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One may attribute the incoherence of such a stance to the vicissitudes of life in contemporary American institutions of higher learning. The dominance of the choose-your-own-adventure curriculum in U.S. colleges and universities incentivizes reforms that are anathema to the spirit of liberal education. Many students fear foreign-language courses for the same reason they dread math requirements: Such coursework typically necessitates more hard work and discipline than do other college classes. Courses that are most likely to provide undergraduates with a rigorous and potentially life-changing intellectual experience, then, become a liability. Especially in our anti-humanistic age, our free-market curriculum encourages a race to the bottom, with faculty members dumbing down their institution’s course of studies in a feverish — and cynical — attempt to court undergraduates.
But support for English-only “decolonization” speaks to much more than merely the perverse incentives of contemporary American higher education. It also provides a warning about how our nation’s colleges and universities can foment a false cosmopolitanism, a paradoxically provincial view of other cultures that encourages an unmerited sense of worldliness among American undergraduates. What U.S. institutions of higher learning advertise as genuine cosmopolitanism can be viewed as a form of intellectual colonialism — an American ideology of cultural difference that conveniently jettisons the necessity of doing the hard work to learn about other nations and ways of life.
In a perceptive article in Journal X from 2004, the comparative-literature scholar Dorothy Figueira came to a similar conclusion about the American penchant for faux cosmopolitanism, in her case articulated in the context of postcolonial studies. “Although postcolonial theory celebrates diversity,” she wrote, “it does so without compromising American tendencies toward cultural provincialism, triumphalism, or indifference to the world. Like those popular ethnic fairs one finds throughout the United States, postcolonial theory allows students to taste other cultures without having to travel or learn hard languages. In the internet age … the Other can now be consumed ‘on the cheap.’”
Indeed, English-only “decolonization” gives the impression that the only required characteristic of a worldly individual is a certain kind of progressive American ideology, one that boils down complex historical dynamics and cross-cultural interactions into an easily digested narrative of right and wrong. Students must be given the vague sense that the United States has treated much of the world unjustly. And that conclusion, reasonable though it may be, can be arrived at without any of the toil necessary to learn substantive things about other cultures. That approach to cosmopolitanism is distinctly parochial, an American view of the world that is not necessarily shared by peoples in other nations. Students need not trouble themselves with learning, say, Hindi, and combing through the complex history of India. Hazy nods to the legacy of oppression will do just as well — and require much less effort from students. It’s an approach to cultural difference that could be expressed in the language of American advertising: “Students: Do you want to be world-wise without all the drudgery, and without ever leaving your couch? Now you can!”
The results of this English-only “decolonization” reinforce some of the most unfortunate tendencies in American intellectual life: an incuriosity about the world around us, combined with an unearned and smug sense of worldliness. Much to the dismay of those peddling the reigning orthodoxies of American higher education, a true cosmopolitanism is the hard work of a lifetime. We cannot consider ourselves worldly if we are content with purchasing our cosmopolitanism “on the cheap.”
Serious efforts to decolonize the American college curriculum cannot take place amid waning support for the study of world languages. Yet that is precisely what we are witnessing today: American colleges and universities eliminate language programs while continuing to trumpet their commitment to curricular diversity and “inclusive excellence.” It seems a stereotypically American, and perhaps more broadly imperialist, conceit to believe that we can create cosmopolitan monoglots. When we undervalue the study of world languages, we shut the door to true cosmopolitanism and all the awe and wonder it inculcates. We deny students the opportunity to participate in and engage deeply with other cultures, to fathom how our language shapes our view of the world, and to do the hard work that fosters meaningful cross-cultural interactions and mutual respect.
Our nation’s universities can’t have things both ways. If they eliminate required language study, they must ditch their appeals to diversity and decolonization as well.