USC Cuts German to Make Room for Arabic, Chinese
The University of Southern California is at the cutting edge of what may be a trend: Making cutbacks in teaching non-English European languages in order to devote more resources to Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, and others thrust into the spotlight by world events.
When the Modern Language Association released its study last year on trends in language enrollments, the figures that jumped out were the huge percentage increases for Arabic (+127 percent over four years) and Chinese (+51 percent). German’s percentage increase was just 3.5 percent. But because the bases for Arabic and Chinese were so small, the MLA found more students studying German (94,264) than Arabic and Chinese combined.
USC, which has been slowly bleeding its German program since 1991 by refusing to hire to replace departing faculty, has announced its shutdown.
Howard Gillman, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said reconsideration of German was natural. “There was a time when because of world events, the study of German and Russian and a few other languages and cultures struck us as really central. We now have a much broader perspective in the world.” In this environment, he said, the “enlarged vision” may require more attention for Hindi or Arabic or Chinese and less for German. “The relative attention on the old things is going to be smaller, while we show new respect” for emerging fields, he said.
To German scholars, those are fighting words. For a research university to close a German department “is irresponsible,” and it is equally irresponsible to frame the choice as one that may be necessary to support the study of languages outside Europe, said David E. Barclay, executive director of the German Studies Association and a professor of history at Kalamazoo College. Barclay said that he is a strong supporter of efforts to teach Arabic, Chinese and a range of languages, but that language study is important enough that it must not be seen as “a zero sum game,” in which the only way to strengthen Chinese is to cut German.
To imply that American society can manage without European languages because most European elites speak English is “patronizing and dumb,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, and for the next half century more, the currently existing industrial and post-industrial societies are going to dominate the global economy. stronger — look at the dollar and the euro. Germany is going to continue to be the major player.”
Indeed, it is. Then again, those who argue that Germans speak English have a point.
Aside from those who need a specific foreign language for their job, or for those who live in parts of the country where speaking Spanish is a prerequisite for navigating everyday life, there’s not much practical justification for Americans to learn any particular language.
I learned rudimentary German through immersion owing to my father’s being stationed there several times during my childhood. I studied it for two semesters in college in anticipation of serving there myself, which I in fact did for three years. While never able to speak or read German at a fluent level, I had sufficient mastery to test out on the Graduate Foreign Language Exam to satisfy my doctoral requirements. More than fifteen years later, though, my German skills have atrophied considerably.
Given that English is a Germanic language, making use of essentially the same alphabet, it’s far easier for Americans to learn than, say, Chinese or Farsi. Any practicality-based arguments, then, are harder to make for students who aren’t immediately going into the military, foreign service, intelligence community, or otherwise using those highly perishable skills immediately after graduation.
The rationale for maintaining foreign language departments in universities, then, have to be based on an “education for education’s sake” basis. We don’t, for example, teach Shakespeare or Medieval History because those subjects have practical application for most graduates. Rather, we hope studying those subjects will make graduates better rounded citizens, that grappling with them with expand and rewire the mind, and so forth. Presumably, learning German or French or Latin or whatever will have those same types of benefits.
There are, of course, students who will actually need specific language skills for their jobs. As Dean Gillman implies, the teaching of German and Russian during the Cold War was largely spurred by the government’s needs. So it is now with Arabic and Farsi.
As a general rule, language departments — especially those that emphasize non-Western languages — just about always welcome more students and more money to support those students. But when the money is coming from the Pentagon and the languages are those spoken in the Middle East, things get complicated.
So ever since the Bush administration started to talk about “critical foreign languages,” some educators have been enthusiastic and others have taken more of a wait-and-see attitude, preferring not to be among the first rounds of grants. This week, one of the administration’s new programs took shape with a Pentagon announcement that it had picked four universities to share $2 million for a new effort to train students in the Reserve Officers Training Corps in Arabic and other languages seen as crucial to American military and foreign policy.
Those running the new programs say that their efforts are being structured in ways that will have a major positive impact on expanding the knowledge base of future military leaders — a base that has been widely criticized as lacking with regard to the Middle East. And those running the programs say that they are being set up in ways that in no way compromise academic values.
The fact that institutions have “academic values” speaks to the fact that universities are about more than preparing graduates for the job market. By all means, they should continue to examine their curricula to ensure that they’re meeting the evolving needs of their society. But the goal is ultimately education, not merely training. Job skills are perishable; the ability to learn and to think is a lifetime tool.
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