Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Analysis: John McWhorter's 2010 Article on Languages in a Liberal Arts Education

In addition to his recent article against the importance of the French language, the popular linguist John McWhorter wrote a similar article in 2010. Its focus is a bit broader than the recent French-bashing article. I also agree with it a bit more than his more recent one. I agree with his argument that (university) language programs should be about more than just the major European languages.

With the recent recession, language departments have suffered in particular, more than, say, engineering departments. My hunch that there are other factors at play as well, perhaps the lack of relevance of a lot of humanities research and perhaps an undue focus on research to the detriment of teaching. Perhaps. Nonetheless, the challenges of the last five years or so should be regarded as opportunities to improve our language departments, not as reasons to go on the defensive and try to prove that everyone should take this or that language.

McWhorter makes the useful point that if the goal is "'global' competency then we must ask why the languages in question are spoken in Europe, geographically a mere peninsula of Asia which, if the dice were rolled again, might not even be considered a continent." I am not sure about the geopolitical validity of this statement, but he goes on:
Sure, Europe has been the main cradle of Western thought -- but let's face it, you can be richly immersed in that via solid English translations; Nietzsche need not be read in the original. There's an awful lot of world beyond Europe; people speak some languages there too, and in our times, a liberal arts education should focus on them. (Emphasis added.)

That said, McWhorter still has an odd fascination with the Chinese language and an inexplicable disdain for the French language in his 2010 article. He says, for example, that "a Martian would be baffled as to why anyone would think of French, German or Italian as more important for young Americans to learn than Chinese." He needs, first, to spend a little more time imagining himself as a Martian. He needs, second, to stop participating in arguments for one language over another.

More than his more recent article, however, I can still agree with his general thrust in this argument. No one could state the parochial defensiveness of language (or other) departments better than this:
Should students be able to take French, German and Italian if they want to? Of course. But should it be expected that any university worth its salt have majors in those languages? I doubt it. A university of limited resources that has majors only in Chinese and Arabic should be a perfectly normal proposition. The only reason it does not seem so now is because of noble but fraying traditions.

No comments:

Post a Comment