On the Value of Retaining Foreign Language Departments

Anthony Grafton’s (Professor of History at Princeton University) column in the university newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, (December 6, 2010) reminds us about the important role foreign language departments play in the intellectual and cultural development of  students:


The current issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly starts with a terrific letter from President Shirley Tilghman praising our German department. She described the multiple international networks that the department has woven, from the long-established program of summer jobs in Germany and the summer language program in Munich to the exchanges that bring German professors and graduate students to Princeton, place our students at Humboldt University in Berlin and engage students from Harvard and Berkeley as well in a four-cornered exchange. Thanks to these new programs and the new forms of electronic communication that sustain connections once people return to their homes, “the intellectual boundaries between Germany and Princeton have all but disappeared,” Tilghman wrote.

Sunday’s New York Times, by contrast, brought with it a very different story: that of how universities around the country have found it necessary to eliminate foreign language programs. The State University of New York at Albany found itself in the headlines not long ago when its administration decided to eliminate majors in French, Italian, Russian, Greek and Latin — a decision that seemed particularly unfortunate for a university that promises students “The World Within Reach.” Louisiana State University; the University of Maine; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Winona State University have announced similar decisions.

Lisa Foderard, The Times reporter who compiled this precise and informative article, attributed the program closings to financial stringency, quoting administrators who claim they have no choice: “After a generation of expansion,” she explained, “academic officials are being forced to lop entire majors.” True, in the he-said-she-said vein typical of the Times and other media outlets nowadays, she cites a few professors of European languages who object to the cuts. But nowhere does she ask if the claims of financial exigency really hold water.

I can’t help wondering if politicians’ claims would have been received with equal credulity. Across the country, after all, administrators have claimed again and again that humanities departments have burdened their budgets. In fact, as Christopher Newfield has shown in “Unmaking the Public University,” many humanities departments earn more in student tuition money than is spent on their salary and research budgets. They actually cross-subsidize other departments that carry out more expensive research.

Often less creditable concerns explain why the knife falls where it does. Humanities departments can be seen as easy prey: They are relatively small, and in many cases they lack outside support, thanks to the abuse that culture warriors have hurled at them for years. Sadly, many Americans don’t see the point of studying foreign languages at all, since the world seems to have learned English. I wish everyone could speak, as I have, with a veteran of the Iraq war who has done house-to-house searches at night without the benefit of a competent interpreter.

More important, the bigger picture is missing — the picture you see if you look at the elite private and public institutions. In many of these schools, language departments are doing quite well. Ambitious colleges and universities are actually opening new programs — for example, new majors in Arabic — while maintaining the old standbys, because all languages and literatures present intellectual challenges and rewards, many of them are vital for students concentrating in quite different fields, and it’s never clear in advance which of them will suddenly prove of practical importance.

Many institutions have more in mind. All elite schools have realized that the old mercantilist vision of the university economy — one in which each university tried to be self-sufficient and competed with all the others to draw the best faculty and students — is obsolete. No single university — not Oxford, not Cambridge, not Harvard, not Berkeley — can afford to entice all the professors it would like to have on its faculty or attract and support all the students who would profit from its offerings and enrich its communal life. And no university can prepare students for life in this century’s workplaces without giving them international experience. In a few years, as Jeremy Adelman, director of Princeton’s Council for International Teaching and Research, recently remarked to me, savvy students will be choosing not which university they want to attend, but which network of universities they want to join.

So all of us are making links and finding partners. Foreign language departments have been at the leading edge of this movement for decades, and at places like Princeton they will continue to exist, developing everything from language programs in Beijing to exchanges of researchers.

When universities close their language and literature programs, they’re making powerful implicit statements. They’re showing, in public, that they don’t see either the value of studying foreign languages and cultures in depth or the practical importance of having experts in foreign cultures lead the way in developing worldwide networks. In essence, they’re giving up on being universities, in both the best traditional and the best contemporary senses. It is essential, for our democracy and our culture, that these fields don’t become the preserve of a tiny elite.


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