Sunday, August 26, 2007

Outrageous ignorance: Why we need language expertise

At what point do you fire the leaders of a university for their willful, dangerous ignorance?

Last year, I heard this story from a couple of very reliable sources: Provost Patrick Farrell of the University of Wisconsin, the de facto chief operating officer, came to a meeting with a group of arts and humanities department chairs. They were very direct about their concern that the current leadership of the UW fails to understand the value of arts and humanities in the university today. Farrell's response? "Could you give me a sentence or two summarizing why these areas matter?" My god, the man becomes the COO of one of the greatest research universities in the United States and he needs that? Strike one.

Now, an anonymous commenter on this post, reports as follows:
Sandefur said … at the opening of the Language Institute in Van Hise, much to the dismay of the entire assembled audience … "before becoming dean I didn't realize we had all these great language departments", which was equally dismaying. And guess what? Now UW DOESN'T have all those great language departments.
Of course, anybody who takes over as dean really needs to understand the strengths of their college, and UW is among the national leaders in the range of languages it offers. What did he know? Strike two.

But it's Chancellor John Wiley himself who gets strike three, again drawing from the last comment (I can confirm that this was said, and will report back if it's not confirmed):
The Chancellor … has been quoted by the Dean of Letters & Science as wondering out loud why UW needs to offer "all these languages".
Why? Ever hear of the war in Afghanistan, where we suffer for the lack of people who know languages like Dari and Pashto? Or Iraq? We don't even have a fraction of the number of speakers and teachers we need for Arabic, clearly one of the world's strategic languages. Or the global war on terror? Even the US government realizes the need for a broad base of speakers and teachers of many languages — Monterey and the Center for the Advanced Study of Language show that. They are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the area and they are not making much of a dent. This is surely a central part of the mission of major universities, directly in the national interest.

This came up in the context of how UW teaches "obscure African dialects" spoken by "dwindling numbers of speakers". (Oh, is that a whiff of racism I smell in the gentle late summer breeze?) Now, the strategic importance of languages doesn't come simply from their numbers of speakers and Africa is surely a crucial part of the world in every way, whether Wiley understands that or not. But let's consider the numbers of speakers for the African languages I'm pretty sure are regularly taught here (using Ethnologue's online numbers and leaving aside Arabic, as being of obvious importance):
  • Swahili 30 million second-language speakers, 800,000 L1 speakers
  • Hausa 24.2 million
  • Yoruba 19.3 million
  • Xhosa 7.2 million
  • Zulu 9.6 million
This is a critical time for public education in this country, and we cannot afford to be led by such willfully ignorant little people.

Image from here, with an article about "embracing your ignorance". (I don't know this chalkboard scene from the Simpsons and wonder if it's an altered one.)


The Ridger, FCD said...

There used to be - probably still is - a website that lets you create your own phrase for Bart. I'm sure this is from there.

But - seriously - Why do the arts and humanities matter? He actually asked that?

One quibble - it's Monterey with one R where the Defense Language Institute is.

Mr. Verb said...

Ah, that's where those pictures come from. If I had time, of course, I'd be using the stripgenerator that was just talked about on Language Log.

The context with the Provost as I understand it was that there was a long set of complaints from chairs arguing that he and the chancellor were actively destroying of arts and humanities on campus and did not know or understand their value. When he was urged to start making the case for them, he asked how to do it. The clear sense of at least some present was that he had no clue whatsoever of how to answer the question himself. That appears to be part of a pattern of ignorance.

By the way, he and the chancellor are both engineers.

Wishydig said...

According to this page the blackboard sentence occurred in episode 8F15x. The page explains that the 'x' means it "took place during an episode." Not sure what that means.

Mr. Verb said...

Sheesh, I figured that was a blow-off comment and I've already learned about the Bart Simpson Chalkboard Generator ( and now that it was real. Wow.

jangari said...

Michael got in there before me, but I wanted to confirm that it was in fact a legitimate chalkboard from a real episode. However, as the chalkboards never have any correlation with the plot of the episode, I can't tell you which one.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, thanks ... I never thought I'd learn so much from blogging!

Anonymous said...

Be realistic: Wiley only needs a few bilinguals, enough to issue commands to the sweatshop 'employees' around the world producing Badger gear. Those languages matter; the rest are 'obscure dialects'.

Aniibiish said...

> Why? Ever hear of the war in Afghanistan, where
> we suffer for the lack of people who know
> languages like Dari and Pashto? Or Iraq?
> We don't even have a fraction of the number of
> speakers and teachers we need for Arabic, clearly
> one of the world's strategic languages. Or the
> global war on terror?

Maybe if we understood other languages and cultures a bit better (or, at all), there wouldn't be quite so many wars requiring military linguistic skills.

Danny said...

The solution is this:

The blackboard gag appeared at the end of the episode, when Bart was serving detention for Lisa's prank of stealing all the teachers' editions, and thus exposed the ignorance of the faculty.

There's a detailed recap here.

Mr. Verb said...

Yes, Aniibiish, the underlying value of knowing languages and cultures is surely in helping avoid conflict, but I doubt that Wiley appreciates that ... winning a war is something that probably appeals to him more.

And thanks, Danny, for the tip ... that episode is a classic, and I remember it well, but not this blackboard thing.

Karen said...

I once spoke with an off-duty cop working security in South Madison about language. I suggested that it would be really useful for him to know Spanish. He had no concept of why (despite the fact that Spanish speaking immigrants make up a major part of the South Side population). I asked him if he'd ever been to Mexico and asked him how he would feel if the police there detained him for something. He agreed with me that it would be a hostile situation for him. I asked him if he would see it as less hostile if the Mexican officer could explain the reason for the arrest in English or at least tell him in English that they were getting an interpreter. Only at that point did he seem to understand the value of being able to defuse a situation by using the detainee's language. (Next step: foreign policy and diplomacy)

Unfortunately, this dismissive view of languages other than English seems to be shared by people from all walks of life in our society.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah ... try calling for a Madison officer who speaks Spanish.

But a chancellor of a major university? There's an obligation on those of us in higher education to increase awareness and understanding about such issues.


Mr. Verb said...

By the way, I have now confirmed that the dean actually said what was quoted in the original post here. Might not be a direct quote, but he said it.