Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?

John McWhorter

 

We are to bemoan that universities across the country are eliminating or scaling back their foreign language departments. Or, what seems to arouse critics most is the disappearance of French, German, and Italian departments—what with Goethe, Balzac and Dante being pillars of a liberal arts education and so on.

Yet, former French major and great fan of foreign language learning as I am, I’m not feeling as bad about this new trend as I am supposed to. I have as deep-seated a sense as anyone that an educated person is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French. But then I also 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.

Out of the 6000 languages in the world, why is it so vital for smart people to learn the one spoken in one small European country of ever-waning influence and its former colonies? Isn’t the sense of French as a keystone of an education a legacy of when few met foreigners who spoke non-European languages, French was educated Europe’s lingua franca, and the elite who went to college often had plans to do the Grand Tour?

That is, is knowing French really so obviously central to engaging what we know in 2010 as the world, or is it that French is a kind of class marker? You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French?

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