Which Languages Should the Liberal Arts Be About in 2011?

In an article in the New Republic (December 13, 2010), John McWhorter argues for dramatic changes to university language study while brushing aside concerns over the recent closures of the French, German and Italian departments around the country. The shuttering of these units is merely a sign of the times, affirms McWhorter, as the new global economy displaces Europe‘s–and especially France’s–former cultural centrality. In tough budgetary times, strategic choices must be made. And the obvious choice, according to McWhorter, is Chinese or Arabic.


Does anybody disagree that Chinese and Arabic are crucially important languages? The question is: why does McWhorter pit them in a zero-sum game with German or French? There may be good arguments to do so, but McWhorter does not make them. His reasoning goes like this: Chinese is “happening” while French is merely a residual marker of class distinction; Chinese is useful for business whereas French is good for the “educated person [who] is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French,” Nietzsche and Stendhal are, indeed, interesting, but why learn German or French when such texts are already available in English translation?


For McWhorter, the idea that an “educated” person learns French or German is a relic of the past. Things could have been different, and, in fact, would be different, if we could choose all over again: “I […] have a deep-seated sense that the driver’s seat in a car should be on the left side. It’s all I’ve known, but hardly the choice all humans would make if designing a car from scratch with no cultural preconceptions.”


It’s hard to tell if this is an argument or a provocation. Is comparing choice of language study to car design a useful analogy? First of all, we’re not talking about all humans deciding on one language; nor are we talking about a parallel world where language choice is divorced from historical and cultural experience. We’re talking about American language learners who have long considered themselves historically and culturally tied to Europe and who want to strengthen these ties via language study. The original choice to study French and German (and Italian and Latin, etc.) was thus not an arbitrary and purely technical decision. It was one animated by a desire to participate in the cultural transmission Europe’s humanistic traditions that define us. Is it possible to imagine the serious study of language outside of a “cultural preconception”? Isn’t the very idea of language transmission tied to cultural transmission?


The answer is, of course, ‘yes’–which explains why McWhorter doesn’t really argue his point against European languages; he relies on the observations of a fictional “Martian” to make it for him: “A Martian would be baffled as to why anyone would think of French, German or Italian as more important for young Americans to learn than Chinese.” Or he relies on the fiction of pure chance: “If the dice were rolled again, [Europe] might not even be considered a continent.”


The idea here is clear: Europe is no longer important, and our attachment to European languages has outlasted its utility. Linguistic “importance” should now be based on strategic importance and economic benefit. 

However, even if we concede this last point, McWhorter’s Martian would be mistaken: the European Union is by far the US’s largest trading partner, and both Germany and France figure in the top 10. Canada, our closest neighbor and second largest trading partner, is also partially francophone. And in terms of strategic importance, Europe, Canada and US are all members of NATO, struggling to share a historical destiny. It’s unclear, given these facts, why we should so quickly turn our backs on European language and culture. Can’t we admit that there’s more at stake here than being able to “fake a conversation”?

The real argument for defending the study of European languages in American universities, however, is neither utilitarian nor strategic. It is the argument that McWhorter wants to deny: that European languages link us to the liberal arts or humanistic heritage out of which American political and cultural traditions emerged. In order to maintain these fragile traditions in an increasingly hostile economic climate, it is imperative that we avoid caving into purely market or strategic justifications for curricular decisions. Most college students already view their college experience as purely instrumental; it is our job to help as many students as we can see beyond this limited point of view.


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