Dumbing Down Foreign Language Instruction

A recent report from Britain concludes that U.K. universities are “dumbing down” their requirements for majoring in foreign language in order to attract more undergraduate students. “The most widely-reported trend was towards a ‘greater emphasis’ on cultural and film studies, the report said, resulting in a decline in literary studies,” the U.K Telegraph reported regarding the study authored by Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London.
I’ve got news for our cousins across the Atlantic: Foreign-language departments in U.S. universities have been moving away from traditional literature-based curricula for years, in order to focus on movies, fads, and neo-Marxist theory, It’s all in the name of “cultural studies,” the trendy examination of popular culture that has largely supplanted literature as the focus of foreign-language studies at most American institutions of higher learning.
Survey courses that might give students a chronological sense of a country’s literary history and the genres in which its writers excelled? Forget it—surveys are mostly a thing of the past. How about a required course in, say, Cervantes, for Spanish majors, Dante for Italian majors, and Racine and Moliere for French majors, so that language-majoring undergrads will be exposed to greatest writers that the language they are studying has ever produced? Again, no way. Here, for example, is a course description of the only exposure that undergrad Spanish majors at Carnegie-Mellon University have to the Golden Age of Spain, which spanned the 16th and 17th centuries and fostered not only Cervantes but the dramatists Lope de Vega and Calderon, contemporaries and near-equals of Shakespeare, and a host of other writers


“The Other in Spanish Mass Culture Productions: from Baroque Theater to Contemporary Film” Through careful analysis of Baroque plays and contemporary films, as cultural products destined for the masses, the students will gain an understanding of how Spanish society constructs the image of the Other in relation to questions of national identity formation. We will examine a variety of representations of figures of alterity, but particular attention will be given to those of the gypsy, the morisco, and the immigrant. Aside from the plays and films, our discussions will be informed by political, economic, social and cultural readings in order to contextualize the mass culture artistic productions and allow the students to compare and contrast two similar but distant time periods. Additionally, the course will familiarize students with critical theory on the figure of the Other by Bhabha, Foucault, Said, and Todorov.
The “Bhabha” is Harvard professor and jargon-laden author Homi Bhabha, runner-up in Philosophy and Literature magazine’s famous Bad Writing contest of 1998. The “Foucault” is the late postmodernist/sadomasochist French theorist Michel Foucault. The “Said” is the late Edward Said, indicter of Western civilization for “colonialism” and “Orientalism.” “Todorov” is Tzvetan Todorov, the Bulgarian-born Francophone literary critic whose musings on concentration camps and science fiction would seem only tangentially related either to the Spanish Baroque or to Spanish-language movies.
At Mt. Holyoke College undergrads majoring in French are required to take only a single course taught in French per semester during their junior and senior years, and there are no required courses whatsoever. Instead, French majors at Mount Holyoke design their own major with the help of a faculty advisor, picking whatever courses they like as long as the courses focus on a “topic, century, theme or area,” as the college’s catalogue explains. That “topic, century, theme or area” doesn’t necessarily have to be French, and the courses don’t have to be taught be professors in the French department. The catalogue’s suggestions for suitable topics include “gender/women’s studies,” “film studies,” and “travel literature.” An upper-level course offered this fall titled “Romantics, Realists, Revolutions in the Nineteenth Century” at least exposes Mount Holyoke’s French majors (if they choose) to the writings of Flaubert, Stendhal, Zola, and Maupassant (although it would help if the catalogue description didn’t refer to the founding of the Second Republic as “the Revolution of 1948”). The term paper for that course doesn’t ask for enrollees to write anything about those four authors, however. Instead, they’re supposed to “create a multimedia project in iMovie.”
Course catalogues of foreign-language offerings at other colleges reveal similar lightweight and often heavily politicized fare. At Reed College in Oregon, the course on Don Quixote (the lone course this year for Reed’s Spanish majors dealing with pre-19th-century Spanish literature) doesn’t require a written term paper, either. Instead, according to the course catalogue, there will be “student presentations that focus on adaptations and appropriations of Don Quixote in modern narrative.” The writings of Foucault—who seems to be a favorite these days when it comes to teaching the Golden Age—are prominently featured. Not a single one of Reed’s 18 upper-level Spanish offerings is free of political overtones (typically described as the “sociohistorical context”), and hardly any of them stick to Spanish literature, in contrast to artworks, movies, and postmodernist theory. The course description for “New Media in Latin America” announces: “We will read and view texts of many kinds: printed books, films, digital archives, e-poems, blogs, online games, and installations.”
Finally, there’s Trinity University in Washington, D.C., which has gone all the way on the cultural-studies trajectory, to the point of changing the name of the university’s Spanish major to a major in “Language and Cultural Studies.” An upper-level course that used to be called “The Novel of the Mexican Revolution” now goes by the name “Literature and Art in the Mexican Revolution.” The course catalogue explains: “[This course will help the student to perceive the study of literature as vehicle of human expression within a larger cultural and social context of the 1910 Mexican Revolution and its continuous influence in the development of Mexican culture.” Here is the catalogue description of one of the four required interdisciplinary course required of Trinity’s language and cultural studies majors. “Focuses on domestic violence and its relationship to social violence, seeking to raise awareness and calling for leadership within families and communities as they constitute the cradle of respect for the rights of children and women and where the protection of those rights are born. Offers a basic multidisciplinary perspective from educators, economists, international organizations, legislators and policy-makers, as well as from popular writers of fiction.” The course is taught in English, not Spanish.
In short, Worton’s hand-wringing report about the sorry state of foreign-language teaching in Britain would hardly make news in America. U.S. colleges and universities have been dumbing down their language majors—de-emphasizing literary works, padding once-solid courses with cultural-studies ephemera, cutting down the amount of required student writing and even reading in the studied languages, and larding everything with tired Marxist and postmodernist cliches—for years.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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