Friday, December 24, 2010

University Foreign Language Requirements: Do They Make Sense?

There have been a number of media reports in recent months of colleges cutting their foreign language departments and eliminating certain, historically prominent, languages.  (For example, a recent story about programs being cut at the State University of New York at Albany in the New York Times.)

On the heels of these reports, Jim Sollisch of the Wall Street Journal wrote an essay (Money Out the Fenetre) suggesting that the requirement for students to take a foreign language should be eliminated completely.  Similar articles appear every few years, it seems. 

Basically, his points can be summarized as:
  1. Students don't become proficient or retain the languages anyway.
  2. "If the goal is to ... give students a more global, less ethnocentric worldview," then he suggests "replac[ing] those two years of [required] language with a mix of comparative religion, comparative government, cultural anthropology and geography."
I would argue that he is missing the point of learning a foreign language, even if it's not learned to the point of becoming proficient.  He seems to imagine that the intent is a direct transmission of cultural 'facts' through learning a language, and he doesn't see that direct transmission, and so suggests that students take classes that will explicitly teach these 'facts'. But the advantage of learning a foreign language is not so direct, in my opinion, even if it is critically important.
  1. Learning a foreign language leads a person to begin to think outside their box, the box they grew up in.  I don't think his solution of replacing it with "comparative religion, comparative government, cultural anthropology and geography", as much as I'd be happy to see those as requried classes for everyone, makes sense.  Without the language classes first, I think most people will go through those four classes, still inside the box they grew up in, and will not get the benefit they could, if they first took a language class.
  2. But, I do believe that it's true that the foreign language requirement comes from a time when people went to school to learn how to think, to become educated.  Now, I would argue, many, if not most, students are just going to high school as prep/training for college, and college as prep/training for a job.  Not only are they not there to learn how to think or to become educated in a general sense, they conciously approach their studies in the university as basically a trade school preparation for their future jobs.  'Of course you go to college to get the degree that you need to get the job that you want; why am I being forced to waste my time taking all this useless stuff???'  Even students that pursue what are seen as 'non-productive' majors (i.e, not engineering, or science, or business,...)  often seem to feel like they may be failures for not having picked a more lucrative path of study, and so again are thinking of the university in a trade-school sense.

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