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In the age of Google Translate and ChatGPT, one might reasonably ask what the goal of learning foreign languages is. After all, artificial intelligence is more than capable of getting most messages across, typo-free and complete with flawless grammar and punctuation. Why put ourselves and our students through the tedium of verb endings, endless pronouns and the often-stultifying niceties of syntax?

I—and my colleagues—would argue that what we teach is not just the vocabulary or rules of a particular language, but the tools of intellectual humility and cultural exchange. The act of translating requires awareness of and curiosity about a plurality of perspectives, as well as a recognition of the limitations of one’s own knowledge: each word of a foreign language brings with it a wealth of nuance that is, simply, impossible to capture in any one translation. It demands that its practitioners set aside their preconceived notions and the idea that there is any one right answer, requiring instead curiosity and an open-minded desire for understanding. What practice could be more important for a world rife with division and short on the ability to listen?

How devastating, then, that the very institutions best positioned to teach not only these tools but the urgency of their implementation are giving up on a sacred mission in the face of capitalist imperatives. Last month, the administration of my own institution, the University of San Francisco, made a unilateral decision to cut four language programs—Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Portuguese—effective this fall (the administration has since publicly indicated that faculty members are working on possible ways to continue Hebrew instruction through philanthropic funding).

What we as educators do is to open and facilitate productive debate, not close it off. Much ink has recently been spilled about the silencing of unwelcome opinions on both sides of the political debate—an artificial construct of the aggressive “woke” left versus the anti-intellectual, ultraconservative right. This is the translation challenge of our time: to find a precise vocabulary with which to come together and identify our common values as a bedrock for future progress.

The great irony of this situation is that USF is a Jesuit institution, a university built on the premise of shepherding the Ignatian tradition of social justice and intellectual inquiry in an evolving world. This is itself an act of translation, in which, as a community, USF continually rethinks the values of the past for the needs of the present and future. By shutting down these language programs, USF not only denies its students the opportunity to learn and grow through the study of other cultures, but also fails to recognize the symbolic importance of linguistic inclusion. To take but one example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for decades, a conflict in which translation between Hebrew and Arabic takes center stage. Meanwhile, antisemitism and manifold racism is on the rise across institutions of higher education. By cutting off the study of the languages involved, USF is—intentionally or not—making a statement about what it values in terms of social justice. I am not equipped to weigh in on the larger political issues, but what I do know is that, in sacrificing languages, we irretrievably lose the ability to approach daunting and urgent problems with full awareness of their nuance and meaning.

As anyone who studies languages well knows, some words, phrases and concepts are, simply, untranslatable. One need look no further than the example of a foreign graduate student surprised to learn that, when Americans talk about their “baby,” they might as easily be referring to a dog as a human. Living in San Francisco—where strollers are roughly 50-50 on carrying a canine or a human—I can attest to the accuracy of this idiom and also to its linguistic weirdness.

By canceling language programs, we deny our students the opportunity to engage in this sort of productive disorientation; by canceling the languages in which many of our core theological texts were first written, we deny them the opportunity to engage with those texts as living traditions—the conversation that lies at the heart of Jesuit education.

I write as the director not only of USF’s classical studies program, but also of its St. Ignatius Institute, a living-learning community that celebrates USF’s Ignatian intellectual tradition. As its core is the mission to challenge students “to think critically and creatively; to reason and ask questions; and to attain a deeper understanding of the human experience across time and space. Our academic approach is multidisciplinary, historical, and global.” Such a view of education and its purpose in the wider community crystallizes the values that USF professes to teach.

So too is USF an institution that rightly prides itself on the diversity of its student body and its sense of global responsibility, expressed in the school motto: “Change the World From Here.” From what we faculty see in the classroom and beyond, our students are engaged and ready to put theory into practice: we need only help them acquire the tools. In cutting languages, however—the medium through which communication takes place across diverse communities—the administration forsakes its mission in the interests of money.

I do not envy higher ed administrators their jobs, especially in the wake of the last three years and a spiraling list of tough decisions. So too do I understand the financial imperatives that drive choices that none of us willingly make. However, in a world in which cultural exchange is urgently needed, we need to turn a critical lens on the values we enact as educators. Inclusion is no longer an ideal but an imperative, and the ability to communicate with nuance, awareness and curiosity a vital skill.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a statement, USF said it “decided to suspend offering Ancient Greek, Arabic and Portuguese as language electives starting Fall 2023 due to persistent low enrollment” and that it is “currently working with Jewish Studies and Social Justice programs to explore ways to continue funding Hebrew instruction through philanthropic gifts. None of these four languages are degree programs (e.g. majors or minors) and often have had a very small cohort of students enroll each year, sometimes even fewer than six.” The university added that “while some details remain to be completed, we are confident that Hebrew instruction will be supported through alternate funding this fall” and said that it “remains committed to language programs and open to finding new strategies to enhance and explore opportunities for the study of diverse language studies as part of the liberal arts education.”

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