When Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky announced that he opposed public funding for humanities curricula, citing the study of French language and literature in particular as a discipline he’d like to take off the table, a hailstorm of criticism ensued. “The study of world languages, literatures and cultures is a valuable pursuit that has led countless college students to successful careers,” wrote Jeffrey N. Peters, a professor of French at the University of Kentucky. “At this moment of rapid globalization, majors in our department learn to become well-rounded citizens of the world.”
In fact, Bevin wasn’t suggesting that studying French can’t lead to a successful career. He argued that preparation for those careers, or working toward the goal of “understanding the world around us,” as one local columnist put it, is not the purview of public education. “The purpose of public education and of public dollars going into education,” he said on July 26, “is to ensure that people who need to hire people to do work actually have the skills necessary.”
(Bevin’s wording suggests that employers, “people who need to hire people to do work,” are the ones in need of skills offered by taxpayer-funded education. No doubt he meant those being hired; let’s proceed on that basis.)
What strikes me about Bevin’s position is how carefully he distinguishes between those being educated publicly and those being educated privately. Bevin himself, as several critics have pointed out, majored in East Asian studies, but he did so at Washington and Lee University, a private institution. So when he says, “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so; they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer,” he’s disingenuously enforcing a class distinction, since “all the people in the world” clearly can’t study French literature unless they have the funds for private education and foreign travel. (Yes, I know, there’s Duolingo. Enough said.)
Plenty of studies have been done on the advantages of speaking a second language, many of them demonstrating that “people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible than monolinguals.” But that’s the “well-rounded” argument again. Lots of advantages accrue to those who grow up in financial comfort; why shouldn’t the pluses of language learning be among them?
My own answers hinge not on French, a language I happen to love and speak fluently, but on English. With the blinkered attitude available only to those for whom the world’s lingua franca is their mother tongue, we insist on the essential requirement of learning English even as we downgrade the importance of Americans’ learning other languages.
Note, for instance, that while Governor Bevin talks about public education generally, the responses to his derision of French-language learning have come from higher education. Even though we know that the most effective language learning takes place at a young age, Kentucky (like most states) does not require any foreign-language credits for graduation from high school; only to enter or graduate from a public four-year university in the state. But anywhere in the United States —and elsewhere, too — woe betide the student or aspiring employee who cannot communicate in English. The head of Japan’s leading ecommerce company has ordered that all business within the corporation would henceforth be conducted in English.
English clearly is considered to be of practical use, like electrical engineering — one of Bevin’s favorite examples of a worthwhile subject to teach. French is not. But the elegant and forceful deployment of English, the sort of facility that enables the speaker or writer intentionally to invert syntax, consult a wide vocabulary, pepper speech with literary or historical references, use rhetoric to advance argument — that level of English is no more encouraged for the worker bees envisioned by the governor than French is. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the study of a foreign language and the mastery of one’s own often converge at this very point. It’s possible to speak and write English at a level that leads to advancement in the working world without knowing a foreign language, of course. But I’ve yet to meet any speakers of a second language who have not found their study to enhance an understanding of their first language.
So maybe it’s not learning French that bothers Governor Biven. Maybe it’s the ability of language itself to open doors beyond those that lead to one job description or another. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgins’s mother warns of teaching Eliza Doolittle “the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living.” As it turns out, she was wrong. Eliza, Shaw tells us, “grasped the fact that business, like phonetics, has to be learned.” She becomes successful, not as the HR department’s dream candidate for a skilled slot, but on her own terms.