Hands Off College Language Programs

John McWhorter is usually an engaging commentator on language. So I had high hopes for his most recent essay, in The New Republic, on SUNY Albany's decision to discontinue French, Italian, Russian, and classics instruction. Unfortunately instead of defending his beleaguered fellow New York academics -- he now is with a think tank but is also a lecturer at Columbia -- Dr. McWhorter relegates Western European languages to "noble but fraying traditions." And he closes with clichés atypical of his writing:

The world is flatter and smaller by the hour. Our sense of which foreign languages are key to a serious education cannot be founded on what made sense for characters in Henry James novels.

I wish Dr. McWhorter had been in the audience when the noted scientific translator and historian Scott Montgomery spoke at Princeton earlier this month. One of the essential points he made is that while English is indeed becoming the global lingua franca of science, technology, and commerce, used as the original language of instruction and publication in many countries, governments and societies are simultaneously promoting their national languages. That means translation is becoming more rather than less important, all the more so since English is a "pivot language": a good translation into it can be retranslated into third tongues. While professional translation is still sadly underpaid, a multilingual person will always have an edge in understanding cultural nuances, and Europe remains a major center of technological innovation, selling us everything from advanced scientific instruments to high-speed trains.

Europeans are resisting cultural homogenization. National sentiment has been growing especially after the financial crisis revealed the underside of the euro. As for French, it continues to be the basis for a variety of global cultures, including some of the creoles that are Dr. McWhorter's professional specialty. And more U.S. students visit Italy than any other country but England, according to the Italian Language Foundation -- hardly a sign of undergraduate indifference.

There's no disputing the richness and strategic value of Chinese and Arabic -- and of Persian (of which we had shockingly few speakers in government in 1979), Urdu, and Korean, for that matter. And McWhorter is certainly right that non-Indo-European languages have special value in illustrating the varieties of speech. But he misses an essential point. Why do these other languages have to expand at the expense of the other tongues? Are there no other courses, administrative positions, or other expenses at SUNY Albany more deserving of cutting? McWhorter gives Russian study a mild imprimatur, but hardly calls for its restoration.

While I am not now, nor have I ever been tenured anywhere or at anything, plans for elimination of permanent positions in at a leading university can't be easily dismissed and must be reversed. Dr. McWhorter's class-baiting rhetoric -- "You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French" -- unintentionally echoes that of Princeton President James McCosh against relaxation of ancient language requirements by Harvard's Charles W. Eliot as pandering to clubby dilettantes, except that commerce and politics have taken the place of the Rev. Mr. McCosh's character building:

"I should prefer," he says, "a young man who has been trained in an old-fashioned college in rhetoric, philosophy, Latin, Greek and mathematics to one who had frittered away four years in studying a French drama of the eighteenth century, a little music and similar branches."

French, Latin, and Greek now coexist happily in universities. There's even a vigorous global contemporary Latin movement. Either-or thinking is boring. Dr. McWhorter is usually an original thinker. This time, au contraire.

Thanks to aldaily.com for the link to McWhorter's piece in The New Republic.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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