The Rise and Fall of the American Linguistic Empire
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.