So John McWhorter recently wrote a piece in the New Republic explaining why he is less upset than he might be that universities are eliminating altogether or scaling back French departments. Now, I could probably devote an entire blog consisting of short hyperlinks to things that John McWhorter has written merely with comments like "YEAH!" appended. I try not to give into this temptation too regularly because that would make this blog even less interesting than it usually is.
But I am a bit more torn here because I studied French in high school and loved it. While I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, Googling my real name yields a fifteen year old newspaper article from my red state hometown about my score on the national French exam.* I'd echo many of the positive things that Conor Friedersdorf's commenters say about why studying French is fun, useful, or beautiful.
At the same time, I recognize how desperately cash strapped many universities are. I'm also aware how scandalously high tuition is across the country. In many places, something has to drop. So long as students who wish to study French still have some good options left, I won't mourn it terribly if others cancel or scale back programs. As a non-New Yorker, I am sort of baffled by the SUNY system, but I am able to figure out from cursory Wikipedia and Google research that there are three other University Centers that all offer French degrees. There are also thirteen other institutions called University Colleges, and a perhaps not entirely reliable College Confidential thread indicates that many of them offer French majors as well. While private or out of state public universities may not be an affordable option for other New Yorkers interested in French, they may of course be viable options for other students. Let me stress, though: if this trend really did become more widespread -- e.g. if there were no SUNYs offering French -- then I would see more cause for concern.
Finally, I would dearly, dearly love to see more American schools invest more time and resources into foreign language education at a younger age. While not quite Exeter level of elite, the schools I attended were good by most standards. Most of my classmates came from middle or even upper-middle-class backgrounds. Yet we had Spanish classes only once a week at the elementary level, and they were regarded as non-challenging fluff akin to art and the dreaded Physical Education. We essentially sat around for five years saying "Hola!" and "Como estas?" to each other (sorry, no accent marks) and occasionally watched videos from the Muzzy series that none of us understood. We could have started memorizing vocabulary lists of foods, clothing items, or other such basics as early as second or third grade and gotten letter grades on the quizzes. Yet we didn't. We didn't start grammar until seventh grade and only then moved at a painstakingly slow pace. We could, I think, have started on the very simple stuff -- conjugations of present tense verbs and the like -- a year or two earlier. Yet nobody seemed inclined to encourage us to do it. This neglect seems all the more pedagogically baffling because young children pick up languages more easily than do their counterparts who are even a few years older.
By high school, I was one of very few loons who insisted on taking two foreign languages. Again, while I can see why two foreign languages might have been overwhelming to some students who didn't like them, there seemed to be plenty of perfectly capable students who could have handled a third language and didn't try to pick one up. Curricula that encouraged students to take up one European and one non-European language would also have the nice effect of being responsive to McWhorter's concerns while not displacing existing strong programs in French or in classical languages. Sadly, there's enough fluff in many schools -- the incessant anti-drug and safe sex propaganda;to take one easy target -- that could be cut so as to accommodate these changes. Who knows, maybe some of this would even drive up the supply of language majors...
*Subsequent life accomplishments that have eclipsed that, at least according to Google's algorithm, are my NYT wedding annoucement and a white paper I wrote for the Federalist Society.