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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.


Pat Patterson said...

Without all the GE requirements who would be left to do the NYT crossword?

Stan said...

Not sure I agree re: foreign language. As a Davidson alum, I'm a big believer in a broad-based liberal arts approach. I agree that foreign language would rank lower on my priority list than some other subjects (if you are paring back required courses). E.g. I don't think anyone should get out of high school without a sound understanding of economics, much less college.

I think we'd have a lot less "educated" foolishness like catastrophic global warming, etc., if people had a better understanding of the history, psychology, sociology, political science, and economics which work together to produce a human tendency toward the "madness of crowds".

Marshall said...

A little personal history ...

I was graduated from NYU Engineering & Science (since sold to Brooklyn Poly -- renamed to NY Poly -- since acquired by NYU) in 1970 with a BS in Physics. Thus, I survived the protests of 1969, but universities did not. Gone were any semblance of core curricula (for the most part) and in its place came such fields of study as Black Studies, Women's Studies, Communications, Gym Floor Maintenance, and the like.

The reason I chose NYU E&S was in part because they had no foreign language requirement -- which I thought useless. NYE E&S did have a core curriculum which required about 24 credits (as I recall) in humanities -- which I bitterly resented (what did I need THAT for?).

Years later I learned what I had missed -- and valued what I had learned from courses such as Comp Lit (Comparative Literature -- we read the Odyssey, Gargantua & Pantagruel -- and a half dozen or so other classic works). I greatly regret not taking advantage of the wealth of courses then available to me (NYU had a sister college -- the College of Arts & Science, collocated with E&S at the Heights campus). I developed a love of history on my own -- years after my formal studies had ended.

I regret never learning Latin or Greek nor anything of art or history when it was freely available to me.

In the aftermath of the protests of '69, schools eliminated most of their core requirements -- and many of the departments that taught the courses.

Nowadays most college graduates know little of what their grandparents learned. More's the pity.

OBTW, this problem is not limited to post-secondary education. Our primary and secondary schools have lost their rigor, too.

My father was born in 1914. He once showed me his 8th grade mathematics text (how he kept it I'm unaware). It covered more math than most high schools do today (quite a lot of algebra & geometry).

Back then, an 8th grade education prepared you to take your place in the world. High schools today don't prepare for much of anything -- let alone a college education as it was then extant.

equitus said...

I'm not sure I trust how a liberal arts department would teach economics - lots of leftist theory with little relation to the real world.

Tacitus Voltaire said...

in most other countries students need to pass calculus as well as algebra and geometry, and to write dozens of essays, before they qualify to gradute high school

in this day and age, i would suggest adding a course in computer programming as well

it pains me to see american high school students graduate ever more poorly educated every year, and become that much more vulnerable to being unemployed, while every engineering shop i've ever worked in is full of capable engineers from other countries who've had a head start because of the superior primary school education requirements where they grew up

rather than cutting back on what our students are being taught, we should be adding, particularly in math, science, and history

John Cunningham said...

I agree that the current curricula in grade schools HS, and college is largely Commie indoctrination outside of engineering and hard sciences.
One quip-- no need to get a Ph.D. in sociology, you can summarize the entire field in two short propositions--
1. Poverty exists
2. Amerikka sucks

Locomotive Breath said...

As an engineer and someone who was on a university faculty for 14 years I've had to deal repeatedly with the perception from the liberal arts side of the house that I'm somehow uneducated. Maybe so, but I function a lot better in this world than they do.

Meanwhile, I get stuff from Phi Beta Kappa (I got in - there's a loophole) bemoaning the fact that so many of today's students are getting degrees in technical fields. And, oh by the way, could you rejoin please?

I'm tempted to write them a sarcastic reply questioning why they use the vulgar language of English when the truly educated use Latin or Greek.

Tacitus Voltaire said...

and speaking of education, or the screaming lack of it, if you want people to have some respect for the tea party, you're gonna have to get rid of morons like this (from sharron angle's patriot caucus web site:)

Theory of evolution?

Ever stop and ask yourself why it is called the theory of evolution and not the facts of evolution?
Maybe I can share something most folks do not know about, which may be of interest to you.
My background has made me privy to things many folks have absolutely no idea about concerning Nature and mankind.
One part of this involves Electro-magnetic Energy Frequencies, which each Species of animals and plants are part of a Specific Major Frequency and when the Frequency changes there is a Different Species.
These frequencies can be measured and have been by a few privy scientists.
Of course you cannot find this interesting measuring device at the local Monkey shop.
Within each Species there is what we may call Micro-frequencies, which are what allow for the adaptation to the varied environmental conditions a Species may find it’s self in giving rise to different colors, shapes etc, but the Species stays the same.
Example: Cows, we have Jersey cows, Holstein cows, Angus cows, etc, but they are still cows.
It is same for the monkey family, all Monkeys.
It is the same for the Bird family, Cat family, dog family etc.
The Human family is a Specific family of people and by Nature can never evolve from any other Species family Naturally.
This means the idea of Natural Mutation is Impossible for one Specific Species to produce another Species. Who has ever seen a Cat give birth to a Dog, or a Fish to a Bird?
Evolution is just a False theory of Religion that Liberals worship! Did the Liberals have you Fooled into believing they had Separation between Religion and State or Government?
In Fact Evolution is one of the Biggest Lies the Liberals are Brainwashing our Kids with in the National schools of America.
And the Liberal Monkeys think they have it all figured out?
Monkey see, monkey do, did the Liberals make a Monkey outta you too?
This might be one of the Biggest Nut jobs the Liberals in Washington DC have pulled off?
For the Liberals to Destroy our Constitution, they have to remove our Creator from our Schools and Government. Without the Creator the Constitution is Null and Void!
What better way than to Fool as many Kids and Parents with the Biggest Lie in History, called the Theory of evolution. —Brainwash our Kids—
We even have Liberal Monkey Nuts in Washington DC who want to call the Constitution a Living Constitution, so they can change it to suit their Liberal Socialist agenda.
Don’t you want to be one of their Socialists Monkey Nuts only getting to eat the Rotten Nuts they decide to throw you?
Have a Good Day!

lorraine_lanning said...

I agree. I even minored in German and have never once used those skills. I'm lucky if I remember a couple of words.

On the other hand, I learned a lot more about English grammar when taking German than I did in English class, they don't teach grammar anymore.

"I'd prefer that requirements flow from the student's major..."

I strongly agree with this. For example, my daughter has always struggled with math but math has nothing to do with any major she may select. I think it should be replaced by a common sense course in managing personal finance, knowledge most people seem to lack. English should be teaching people to write business documents - proposals, letters of recommendation, resumes, etc.

In the real world, unless you're an engineer, you never do more math than adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, fractions and percentages. That's it. If a kid likes higher math, great. But don't waste some kid's time on something he/she won't find useful.

The most I've ever used algebra is in helping my kids with their homework.

Tacitus Voltaire said...

flash! fox news viewers measurably more ignorant about public affairs:

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that: 

most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)

the economy is getting worse (26 points)

the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)

their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)

the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)

when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)

and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

MarkD said...

I didn't have a foreign language requirement, and I started college in 1968.

I took French and German in high school, so it was probably inevitable that I would end up in Japan courtesy of the Marine Corps.

By the time I actually went to Germany and France, to visit my daughter who was an Army spouse living there, I didn't remember how to count to ten. Except in Japanese...

Tacitus Voltaire above said it well. The discrepancy between what my wife's niece learned in HS in Japan, and what our kids learned here is frightening, especially in math and science.

If we don't get the kids who got real educations in other countries to come here, we are done. We won't make or invent anything, but we will have more than enough lawyers and regulation.

Barb the Evil Genius said...

My daughter was able to take three years of Latin while she was being homeschooled. It was very helpful for her to understand English grammar better, as well as find the roots of many English words. She is now picking up Spanish with ease. Although Spanish is a Romance language, I think Latin is useful for knowing how language is generally structured.

Mike said...

There would be greater social utility if there were a foreign language requirement in the earliest years of grade school.