Throughout my career as an educator, I have observed that the advanced study of languages is not universally valued in the American educational system. Even so, I was stunned by several announcements this fall. The University at Albany, State University of New York, has decided to eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics (the German program was already reduced), along with theater. Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge has cut all offerings in Portuguese, Japanese, and Russian effective this spring semester. Plans to phase out foreign language programs are being contemplated at several institutions, such as the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The option to major in German has been deactivated at the University of Maine, Orono, Loyola University at Chicago, and the University of Southern California, among others. When financial exigencies hit, decisions to cut services and programs must be made, but cutting languages is shortsighted. The Albany plan is especially draconian for a research university: No European languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the language acquisition stage.
Many universities, like Albany, seek to justify these cuts based on student interest as reflected in the number of language majors. That misguided metric is more complicated than it looks. Research by the Modern Language Association shows that language majors are often identified as second concentrations, but a many colleges and universities do not report such majors. Quite a few international studies and business majors declare a second major in a language. Many students choose to minor in a language, especially after a period of study abroad, and courses show up as transfer credits.
The flawed "number of majors" metric distracts us from the real question: What is the purpose of a university if not to cultivate the core disciplines of a liberal arts education for its students? If we value the advanced study of languages as central to the mission of a liberal arts curriculum, then we must ensure that programs have adequate resources, connect well to other elements of the curriculum, and provide students with the essential experiences to develop translingual and transnational competence. It is absurd to give students access to introductory and intermediate sequences in French (available in virtually all the high schools that send students to universities) but not to advanced courses on linguistics, literature, culture, and media taught in French. Students who peek into the door of language yet cannot go further are being denied a key component of a university education. In all of this, we are terribly out of sync with the rest of the world, where the study of one or more languages is undertaken seriously in the pre-university years.
Restricting and eliminating language offerings is a move that makes the university equivalent to a high school. It also deprives other humanities programs of the expertise that specialists in literature, linguistics, and culture bring. Community college students who transfer into four-year institutions like Louisiana State University may find that when it comes to languages, there is no progression from the two-year schools. College students returning from study abroad may find no opportunities to apply their high-level language skills in fourth-year courses. High schools teachers seeking to further their graduate education in the languages they teach may find no programs in the entire state, and when high school students ask what state universities they can attend to continue studying the languages they've started, the answer may very well be "none."
The consequences of failing to embrace language study early and promote it throughout the educational system are readily apparent. We are a "language rich" country in terms of the numbers of speakers of languages other than English who live here, but a "language poor" country when it comes to advanced expertise. Rather than encourage bilingual and multilingual speakers to pursue higher learning in the languages they know and want to know, some colleges and universities seem willing to jettison advanced study. While we must resist this country's creeping devaluation of humanistic study, from an economic or strategic vantage point, a diversity of language, cultural, and literary study is critical to how well the United States functions in a global context.
It is the responsibility of the larger community, academic and social, to make the case for the advanced study of languages and humanities. We must call out university administrators who, by failing to explain the value of the advanced study of languages and literatures to legislators and the public, are derelict in their duty. Until Americans see learning languages as an indispensable enterprise, we must argue, continuously and vigorously, for the centrality and indisputable relevance of this area of study.
The University at Albany proudly proclaims on its Web site that it "puts 'The World Within Reach.'" Yet if its restructuring plans go forward, one of the four flagship research universities of New York State and those schools across the country that follow its lead will put a good part of the world beyond the reach of their students. Let us hold all universities to Albany's statement of values. If the academic community and those who support it do not stand up in support of advanced study and research in languages other than English, then the humanities truly are incomplete -- and the mission of higher education is seriously compromised.