By Mark Bauerlein
The Modern Language Association just reported an astonishing statistic. From 2013 to 2016, colleges and universities in the United States shut down fully 651 programs or offerings in foreign language fields.
Students just aren’t enrolling in language classes (the major in all foreign languages combined is down more than 20 percent since 2011). Colleges can’t afford to support programs that have shrinking demand from undergraduates. Deans can’t cut Computer Science, Nursing, or Biology, which have grown since 2011 by more than 50 percent, when monies are scarce. The campus is a competitive space where departments vie for resources and funds. Administrators have to go with the winners, not the losers. Foreign languages don’t look good to them.
It’s easy to blame externals. In the Digital Age, English is the world’s speech. You don’t need to know other languages as much as you once did if you planned to work in any international context. Also, with the push for more STEM graduates, 19-year-olds realize where the action is. The future for chemical engineers looks bright. The future for Italian majors, well, we don’t hear anything about that.
Finally, there is the humiliating nature of foreign language learning. People who’ve lived in a foreign country and struggled to order a cup of coffee and a sandwich in a café understand the problem. Learning a foreign language is a burden. It makes you feel like a child. You get embarrassed when you forget the simplest constructions. Chemistry can frustrate you when you can’t describe a complex interaction between two volatile elements. Arabic frustrates you when you screw up a simple past tense of a common verb.
When students head to college, they want to feel grown-up, not infantile. Foreign language coursework must seem to many of them like a repeat of high school. Conjugating verbs is rudimentary stuff, and boring, too. Undergraduates are ready for higher things, they think.
For this reason, it’s always been the case that foreign language enrollments depended on general education requirements in the curriculum. If they wanted to earn a degree, students had to demonstrate some language proficiency through passing grades in basic language courses. They could take French 101 and 102, earn a B, and tick off that area on the list of requirements. And having had that experience, some of those students stuck around for more advanced courses in the field.
In other words, what kept enrollments steady was the imposition of will from above. The people in charge of the curriculum, the faculty, demanded it.
Here’s what’s happening now. In the latest version of What Will They Learn?, the survey of general education requirements conducted by American Council of Trustees & Alumni, “less than 12% of the schools we studied require students to learn a foreign language at the intermediate level” (with “intermediate” defined as three semesters of college level study).
At those institutions, we may assume, foreign languages enrollments are holding on. In the schools that don’t ask for that much, we may assume, where departments can’t count on a steady stream of freshmen and sophomores whether those kids want to be there or not, the opposite is likely the case.
There is a grand inconsistency here. In the 1970s and 80s, multiculturalists assailed the curriculum in American higher education for being Eurocentric and dead-white-male. They called for an end to First World-ism and immediate recognition of the East and the South. “No more orientalism,” they urged.
Of course, as the post-structuralists of the time insisted, culture begins in language (Claude Levi-Strauss and others approached the cultures they studied as if they were a language system). The first step in multiculturalism, then, should have been an increase in language requirements, not a loss. To plant in students a genuinely multicultural awareness, the faculty should have doubled the language demand, forcing students to cover a Western language and a non-Western language.
That didn’t happen, and for a specific reason. You see, it wasn’t the goal of the multiculturalists to enhance knowledge of non-Western cultures. If it were, they would have pressed for more languages. No, they had another purpose. They didn’t aim to deepen non-Western knowledge. They aimed to displace—or “decenter,” to use a popular term from the time—Western civilization.
This wasn’t a positive initiative, it was a negative one. It didn’t appreciate the overlooked monuments of non-Western culture. It depreciated the monuments of Western culture. This was ressentiment through and through, the revenge of people who felt inferior against the greatness of the European tradition. The dominant language of High Culture—French, German, Italian (Spanish was exempted because it stood more for the Americas than for Spain)—had to be downplayed. The languages of Asia and Africa received, at most, a nod of recognition.
The MLA evidence shows us the fruits of that effort. It succeeded well. Don’t think that the multiculturalists are upset by this latest documentation of disciplinary decline in the humanities. It is precisely what they wanted.