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The Albany decision: Humanism vs. barbarism once again

Anthony Cascardi, dean, Arts & Humanities | October 20, 2010

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.

Comments to “The Albany decision: Humanism vs. barbarism once again

  1. “The practice of university administration is — or ought to be — an art.”

    Si bien es mejor dejar que la estupidez retumbe en el silencio, no puedo quedarme callado ante los comentarios que hasta ahora la concisa reflexión de Cascardi ha provocado. Los escasos comentarios precedidos al mío (que sólo suman cuatro, lo cual me perturba), parecen perder de vista el tema principal: la eliminación de todos los programas de lengua con la única excepción del programa de español y el brusco despido de sus respectivos profesores son -si se me permite la exageración- como las “señales que precederán al fin del mundo”, es decir, apuntan a un peligro apocalípitco: la eliminación, en algún momento, de otros campos de estudio dentro de las Humanidades debido a una “crisis” fantasmal, ya sea financiera (como la que enfrentamos en estas fechas) o de otra índole que aún no podamos prever. Desde el principio de su reflexión, Cascardi intuye este peligro subrayando una oposición que nos recuerda a Sarmiento y la dicotomía entre civilización y barbarie: humanismo vs. barbarismo.

    Pero, ¿quiénes son los bárbaros? Aparte de algunos de los comentaristas ridículos en este foro, lo son los administradores como el actual Presidente de SUNY, Albany, que no tienen ninguna formación pedagógica y que son adminstradores (léase con énfasis) en el peor sentido de la palabra (pienso en Adorno). Son burócratas y empresarios que probablemente nunca estudiaron otras lenguas -ni mucho menos otras culturas-, y que están más preocupados por el dinero que por encargarse de que la Universidad (en mayúsculas) no sea un espacio que sólo sirva para producir una sobra de MBAs y abogados no pensantes. Cito: “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.” O quizá, en el peor de los casos, ni siquiera les importa.

    Más allá de mi pesimismo, sin embargo, me llama mucho la atención esta frase lapidaria de Cascardi: “The practice of university administration is — or ought to be — an art.” Como no puedo sino repetir esta frase en mi cabeza, creo que a modo de conclusión plantearé una pregunta: ¿Es posible conciliar las particularidades de la esfera artística con el mundo de la administración o cultura administrada?

    Viernes, 22 de octubre, 2010

  2. While reading great literature in the original has some appeal, the economic situation trumps this luxury. We are fortunate that English is the universal language. Most of the value of books like Madame Bovary can be gotten by reading the translation. And learning a language can be left to places like Berlitz and the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute

    • tom
      Classic literature (greek and latin) is so full of economic and military successes and failures. If more of our leaders knew of them, we wouldn’t be forced to repeat them, ad nauseam. Imagine all the useful information written in secret code, I mean a different language.

  3. It should also be noted that the SUNY Albany administration has also cut its Theater program along with the language programs.

  4. Jo:
    A class system prevails in Mexico, Meztesos, Indoi’s are excluded from being part of the system by Creorios, and Peninsolares.The old Spanish Barons still hold the power.Their belief system uses the mass of illiterate Mexicans to believe that we stoled these states from them in 1848 by force, which we did, and they have found a way to get it back without force. Mass immigration without documentation, speedy and unenforceable, very clever. Corporations love the Mexican labor pool, computers and robotics has bridged the gap of training and communication. The only way out is becoming more Apparent. Canada, America, Mexico will merge to one common currency and passport ,hence the Amero a currency I have seen pictures of on line, all printed and ready to go no joke.

  5. I agree with the said language expression and documented facts. The European Renaissance defined more than locally, but continent wide that being called or titled a ‘humanist’ meant you knew at ‘least 3 languages,’ not two or one.

    You knew perhaps Latin, your own tongue and one other current langauge. I oppose getting rid of language departments and focusing on LA RASA’s exclusionary propoganda country-wide politics. They claim North America is thier’s — actually it was Francoic I who landed his Italian brother explorers on the eastern coasts of America and its third stop founded New York — long before the Spanish ever set foot in either California or the southern Gulf lands or the east coast. However, there is a patter emerging of revision and property rights to the USA. That it belongs to the Spanish barons who rule most of Mexico today. Mexico in the cities are thriving with former American corporations. So money is going toward Mexico’s economy and not the USA. That is why they want exclusionary rights to langauges on campuses accross the USA. They want to take over America and make it only for Spanish Rulers.

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