I write these lines having just finished reading a series of essays on the opposition between “humanism” and “barbarism” in the Renaissance. Among the first “humanists” were a group of individuals who wrote passionately in favor of the renewal of language, and whose commitment to the study of the cultures of the past in the interest of contemporary civic life was clear. Among their opponents were the adherents of an outmoded and obtuse scholasticism, whose iron grip had to be broken before most of the things we value as “modern” could come into being.
Polarized positions are nothing new in academic debates, especially where questions of value are involved. We find ourselves in another such force-field right now. I refer specifically to the decision by one of the New York State University campuses (Albany) to discontinue a number of its foreign language degree programs. And yet aside from a piece in the New York Times by Stanley Fish addressing the issue as part of the “crisis of the humanities” and a buzz of outrage circulating on French blogs, this decision has gone all but unnoticed. We sit all too quietly by as Albany works to snuff out virtually all the languages of the world. Is it too much to think that the barbarians are again at the door? Alas, these are barbarians who at commencement time will don their academic robes and pose as men and women of learning. They may even speak some Latin phrase in the awarding of degrees.
What causes outrage about the decision at Albany is that it was made consciously by an institution whose website proudly announces: “In today’s evolving world, you need more than the tools of a trade or knowledge that comes from a book. You need a broad view of the world — the ability to adapt, to accept new ideas, and to embrace, even lead, change.” But the linkage between the knowledge of foreign languages and a “broad view of the world” seems to have been missed by the Albany administrators. Instead, we are offered a rationale that refers us to the “bottom line.” Foreign languages, it is said, don’t pay for themselves.
The Albany decision demonstrates many things, foremost among them a failure of intellectual leadership. The practice of university administration is — or ought to be — an art. To do it well requires finding the ways to balance the budgets while adhering to the highest intellectual goals. But the SUNY Albany leadership at the highest level seems not to have grasped this crucial point, or to have grasped it and to have accepted defeat. Today more than ever the robust study foreign languages ought to be a part of the university curriculum. Some of the reasons may be obvious but are worth stating again. Ironically, Albany itself offers one in its online statement. What better way to gain a “broad view of the world” than by studying a language not one’s own? Or better said, how possibly to gain a broad view without doing so? We live, moreover, at a time when the difference between understanding other cultures, and their languages, and demonizing other cultures, has become all too clear. NEH Chairman Jim Leach is keenly aware of this and has made a “bridging cultures” programs one of the Endowment’s highest priorities. Berkeley can be justly proud about offering one of the widest array of foreign languages anywhere, though we too struggle to allow them to flourish in difficult financial times. Cheers to our Berkeley leaders who have done so well!
There is a further, still more bitter irony that is likely to follow from the Albany decision, and it lies in the implications for English. As anyone who has learned a foreign language well enough to think inside it knows, it is finally through another tongue that one comes to grasp one’s mother tongue. Here, the consequences of the Albany decision will reach to places where we can ill afford them.