Friday, December 17, 2010

Scrap the foreign language requirement

Jim Sollisch argues that the foreign language requirement that so many colleges have is anachronistic. As a former French and Russian teacher, I totally agree. I totally support students choosing to study a foreign language, but it should be their choice. Personally, I'd reduce most of the overall requirements that colleges impose on students. I'd prefer that requirements flow from the student's major rather than some sort of general education requirements that serve only to give students a smattering of learning about different spheres of knowledge.

As Sollish writes, the rationale behind that foreign language requirement is quite weak.
How did two years of foreign language became a requirement at the vast majority of colleges? It seems so random. Why don't we make two years of economics a requirement for all liberal arts degrees? Why do we cling to a subject that has the smallest return imaginable for the vast majority of students?

If the goal is to make our graduates less provincial, then there are better ways to go about it. We could easily replace those two years of language with a mix of comparative religion, comparative government, cultural anthropology and geography. That would give students a more global, less ethnocentric worldview.
He's so right. Students would learn so much more about another culture from studying such subjects than they would from studying the language. If the goal is to get them to communicate with those of other nations, well, I hate to break it to school deans, but two years of college classes are not going to achieve that goal. They'd need four years and time living abroad. That's great for those who choose that route, but we shouldn't force them.

Those who dogmatically support the foreign language requirement don't seem to understand opportunity costs. The student who spends two years not learning the language might have benefited from a computer programming, economics, or accounting class. Or all those religion, history, and anthropology courses that would truly educate them about different cultures.

Of course, they might take more of those silly courses that are so popular these days on campuses such as in-depth analysis of "The Sopranos" or rap music. Colleges have so many ways to waste students' time these days.

What I'd really like to see is all students get some real-world experience interning in their chosen vocational interest. Way too many students graduate from four years at very expensive schools with no real experience or background for getting a job these days. For many students, the most practical experiences they have in college come from their extra-curricular activities. I guess that practicality is just beneath the academic community.