As debates over the fate of French, German, and Italian in higher education unfold, it is easy to feel dismay over the material decline of those languages and the traditions they represent. But there may be a silver lining to the trend. For many years, people in the humanities have considered and reconsidered both the linguistic basic of humanistic study and the centrality of French and German in literary fields. Usually, those discussions proceeded because of ideological and multiculturalist pressures that denounced the demand that students study French and German in order to be conversant with advanced research. Accusations of “Eurocentrism,” which now seem so dated, often decided the matter, as did questions as to whether so many foreign language requirements were necessary for students who wanted to focus on contemporary literature and cultural studies. Participants in those episodes had the luxury of taking sides against foreign languages, particularly French and German, without worrying about any concrete impact their votes would have on department resources.
With cuts at SUNY-Albany and elsewhere, the grounds have shifted. Now, for instance, a change in general education requirements that reduces foreign languages represents a material threat to the departments. In other words, many language professors have discovered that their ideological positions have concrete consequences, distressing ones. This is no longer a matter of principle. It’s about survival.
This wake-up call has, I think, brought a welcome sobriety to curricular understandings in the humanities. One looks back at the anti-traditional and anti-institutional utterances of the 80s and 90s—“Let’s not privilege literature,” “We need to break down disciplinary boundaries,” “We need to get rid of survey courses and philology requirements and historical coverage and do ‘theory'” etc.—and wonders, “What did you think was going to happen? Did you believe that the rest of the campus would respect you if you undermined the integrity of your own field?”
When the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism included the essay “On the Abolition of the English Department,” a work that made sense in its setting (1968, University of Nairobi) but which all too many zealous English professors in the U.S. might apply to their own campuses, did they believe that outsiders would find their self-criticism a sign of worth?
Certainly we can say that it didn’t do English (or French or German) any material good. With the latest threats, nobody within language and literature departments talks that way any more. Instead, we see responsible and thoughtful defenders of the humanities coming forward, often doing so on traditionalist grounds. Voices such as Russell Berman and Rosemary Feal rightly target both public officials who cast foreign language instruction in terms of geopolitics and college administrations who live by the bottom line alone. They argue forcefully for advanced foreign language instruction as essential to liberal education, invoking traditional conceptions of literary study that have bolstered the humanities from the beginning—and that formerly had scare-quotes and sneer-quotes attached to them. Berman goes so far as to insist that learning a second language helps one “to appreciate traditions.”
We need more announcements like these, more statements of the best grounds for literary and language study. What would be especially helpful and satisfying would be for some of the people who disparaged English, French, German, and Italian in their traditional forms and contents to step forward and announce, “We were wrong.”