Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On French and the liberal arts

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.


  1. Agreed 100% that the slow-motion approach to language teaching, where you can take years of a language and still not say anything in the past tense, is bad news. And that language-learning needs to start at a younger age.

    But the anti-French contrarianism (being in French I end up getting forwarded all of it) keeps missing the point. Why is French always being compared with other languages (of which of course others are more challenging, more useful for future spies, etc.), as opposed to with other majors?

  2. But the anti-French contrarianism (being in French I end up getting forwarded all of it) keeps missing the point. Why is French always being compared with other languages (of which of course others are more challenging, more useful for future spies, etc.), as opposed to with other majors?

    I suppose it's for the reason that proficiency in a foreign language is thought to be one particular box that all suitably well-rounded liberal arts grads should check off, and that this box is distinct from other humanities-related checkboxes that ought to be checked off. So, for example, the engineers at my school all had to demonstrate proficiency in one language as well as tick off a separate distribution requirement in philosophy/history/religion, another in the arts, and another in the social sciences. The idea seemed to be that they'd be neglecting something valuable if they doubled down on (say) French and Arabic but neglected to take arts and religion classes.

    Maybe this ideal of well-roundedness is wrong. Maybe my alma mater should have been fine with letting some non-humanities majors load up on extra language courses while others did extra religion or political science. But wrongheaded or not, this educational well-roundedness ideal seems deeply entrenched there and at many other schools that have similar distributional requirements.* But so long as it's entrenched, it makes sense for university decision-makers to see different foreign language departments as in competition with one another in ways in which non-foreign-language departments. This makes sense also given that many French departments largely serve students who don't necessarily plan to become majors in the field.

    For what it's worth, I do agree that French probably is more useful in terms of job prospects than many non-foreign-language humanities majors. Also, it is more difficult to write about literature in a second language than it is in one's own. I'm sure there are far fewer proverbial slackers in French than in English lit at many schools.

    *When I visited Brown, one admissions officer there said that despite their lack of curricular requirements, most people wound up taking outside of major courses that correspond roughly to what's required at less permissive schools. Or, put differently, many impose academic well-roundedness on themselves even when it's not externally required.

  3. "French departments largely serve students who don't necessarily plan to become majors in the field."

    Point taken.

    But the well-roundedness goal itself doesn't sync up with the useful-subjects one - if we're chucking French for Arabic because of practical concerns, why are we keeping philosophy, art history, and so on at all? If we're debating not French-as-a-major but French-as-a-requirement, the stakes are pretty low - the Arabic learned in a few required semesters is unlikely to have practical applications. While an Arabic major will ideally graduate with meaningful skills, someone with a few semesters of the language is going to know less of it than someone who's taken an equal amount of French (or Spanish, German, Italian) will know of that language.