Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Chronicle: "An End to Foreign Languages, an End to the Liberal Arts"

Behind a pay wall, the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article now by Will Corrall and Daphne Patai. Here's the opening:
Is foreign-language teaching at the college level simply a numbers game? Put another way, should administrators follow the feet of students as they make their wishes known by the courses they choose? Sure, if universities conceive of themselves as trade schools preparing their students for employment. If that is really the aim, administrators could and perhaps will cut history courses, art, English, creative writing, music, philosophy, and much else.

Which would leave what, precisely? Business, computer science, engineering, the hard sciences, and maybe a smattering of world culture to help hard-nosed employees of the future avoid making gaffes on their international jaunts. The business model is the larger context for understanding the recent closure of the German department at the private University of Southern California and the proposal to end German at the public Humboldt State University.
This all sounds familiar so far, but it turns into a plea for returning to teaching the literary canon:
We used to study great writers; now we study identity-based texts chosen solely because of their ethnic, racial, or other identity.
Really? I know a fair number of literature people, including in language departments, and I don't know if I've ever heard any of this. I guess there are individuals who solely choose the authors they work on based on identity, but Shakespeare and Proust and Brecht don't seem like they're gone from offerings. Or is Wisconsin just behind the curve?

I fear this part may be truer:
We can hardly recall the last time we met a colleague in a language-and-literature department who actually believed it made a difference for students to read fiction, poetry, and drama.
Now THAT will kill your program and I do see this attitude regularly. I talk regularly to a lot of historians, linguists and literature people, to give three examples. The historians and linguists I know love what they do and it takes nothing to get them yakking away excitedly about some project they're doing or something they've just taught or run across somewhere. Almost all of the lit people stand out for precisely that lack of engagement. Reading only the authors included in some national canon surely contributed to that lethargy and returning to it won't solve the problem.

The MLA report (see here) provides a much smarter and more viable path to turning around the decline of language study.


Anonymous said...

Any academic who doesn't truly enjoy and feel inspired by what they're doing owes it to the rest of us to retire within the next couple of hours.

We do what we do, I hope, because we feel like it's vitally important. I certainly find it easy to get excited about linguistics not just in terms of what I think is cool, but also in terms of understanding the world.

Brains said...

Great post!

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. I'm basically glad to see people starting to talk about these issues, but really hope people turn to smart, realistic approaches to dealing with them. I have a lot of colleagues and friends in languages departments around the country and the current direction of most such departments is suicidal.