The World Beyond Reach

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

November 07, 2010

Throughout my career, I have observed that the advanced study of languages is not universally valued in the American educational system. Even so, I was stunned by the announcement this fall that the State University of New York at Albany will eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics (the German program was already reduced), along with theater. When financial exigencies hit, decisions to cut services and programs (and not just academic ones) must be made, but the Albany plan is astoundingly draconian: No European languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters, and 10 tenure-line faculty members will be let go.

Albany seeks to justify the cuts based on the number of students majoring in those fields. But that metric is both misguided and more complicated than it looks. Research by the Modern Language Association shows that language majors are often identified as second concentrations, yet Albany, like a great many colleges and universities, does not report such majors (see the MLA report "Data on Second Majors in Language and Literature, 2001-08" for statistics on the growing number of foreign-language second majors). Quite a few international-relations and business majors declare a second major in a language. Many students also choose to minor in a language, especially after a period of study abroad, and courses can show up as transfer credits.

But more important, the flawed "number of majors" metric distracts us from the real question: What is the purpose of a university (especially one that calls itself a research institution) if not to cultivate the core disciplines of a liberal-arts education? If we value the advanced study of languages as central to the mission of a liberal-arts curriculum, then we must ensure that programs have adequate resources, connect well to other elements of liberal learning, and provide students with the essential experiences to develop translingual and transnational competence. It is absurd to give students access to introductory and intermediate sequences in French (available in virtually all the high schools that send students to Albany) but not to advanced courses on linguistics, literature, culture, and media taught in French. Students who peek into the door of language yet cannot go further are being denied a key component of a university education. In all of this, we are terribly out of sync with the rest of the world.

It doesn't have to be that way. Albany was apparently well on track to achieve some important goals with respect to cross-cultural study. The 2010 Middle States Commission on Higher Education report noted that the "university has given careful attention to developing ... an appreciation for diversity in its many dimensions, including global citizenship. ... The best demonstration of the university's commitment is their choice to add to the SUNY General Education requirement additional rubrics of Global and Cross-Cultural Studies and U.S. Pluralism and Diversity, and to require a second semester of a foreign language." It simply makes no sense to add a second required semester of language while taking away the opportunity to explore all except one of the most commonly taught languages at the minor or major level. Such a move makes the university equivalent to a high school when it comes to a key component of the humanities.

It also makes no sense to deprive other humanities programs of the expertise that specialists in literature, linguistics, and culture can bring. To its credit, the English department at Albany offers a Ph.D. concentration in cultural, transcultural, and global studies that examines the effects of globalization, cross-cultural exchange, class relations, and cultural identity on discourse. The English Ph.D. program also requires students to demonstrate either reading competence in two languages other than English or advanced competence in one language (by taking a graduate course in that language or four years of undergraduate study). How will students take a graduate course conducted in another European language unless they choose to study Spanish? And what will be the effect on faculty members in other liberal-arts disciplines if they lose the benefit of colleagues with scholarly expertise in French, German, Italian, Russian, Latin, and Greek?

The MLA has been assisting its members in making the case for strong language programs, but beyond those efforts, I believe it is the responsibility of the larger academic community to make the case for the advanced study of languages. We must also call out university presidents who, by failing to explain the value of the advanced study of languages and literatures to the public, have been derelict in their duty. Until Americans see learning languages as an indispensable enterprise, we must argue, continuously and vigorously, for the centrality and indisputable relevance of this area of study.

"Educationally and culturally, the University at Albany-SUNY puts 'the World Within Reach,'" the institution proudly proclaims on its Web site. Yet if President George M. Philip's plans go unchallenged, one of the four flagship research universities of New York state will put a good part of the world out of the reach of its students by denying them advanced learning in all European languages except Spanish. In lamenting the cuts, the administration declared the impossible: that the "University at Albany fully values the critically important role the humanities play in the intellectual life of a university community."

Let us hold all universities to this statement of values. I have spent a good deal of time discussing what is going on at one particular institution because I know that state system well, but Albany is hardly alone. Similar actions have been carried out or contemplated at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, the University of Maine at Orono, the University of Nevada at Reno, Florida State University, and the University of Iowa, to name a few. If the academic community does not stand up in support of advanced study and research in languages other than English, then the humanities truly are incomplete—and the mission of higher education is seriously compromised.

Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association. She is on leave from the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, where she is a professor in the department of Romance languages and literatures.