Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Foreign Languages Programs

I am sick and tired of receiving these defeatist articles announcing the imminent demise of language and literature programs in higher education. The most recent of these articles, suggests that we avoid being seen as service programs by . . . finding ways to serve engineering and agriculture more effectively. Another idiotic suggestion promoted by this article is one practiced by the University of Utah (like anybody in their right mind would want to be anything like Utah):
Members of the public pay to join the club, for which every third week they meet in a bar for a 10-minute talk by a humanities professor on some provocative topic (yes -- only 10 minutes -- it's called an "intellectual hors d'oeuvre") and then enjoy (non-intellectual) hors d'oeuvres and drinks. These talks are regularly heard by 100-plus people who get to know more about the humanities.
"Our first course is Professor X, followed by beer and curly fries." Is that what one kills oneself for in graduate school? To be offered in ten-minute servings before a hamburger and a pitcher to a bunch of people who want to pretend they have a brain? Of course, this kind of public would never be able to deal with more than 10 minutes of intellectual material every 3 weeks. How sad.

This "we-need-to-save-the-languages" attitude is very frustrating. Like the recent introduction of invasive airport security scanners, it attempts to treat the symptoms without addressing the root of the problem. I don't even want to go over the entire list of things that demonstrate how urgently relevant the Humanities in general and foreign languages and literatures in particular are today. The only type of people who doesn't realize this is the one who attends the embarrassing intellectual hors-d'oeuvres.

The real reason why our students are reluctant to major and minor in foreign languages is that they are born and grow up in a culture that keeps telling them that they live in the best country in the world and that everything beyond the US borders is not worthy of interest. Other countries are presented as uncivilized, weird, and dangerous. The best thing to do about people from other countries, my students are told, is to build a wall or install a scanner to hide us from the bad, scary "them."

Taking courses that introduce them to other cultures can be a disconcerting experience for American students. Their preconceived notions about some vague superiority of the US over everybody in everything are shattered. Often, it's easier for the students to major in disciplines that do no require them to engage in any painful intellectual analysis.


Anonymous said...

I've often said that engineering and CS students should be required to spend four years getting a real degree before they can get those degrees, as so many of the eng/cs types seem intellectually and socially stunted.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. In many schools in Canada students can get an undergrad business degree and avoid taking pretty much any non-business related elective. Then you end up with the kind of business people that barely know how many continents there are and where they are located. Talk about one-sided!