An End to Foreign Languages, an End to the Liberal Arts

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jun 3 18:49:18 UTC 2008
>>From the issue dated June 6, 2008

An End to Foreign Languages, an End to the Liberal Arts

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.

In fact, what is happening to German can happen to any language  and has.
Some years ago, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where one of
us teaches, abolished its department of Slavic languages and literatures
after nearly 30 years of existence. At its height in the 1970s, the
department had eight or nine tenured and tenure-track professors, a
flourishing undergraduate Russian major, and a successful M.A. program
the only Slavic graduate program in a public university in New England. By
the mid-1990s, the few remaining faculty members who resisted retiring
were farmed out to other departments, as is being done now with German at
Southern California. Then, three years ago, five formerly separate
language-and-literature departments were forcibly merged into one
megadepartment and renamed "languages, literatures, and cultures." The
dean behind that move provided no rationale whatsoever and seemed
motivated primarily by the desire to have fewer department chairs to deal

Within the California State University system, where the other of us
teaches, institutions simply do not have resources to entertain the
thought of hiring faculty members needed in some languages any time soon.
Add to that the attitude that those of us who teach in these fields, and
the fields themselves, are interchangeable, and a convenient view emerges:
The university can get along perfectly well without us.

Are faculty members, then, merely the innocent victims of administrators'
nefarious, perhaps financially motivated, managerial diktats? We rather
doubt it. Deans typically speak the same language as faculty members: the
language of multiculturalism and diversity, which tends to take a dim view
of discrete literary fields, each with its own long history, while somehow
imagining that we can teach all aspects of culture at once in combined

In view of those predilections, we find ourselves wondering if the
generation of faculty members we're now hiring is likely to be the last
with a recognizable (to us baby boomers) academic life. Given the general
lack of commitment to a coherent view of the humanities and their
significance, it is unavoidable that particular departments, especially in
foreign languages, will be slated for elimination or revamping according
to currently fashionable trends.

What has happened is nothing less than a loss of faith in a liberal-arts
education  hardly news, but perhaps the full consequences haven't been so
clear until now. Training in the liberal arts aims at creating educated
human beings, not good employees. It presumes a whole range of values that
have served Western societies for many hundreds of years. If indeed it is
time to scrap that entire approach, universities must confront the issue
directly, not just eat away at the liberal arts in digestible little
chunks while faculty members run for cover or rush to revamp their fields
according to today's orthodoxies of race, class, and gender, reinventing
themselves with no intellectual or educational rationale.

>>From a disciplinary point of view, the abandonment of German is another
sign of the sway held at present by cultural studies, which implies that
art and literature do not matter unless they can be turned into surrogate
politics. "Relevance" these days is understood in an extremely narrow
sense. If departments of French, another endangered language, or German
studied, say, minority groups in France and Germany, it is unlikely that
administrators would have the courage to disperse them.

We have been teaching Spanish and Portuguese for decades, however, and
it's pretty clear to us that there is no direct correlation between
student demand in an area and resources given that area. In Spanish, for
example, there is more student demand than ever. Nonetheless, in one of
our departments, at Amherst, we have one-third fewer faculty members than
we did 25 years ago. So it isn't just numbers that are at issue; it's an
entire mind-set. The trend is to replace the study of literature in a
foreign language with culture-based courses, not to mention the
ever-proliferating film courses that so many of us teach these days.

Offering foreign literatures and cultures in English is one alternative
that we have both experienced at the different universities where we have
taught. Is there anything wrong with that? Given that Americans seem
almost unique in the industrialized world in their resistance to learning
foreign languages, we hate to see our universities capitulate to an
already unfortunate American limitation. And dare we even mention why so
many more students are attracted to Spanish than to, say, French and
German? Their perception  with its undisguised condescension  that it's
"easier" to learn Spanish is rarely discussed publicly.

The argument from numbers is never a convincing one; nor is cultural
relevance when it really means political relevance to present-day world
struggles. Why study French or Italian or Russian  or any literary
classics  if you just want to stress European racism, imperialism, and the
oppression of women?

As for the predictable outcome? Oops! There go Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and
Tolstoy. Wait! Looks like they're being joined by Goethe and Mann. And did
you catch a glimpse of Cervantes and Lope de Vega over there? Molire and
Rabelais are skulking in the background. Well, big deal: We can just read
them in English translation. As long as the truly dedicated few can still
read Borges and some magical realists, everything's OK. Plus there's
always Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales to represent the new Latin American
intellectuals  aren't they good enough?

Besides, who really has time to learn a foreign language? It's not as if
we've been marvelously successful in teaching languages to our unwilling
undergraduates. Three classes a week and very little homework just doesn't
cut it, and the totally unreal grades that are typically handed out don't
help much either.

But beyond that reality lies another. 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. Oh sure, it's always amusing in class to stress how inadequate all
the old writers are, how racist and sexist, how benighted compared with
our views today. And many students arrive in college having already
developed those dismissive skills. In fact, why read any of this stuff at
all in college? It's just literature, whatever language it's in. Whoever
said education had to include foreign languages  or anything about foreign
cultures, for that matter?

We faculty members in languages and literatures have for decades attacked
our own areas and treated them as far less valuable than hot-button
political issues. No wonder humanists cannot mount a good defense for a
broad liberal-arts education, especially at larger universities where
scientific and technical constituencies whose research has practical
importance can attract both administrative support and outside funds.

If foreign languages, whether underenrolled or not, are to survive today,
they need to stake a claim for their intrinsic value and their
relationship to the study of foreign cultures. But language-and-literature
faculty members are unprepared to make that case. We used to study great
writers; now we study identity-based texts chosen solely because of their
ethnic, racial, or other identity. That's why many contributors to The
Chronicle, both of us included, have bemoaned the debasement of
contemporary humanities education.

Given academe's track record in recent decades, should we be surprised
that students have scant interest in what we teach, and administrators
little sympathy? Faculty members seem perfectly happy to capitulate to a
view of education that is thoroughly degraded. Who can pretend to be
shocked at the result?

Will H. Corral is chair of foreign languages at California State
University at Sacramento. Daphne Patai is professor of Spanish and
Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Section: Commentary
Volume 54, Issue 39, Page A30


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