obtain high-level language proficiency. After two years of language study, by contrast, students are merely expected to understand “short routine telephone conversations and some deliberate speech, such as simple announcements and reports over the media,” as well as “short, straightforward descriptions of persons, places, and things written for a wide audience,” according to ACTFL guidelines. That said, immersion programs, such as those offered at Middlebury College, can speed acquisition up considerably, as can well-designed study abroad programs (unfortunately, as I argue below, such programs rarely fulfill their mission). There are creative ways, in other words, to help students assimilate foreign languages. But token requirements — say, anything less than two years — are simply nowhere near good enough.
If humanists wish to make a stronger case to cash-strapped administrators and credit-hungry science and engineering chairs for the essential importance of foreign language instruction, we need to move beyond purely utilitarian rationales. The vast majority of presidents, provosts, deans, and professors recognize that American higher education is more than professional school, and not simply a matter of transmitting skill-sets to our students. We have a tradition of liberal education in this country that has served our students well, not only with respect to our civic culture, but arguably also to our economy.
Attempts to define the core ambitions of a liberal education, however, often lapse into rather nebulous statements about “social responsibility.” These are good, noble ambitions, to be sure. But what do they really mean? Instead of consulting think-tank reports, we might be better off turning to more classical authorities on the subject. And no author better described the stakes of liberal education than Montaigne. The core value of an education, for Montaigne (as he wrote in “De l’institution des enfants”), was not so much knowledge, as the ability to question knowledge. We must learn to challenge all authorities, and let nothing be retained “par simple autorité et à crédit” (“merely on authority and credit”). It is far better to remain uncertain than set in one’s ways, since “il n’y a que les fols certains et résolus” (“only idiots are convinced and resolute”). Hence, Montaigne’s famous conclusion, in fact expressed a propos of the ideal tutor: “plutôt la tête bien faite que bien pleine” (“better a well-molded than a filled mind”).
Of course, in order to doubt the well-established beliefs of others one has to acquire a fair amount of knowledge oneself: otherwise, there would be no point of comparison. Reading and studying were key resources in this regard, but Montaigne placed particular emphasis on travel. Students must go abroad, not simply to see the sights, but to “frotter et limer notre cervelle contre celle d’autrui” (“to rub and sharpen our minds against others”). Only by seeing the world from a different cultural angle can we obtain the critical distance necessary to raise a skeptical eyebrow at hallowed truths back home.
Study abroad has become a linchpin of many undergraduate curricula in the country today: at least one college has even made it mandatory. Yet without sufficient foreign language instruction, such trips are often mere simulacra of cultural exchanges. Many of my students have complained that for some of their classmates, the prime objective of their study-abroad quarter was, “Hey, let’s go hang out in a McDonald’s with other American students – in Paris!” Conversely, when students spend a quarter or year abroad with actual linguistic proficiency, it can be a truly transformative experience. One of my students lived with a comte and his family in Paris; she was even invited to his countryside château. This was not just a fairytale story, however: she witnessed how obsessed her foster-siblings were with French aristocratic genealogies, to the point of highlighting eligible mates in a book on pedigreed families. No history lesson could have conveyed so much knowledge about the French past, or provided such a contrast with American culture.
Even students who are unable to study abroad gain many of its advantages by learning a foreign language and culture in school. Indeed, language instruction has evolved considerably from the dismal days of “language labs” and repetitive exercises. Today’s language instructors seek to impart cultural, as well as linguistic, proficiency, and introduce essays, movies, magazine articles, and literature into the classroom. With two years of language instruction under their belts, students can readily move on to upper-level culture and literature classes, reading and discussing texts in their original language, or bring their unique perspective to philosophy, political theory, international relations, history, and other humanities fields.
Most importantly, however, such linguistic and cultural proficiency is an antidote to the intellectual provincialism that is often the result of a monolingual education. Some might say that reading works in translation can provide students with a similar cosmopolitan perspective. But in addition to the fact that only a fraction of important texts are translated into English (and only a tiny fraction of scholarly studies), it is an illusion to assume that translations offer an identical experience of other cultures. Many students read The Stranger in English, but miss Camus’ jarring use of the oral passé composé, rather than the more literary passé simple, in the opening pages. The sway of Pushkin’s poetry over Russian speakers only becomes apparent when one hears its incantatory assonances. Experiencing a foreign culture in translation is like watching the movie version of a novel: the basic elements are recognizable, but the richness of detail is gone.
In another founding text of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu staged an encounter between a Parisian, representing the nec plus ultra of civility and civilization in the eighteenth century, and a visiting Persian. “How can one possibly be Persian?” asks the Frenchman. His question was a mirror held up to his readers, yet we, too, must look at our reflection. How many of our students can imagine not being American? If they can’t, then we must recognize that we have failed to provide them with a genuine liberal education.
Scattered through the Modern Language Association’s 2009 convention were telling sessions devoted to the state of higher education. Compelling testimony was offered in small and sometimes crowded rooms about the loss of long-term central features of the discipline, from foreign language study to graduate student support to tenure track jobs for new Ph.D.'s. In many respects, the MLA’s annual meeting is more responsive to higher education’s grave crisis than the other humanities and social science disciplines that should also be part of the conversation, from anthropology to classics to history and sociology. There are simply more MLA sessions dealing with such issues than there are at other disciplinary meetings. Yet there was also throughout the MLA convention a strong sense of irrelevant business as usual, in the form of innumerable sessions devoted to traditional scholarship. There is a certain poignancy to the orchestra playing Mozart while the Titanic slips beneath the waves: We who are about to die salute our traditional high cultural commitments.
Of course we should sustain the values and the ongoing research that make humanities disciplines what they are. But the point is that the ship does not have to go down. There is action to be taken, work to be done, organizing and educating to do when faculty members and graduate students come together from around the country. Disciplinary organizations thus need to revise their priorities to confront what is proving to be a multi-year recession in higher education. As I argue in No University Is an Island, the recession is prompting destructive changes in governance, faculty status, and educational mission that will long outlast the current crisis. Because MLA’s members are already talking about these matters in scattered ways, it is time for the organization to take the lead in revising the format of its annual meeting to address the state of higher education -- and prepare its members to be effective agents -- in a much more focused, visible, and productive way. Then perhaps other disciplines will follow.
A generation ago, when the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus sought to reform the organization, it circulated several posters at annual meetings. Most telling, I thought, was a photograph of the Titanic, captioned “Are you enjoying your assistant-ship?” It was no easy task back then convincing the average tenured MLA member that the large waves towering over our lifeboats would not be good for surfing. Now the average college teacher is no longer eligible for tenure, and the good ship humanities is already partly under water.
The MLA’s response to a changing profession was to increase the number and variety of sessions, to give convention space to both fantasy and reality. The MLA would cease to be exclusively a platform for privilege. The organization would become a big tent. Unfortunately, the big tent is looking more like a shroud. The humanities are drowning. It is time to rethink the annual meeting to make it serve a threatened profession’s needs.
Until we can secure the future of higher education, we need to be substantially focused on money and power. That, I would argue, should be the theme of the 2010 annual meeting, and the structure of the meeting should be revised to reflect that focus. Instead of simply offering incoherent variety, the MLA should emphasize large meetings on the current crisis and its implications. And I do not mean simply paper presentations, telling as local testimony can be.
Disciplinary organizations need to offer substantial training sessions -- typically running several hours each and perhaps returning for additional sessions over two or three days -- that teach their members the fundamentals of financial analysis and strategies for organizing resistance. The AAUP, for example, teaches summer workshops each year that show faculty members the difference between budgets, which are fundamentally planning documents riddled with assumptions, and financial statements, which report actual expenditures for the previous year. We work not with hypothetical budgets but with examples from a dozen universities. Attendees learn that there are virtually always pots of money not listed on a university budget at all. A budget, MLA members will benefit from learning, is essentially a narrative. It can and should be deconstructed. I expect the AAUP would be willing and able to conduct such training sessions at disciplinary meetings. Indeed we already have the PowerPoint presentations and detailed handouts we would need. We have faculty members who specialize in analyzing university finances ready to serve the MLA and other disciplinary organizations.
The AAUP could also join with the AFT and the NEA to offer workshops in the fundamentals of collective bargaining, explaining how faculty and graduate employees at a given school can create a union that meets their distinctive institutional needs and embodies their core values. We can stage scenarios that give faculty members and graduate student activists experience in negotiating contracts. And the MLA should schedule large sessions that help faculty in places where collective bargaining is impossible, to recognize that organizing to have influence over budget decisions and institutional priorities is also possible without a union. The organization should also invite the California Faculty Association to conduct a large workshop on ways to reach out to students, parents, alumni, and other citizens and rebuild public support for higher education. CFA has been running a terrific campaign toward that end. The point is to empower faculty members to be the equals, not the victims, of campus administrators.
I am urging an annual MLA meeting that promotes not only literary studies but also material empowerment, that equips the members of the profession with the skills they need to preserve an appropriate environment for teaching and research. If the MLA takes the lead in reshaping its annual meeting this way, other disciplines will follow.
I felt the need to get away, even as the pile of student papers I had to grade slowly dwindled. With final grades submitted, I still felt the impulse. I resisted as well as I could, but something within nagged me.
I considered a spiritual retreat, one to recharge and rest after a busy, even frenzied, semester. I had worked at three campuses, two writing centers, one community center. I did freelance writing. I’m not a workaholic, just a teacher trying to make ends meet. These days, it’s getting harder.
Catholic, Buddhist, ecumenical -- the retreat path did not matter. But calling and surfing for such a place, I found it was too late. Everything was filled. There was only one possibility -- in the twisting hills of Arkansas. I would have to bring my own food and get transportation from a distant airport. I appreciated the offer but felt too tired. Maybe in spring...
Then I had another thought. A whim. Just ninety minutes away, if I could get a direct flight… Could I?
I joined the Modern Language Association after 30 years in academia and flew to Philadelphia for the 2009 conference, tantalized by conference titles I had only read about before and noticing more than a few that dealt with the ups and downs of academia that I not only know but are etched on my heart. Student assistant, secretary, graduate assistant, writer/editor, teacher…
Although I was just beginning to recite poems when some of the long-term veterans joined, I’ve chalked up my flight miles in the classroom. If I had a banner across my chest like the Girl Scouts used to wear, I’d have badges for adjuncting at up to four institutions at a time, loving words, and being midwife, doula, mother to students in the classroom. A former boss called me a composition worker. Some people think people in my line of work are exploited. I call myself a professional muse.
Maybe going to a professional conference does not seem like a big deal to some. For some, it’s draining. For others, routine. For still others, a dreaded initiation or the key to a job.
I remember sitting behind my desk as a secretary in an English department in the early 1980s, hearing that people interviewed at MLA.
Over winter holidays? I thought. How strange.
“How did you like the meat market?” said a friend, hearing I had been there.
Actually, I didn’t even pack anything formal to wear. I went just to learn. Without expectation, I found myself transported back to a joy I have not felt since my undergraduate years.
“Yes, undergrad is a carefree time,” a colleague said upon patiently listening to my post-conference euphoria.
Actually, for me the undergraduate years were also full of care. But in tough times, it’s literature, art, music, drama that gives me hope, words, perspective.
“You know, those conference titles are often obscure, even ridiculed,” said another friend.
Well, I loved the sessions. Translation and Kafka. Awesome Yiddish. When will I be near Yiddish scholars again? Why study literature? Packed. Langston Hughes. Well worth the trip. Hurston screening. Couldn’t squeeze in. And others…
I’m old enough to feel like a mother to some of the presenters. And I’ve been to other conferences; I have one foot in English, one in counseling, and one in journalism. How is this possible with two feet? I keep shifting my stance, my focus, my efforts. In a world thought to be increasingly interdisciplinary, perhaps I can create a new dance. MLA, for me, was an imaginative leap. I am glad I took it.
Books, stories, and poems have added meaning to my life since I was a little girl. I was imaginative, as kids are – maybe beyond imaginative into the quirky. I “became” Cinderella and Snow White, responding not to my own name, but to the name of the character of the week. I learned French in an innovative, public elementary school and my parents spoke German. Whitman and Golding were among my beacons in junior high, with words I couldn’t utter but could understand. I devoured “the classics” my much older sisters brought home from their demanding high school. A sonnet by Shakespeare and a poem by Millay provided solace through very dark times as a teenager.
My heart further opened to and through the humanities as an undergraduate English major, even with a foot in psychology and another in other interests. I have not changed that much.
The humanities gave me some range to explore, and I majored in English for several reasons. Philosophy had beckoned, but one day I asked a question in a philosophy class and was told “that’s a question for an English class.”
In English class a few months later, a question I asked about what I now know was the teacher’s formalist analysis of The Scarlet Letter yielded an even harsher response from a teacher.
“Do you think the unexamined life is worth living?”
Teachers have bad days.
That teacher, like most of my mentors from school, is deceased now. With the strange quirks of fate, right before I began graduate school (in English), my path crossed his. “Of course I remember you,” he said. “You were the best student I ever had.”
I negotiated my way through the canon in graduate school in English, in a world before composition and rhetoric, but devising my own intuitions about the teaching of writing, and teaching writing, and beginning a career as a writer and editor.
I considered comparative literature studies in graduate school but thought that English was more -- I almost can’t type it out -- practical.
Fate landed me in a hotel room in the Loews in Philadelphia, where many of the modern language sessions were held. Just riding the elevator was fun. People entered and exited, speaking many languages.
Across the street was the Marriott and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where many English sessions were held. I jaywalked with abandon, with absolute certainty that here on this side or there on that side was where I needed to be.
This jaywalking is a metaphor for my life; as the daughter of immigrants who struggled with English, I sometimes struggle with words, too. Why else would I strive to become a writer?
In my home town, I don’t jaywalk. But what is travel to a professional conference if not an expansion of boundaries?
I befriended three women by chance, each with Ph.D.'s and following different, intriguing, winding career paths.
One had been a high school teacher for 15 years and had also taught on Indian reservations and in China.
Another, formerly on the tenure track, was derailed and maintains energetic writing and teaching.
A third, originally from China, turned out to be a presenter.
As is my wont, I asked questions of everyone I met, no matter whether scrunched in a shuttle or in an elevator. Mainly I asked, “Are you enjoying your sessions?” “Did you get what you came for?” My response to one question from a man in a uniform covered by an overcoat was a gentle, “I work here.”
Enough of my questions. MLA for me was an immersion experience, a cross-cultural journey. The academic paper sessions I attended were mind-stretching. Translation was an echoing theme, and what could be more apropos as the academe struggles to define and express itself in difficult economic times. The sessions on the state of affairs in academe reassured me that I am not alone. And the session on writing teachers who write reassured me that I am on a valid path.
I also learned, among other things, that some people perceive rifts in the MLA. Other languages over there, English over here. Full-time issues there, part-time here. Writing here, literature there.
“I don’t know if I’ll come back,” one new friend said. “Some of this feels elitist.”
If so, that is a shame. What more powerful bridge between human differences than the humanities?
I had the good fortune of encountering people, at random, who attended sessions I wanted to make but couldn’t. On two-year colleges. On analyzing “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop. On standings of academic journals. Even my missteps seemed well-orchestrated.
I ate energy bars, instant oatmeal, salmon at a French restaurant, a side of mashed potatoes for a meal, a meal in Chinatown courtesy of a spontaneous Philadelphia friend. I am too shy for cash bars, so I drank cups of tea and coffee in my room.
I’ll be paying off the trip for a while. But it was worth it.
In the three decades that seem like three days that I have spent in academia, I was a student assistant in a college of education, secretary in an English department, a graduate assistant, a publications writer, a liaison with the news media, an adjunct lecturer in three departments at one school, a teacher without walls (adjunct) at four other schools.
In this economy, I won’t be retiring or stopping learning any time soon.
When I told my teenage son I planned to go to the conference, I asked him if he knew what MLA is.
“Those are the people that make the rules I use when I have to write a paper.”
When I have taught documentation in the classroom, MLA or APA, depending on the course, I typically have pointed out that scholars in these groups are not strictly documentation experts, but explorers, researchers, lovers of learning.
Finally, I have decided to count myself among them, even if all I did was sign up.
One new friend was, to my surprise, a presenter. We shared costs of our hotel the last day. She approached me as I indulged my habit honed in a pre-ecological, pre-Internet era. I was seeking out fliers. She offered that we share costs. Why not, I thought.
I had a room with two beds. I rushed across the street again to clear off my avalanche of paper. I had the joy of listening to part of her paper the night before. And, attending her session, by sheer chance. I got a stunning view of Philadelphia from the 33rd floor.
Returning to Cleveland was, of course, a descent. And the stacks of papers are piling up again.… It’s just a few weeks after, and I’m still walking around in post-conference delirium.
Few believe me when I say there is hope for the humanities. There has to be. The most difficult times in my life, the more I have needed books, art, music, drama. I have seen the value of humanities study for students of all ages, at colleges private and public, large and small. My memoir students, some in their eighth decade of life, still turn to the written and electronic word for solace, support, and inspiration.
What did I leave behind? My wide-tooth comb and fliers I could not stuff in my carry-on. That’s all right. It’s hat weather in Cleveland -- and there’s always the Internet.
Maria Shine Stewart
Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.
In a recent New York Review article on Byron, Harold Bloom makes the following passing remark: “In the two centuries since Byron died in Greece [...] only Shakespeare has been translated and read more, first on the Continent and then worldwide.” Bloom does not cite any statistics, and one cannot help but wonder: Really? More than Homer and Dante, or, among the moderns, more than Sartre and Thomas Mann? Of course, what Bloom really means is that Byron was translated and read more than any other English writer, and he may well be correct on that count. Yet this omission is telling, as it highlights an unfortunate tendency (recently diagnosed by David Damrosch) among certain English professors to equate literature in general with literature written in English. This disciplinary bias, less prejudice than habit, can distort their scholarship – the authors that they admire tend to be far more catholic in their reading. But this pattern also raises a larger academic question: Why do we still partition the literary canon according to nationalist traditions? Is this really the most intellectually satisfying and authentic approach to literary studies?
For an example of how disciplinary blinders can affect scholars as well-read as Bloom, we need only turn back to his article, where we find Byron described as “the eternal archetype of the celebrity, the Napoleon of the realms of rhyme... the still unique celebrity of the modern world.” What such hyperbole masks is the fact that the model for such literary celebrity is in reality to be located in another author, who unfortunately did not have the good sense to be born in England. Indeed, anyone familiar with the inordinate fame of Jean-Jacques Rousseau knows that he was the first genuine literary celebrity, lionized and sought out across Europe, much to his growing despair and paranoia (as this brilliant study by the historian Antoine Lilti details). Byron himself was smitten by Rousseau, touring the Lac Léman with his friend Shelley to visit the sites from Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. Rousseau may not have provided his public with the same devilish scandals as the naughty Lord, but his Confessions, with their admission of a fondness for spankings and exhibitionism, were sultry enough.
Bloom is certainly no provincial, and his own, published version of The Western Canon includes German, Spanish, French, and Italian works – although this canon, too, is heavily tilted toward English authors. But can this be avoided? No doubt French scholars would produce a version of the canon equally tilted toward the French, just as scholars from other nations would privilege their own authors. To an extent, this literary patriotism is normal and understandable: every culture values its heritage, and will expend more energy and resources promoting it.
From the viewpoint of literary history, however, such patriotism is also intellectually wrongheaded. To be sure, writers are often marked most strongly by their compatriots: one must read Dante to understand Boccacio, Corneille to understand Racine, or, as Bloom would have us believe, Whitman to understand T. S. Eliot. But such a vertical reading of literature (which Bloom himself mapped out in The Anxiety of Influence) overlooks the equally – sometimes far more – important horizontal ties that connect authors across national borders. T. S. Eliot may have been “hopelessly evasive about Whitman while endlessly revising him in [his] own major poems,” yet by Eliot’s own admission, the French school of symbolist poetry had a far greater impact on his work. Some of Eliot’s first published poems, in fact, were written in French. Conversely, the French novelist Claude Simon may have endlessly revised Proust, but his own major novels – such as La route des Flandres and L’herbe – owe far more to William Faulkner. Such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum: they are, in fact, the stuff that literary history is made of.
To this criticism, English professors have a ready-made answer: Go study comparative literature! But they have only half a point. Comp lit programs are designed to give students a great deal of flexibility: their degrees may impose quotas for number of courses taken in foreign language departments, but rarely, if ever, do comp lit programs build curricular requirements around literary history. Yet that is precisely the point: Students wishing to study English Romanticism ought to have more than Wikipedia-level knowledge about German Idealist philosophy and Romantic poetry; students interested in the 18th-century English novel should be familiar with the Spanish picaresque tradition; and so on and so forth. Comp lit alone cannot break down the walls of literary protectionism.
The fact that we even have comp lit departments reveals our ingrained belief that “comparing” literary works or traditions is merely optional. Despite Bloom’s own defense of a “Western canon,” such a thing no longer exists for most academics. This is not because the feminists, post-colonialists, or post-modernists managed to deconstruct it, but rather because our institutions for literary studies have gerrymandered the canon, department by department. Is it not shocking that students can major in English at many colleges without ever having read a single book written in a foreign language? Even in translation? (Consider, by contrast, that history majors, even those desirous to only study the American Revolution, are routinely required to take courses on Asian, African, and/or European history, in many different time periods, to boot.) Given that English is the natural home for literary-minded students who are not proficient in another language, it is depressing that they can graduate from college with the implicit assumption that literature is the prerogative of the English-speaking peoples, an habeas corpus of the arts.
But wait a minute: how dare I criticize English curriculums for not including foreign works, when the major granted by my own department, French, is not exactly brimming with German, Russian, or Arabic texts, either? To the extent that French (or any other foreign language) is a literature major, this point is well taken. But there are differences, too. First, it is far more likely that our students will have read and studied English literature at some point in high school and college. They will thus already have had some exposure, at least, to another national canon. Second, and more importantly, a French, Spanish, or Chinese major is more than a literature major: it is to no small degree a foreign language major, meaning that the students must master an entire other set of linguistic skills. Finally, language departments are increasingly headed toward area studies. German departments routinely offer classes on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, none of whom are technically literary authors. Foreign language departments are sometimes the only places in a university where once-important scholarly traditions can still be studied: Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques probably features on reading exam lists more often in French than in anthropology departments. A model for such an interdisciplinary department already exists in Classics.
I do not wish to suggest that English professors are to blame for the Anglicization of literature in American universities: they reside, after all, in English departments, and can hardly be expected to teach courses on Russian writers. The larger problem is institutional, as well as methodological. But it bears emphasizing that this problem does not only affect undergraduates, and can lead to serious provincialism in the realm of research, as well. An English doctoral student who works on the Enlightenment once openly confessed to me that she had not read a single French text from that period. No Montesquieu, no Voltaire, no Rousseau, no Diderot, rien. Sadly, this tendency does not seem restricted to graduate students, either.
Literary scholars are not blind to this problem: a decade ago, Franco Moretti challenged his colleagues to study “world literature” rather than local, national, or comparative literatures. He also outlined the obvious difficulty: “I work on West European narrative between 1790 and 1930, and already feel like a charlatan outside of Britain or France. World literature?” While the study of world literature presents an opportunity for innovative methodologies (some of which were surveyed in a recent issue of New Literary History), students already struggling to master a single national literary history will no doubt find such global ambitions overwhelming.
What, then, is to be done? Rearranging the academic order of knowledge can be a revolutionary undertaking, in which ideals get trampled in administrative terror. And prescribing a dose of world literature may ultimately be too strong a medicine for the malady that ails literary studies, particularly at the undergraduate level. In fact, a number of smaller measures might improve matters considerably. To begin with, literature professors could make a greater effort to incorporate works from other national literatures in their courses. Where the funds are available, professors from neighboring literature departments could team-teach such hybrid reading lists. Second, language and literature majors could also require that a number of courses be taken in two or three other literature departments. A model for this arrangement already exists at Stanford, where the English department recently launched an “English Literature and Foreign Language Literature” major, which includes “a coherent program of four courses in the foreign literature, read in the original.” To fulfill this last condition, of course, colleges would have to become more serious about their foreign-language requirements. Finally, literature students would be better served if colleges and universities offered a literature major, as is notably the case at Yale, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Cruz. Within this field of study, students could specialize in a particular period, genre, author, or even language, all the while taking into account the larger international or even global context.
Will such measures suffice to pull down the iron curtain dividing the literary past? Unless they manage to infiltrate the scholarly mindset of national-literature professors, probably not. Then again, as many of us know firsthand, teaching often does transform (or at least inform) our research interests. A case could of course be made for more radical measures, such as the fusion of English and foreign language departments into a single “Literature Department,” as exists at UC San Diego. But enacting this sort of bureaucratic coup carries a steep intellectual (not to mention political) price. It would be unfortunate, for instance, to inhibit foreign literature departments from developing their area-studies breadth, and from building bridges with philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, political science, and international relations. English departments, moreover, are developing in similar, centrifugal directions: in addition to teaching their own majors, English departments contribute more widely to the instruction of writing (including creative writing), and have their own ties with Linguistics and Communications departments. This existing segmentation of the university may appear messy, but has the benefit of preventing new walls from being erected, this time between neighboring disciplines.
Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.