The Rise and Fall of the American Linguistic Empire

November 13, 2012


In an op-ed piece entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” published on January 20, 2012, in the New York Times, former president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers called upon American universities to revamp their curricula in order to better prepare their students for the twenty-first century. Among his propositions, Summers made the case that the study of foreign languages represents a waste of time. As more and more people acquire English across our increasingly interconnected globe, he argued, mastery of foreign languages will become less and less necessary. Colleges and universities should instead teach their students leading-edge skills better suited to an increasingly competitive employment marketplace.

Cost-cutting university administrators have been putting this modest proposal into practice in institutions across the United States for some time now. In 2010, for example, cash-strapped SUNY Albany shuttered its degree programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classical languages (it has since restored French and Russian as undergraduate minors and course offerings in Italian). This closing of linguistic minds is by no means peculiar to America. In Britain, the government’s 2004 decision to cease requiring secondary-school students to study a foreign language has triggered a precipitous drop in university language departments’ enrollments. The University of Toronto, where I teach, moved in 2010 to merge all foreign-language teaching into a single school of languages before a firestorm of public debate forced its administration to beat a hasty retreat back to the disciplinary status quo. As public funding for higher education shrinks and endowments plummet, language education is now the first up on the chopping block—an unmistakable sign of the low esteem in which university and government leaders hold the study of languages today. At the very moment my dean and provost went to war against foreign languages, contractors were hard at work building a massive new addition to the university’s business school, a telling symbol of the hierarchy of academic values now in play. That Summers lent his name to such arguments drapes them with all the legitimacy that his résumé as former chief economist of the World Bank, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Barack Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, and president of Harvard University can offer.

It is tempting to dismiss this trend as the work of barbarians inside the academy’s hallowed gates, bent on doing away with the humanities. Given the purchase such ideas currently have on education decision makers, however, Summers’s arguments merit serious attention. Most university administrators piously blame tough budgetary times, waning student interest, and the quest for “synergies” as they shut programs. When the richly-endowed University of Southern California closed its German department in 2008, its dean explained that the eleventh-most spoken language, the national tongue of the world’s fourth wealthiest economy, and the idiom of foundational scientific and philosophical works had no place in his institution’s “enlarged vision” of the world. In the place of cant, Summers articulates an educational rationale to justify cuts. Parsing its explicit aims and implicit assumptions about language and the very purpose of education tells us much about what is currently driving university reform. A deeper understanding of the history of language suggests that our universities would do well to ignore such exhortations and stick to teaching foreign languages.

Summers builds his case upon a profoundly reductive understanding of education. His vision of higher education is one aimed at instilling applied skills, those that add value, maximize utility functions, and improve economic productivity. Though he protests his liberal arts good faith, he clearly sees the future headed in an entirely different direction. “Of course, we’ll always learn from history,” Summers writes, “But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased” thanks to the social and hard sciences. By positing an understanding of language as utilitarian as his vision of education, Summers assumes all languages to be neutral media for communication, undifferentiated vehicles for the transmission of content. The medium is decidedlynot the message—and it’s the message that matters, not the particular linguistic system in which it is delivered. In such a functionalist conception of what students should learn, there can be no room for considering the classical or vernacular literatures as worthy of study in and of themselves, let alone for the idea that reading them in the original might convey something specific and indispensable. Given just how central the study of language and literature has been to western knowledge since Antiquity, and to higher education since the creation of the university in medieval Europe, it is nothing short of astonishing to behold the former president of the world’s most prestigious institutional heir to the humaniores litterae ring their death knell.

By denying language any cultural, literary, or linguistic specificity, Summers construes language barriers to pose exclusively practical challenges, semiotic gaps that need to be bridged in order to make communication possible. It is for this reason that he sees in “English’s emergence as the global language” (my emphasis) the beginning of a wondrous linguistic utopia, where the pesky challenge of cross-cultural understanding will at long last be resolved. The fact that English is now widely spoken as a second language therefore liberates anglophones from the need to study foreign languages. In the age of the Internet, jet airplanes, and globalization, the world has become a village, and English is its common tongue. “While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential.”

Essential for what, one might ask? Summers imagines universities preparing future generations for a very specific set of tasks: tackling the financial crisis, “doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.” That Summers celebrates George Marshall for leading the stabilization of Cold War Western Europe and David Petraeus for directing counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan makes clear that he intends university education to be evaluated in light of U.S. strategic interests. In the brave new linguistic world opening up before us, English is all that the leaders who will run the U.S. government, manage America’s businesses, burnish its international image as Peace Corps volunteers, staff its Foreign Service, and fight its wars will ever need…

Read it all.

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