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The Disorderly March X

December 22, 2010

I’m going to just fold all my observations on education into the Disorderly March series from now on, for the sake of some future coherence.  That’s the lovely thing about this format – you’re free to build your loose, bloggy monster as you go, and maybe one day, given the incentive and opportunity, reform your ideas into something more tightly structured.

Via Andrew Sullivan, a link to an article on TNR.com in which author John McWhorter cheers the march towards “need-to-know” higher education, in the realm of cuts to “unnecessary” foreign language departments. 

A university of limited resources that has majors only in Chinese and Arabic should be a perfectly normal proposition.

French may have once been a necessary skill, as the language of diplomacy and culture, but now McWhorter wonders if it’s devolved into an affectation,

a kind of class marker? You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French?

It’s not only more practical to learn Chinese and Arabic these days, he notes, but also necessary for us to understand these civilizations with which we are clashing.  I did have to gasp a bit at this:

For example, it would appear that many technologies we create, such as ones to combat climate change, will increasingly be actually tested in China, whose political system is better at making real plans than ours and apparently will be for a long time. This will occasion an ever greater need for Chinese speakers for business purposes.

Yes:  their political system is “better at making real plans than ours” because you get shot if you don’t follow the plan.

To be reactionary, I have to disagree that majors in French and Italian and German should be defunded because

Our sense of which foreign languages are key to a serious education cannot be founded on what made sense for characters in Henry James novels.

The question is indeed one of value – but it’s as much a question of the type of world we want to live in, the type of culture we value, as it is a question of whichever one is militarily or economically dominant at the time.  French writers, German poets and philosophers (well, some of them), and Italian artists contributed to what we call “western culture,” a culture of individual liberty, class mobility, equality between the sexes, free speech, separation of church and state, and an active resistance to the idea of being ruled by sultans or Chairmen.  What can be learned from these no longer “relevant” nations, from their languages and history, is, if anything, more important in a world where economic and therefore cultural power is devolving back into the hands of autocrats and oligarchs.

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