Economists, political scientists, even composition instructors devoted to the process approach, tell us that the marketplace is becoming ever more global and that, in order to compete in the global marketplace, American students will need to be able to communicate in nations not their own to people different from them. The traditional way of establishing communication with people of another nation has been to learn their language as competently as possible in order to make oneself clear and avoid the confusion of linguistic mistakes and inaccuracies. Knowing another language is, moreover, the first step in acquiring a wider notion of the society represented by that language. Today, however, at the very moment when the global marketplace is being celebrated, colleges and universities, including the state universities of Michigan, have all but eliminated foreign language requirements. In addition, foreign language studies are falling prey to many of the same biases that plague freshman composition.
Among other desirable types of college level training named by employers in Recruiting Trends is training in a foreign language. “Foreign languages offered real advantages when employers were considering current employees for advancement.” Yet no branch of the state universities of Michigan imposes a clear-cut, universal foreign language requirement on undergraduates. Requirements at MSU and CMU contain loopholes. And foreign language departments are meanwhile increasingly subject to the same kind of questionable pedagogy that is evident in the case of freshman composition.
An example is supplied by efforts within the Department of Linguistics and Languages at Michigan State aimed at “restructuring” its curriculum. One of the architects of this development is Patrick McConeghy, a professor of German at MSU, who has published a number of articles in which he develops his ideas. McConeghy has been invited to speak on other campuses by language departments seeking what they often call a “new paradigm” for foreign language instruction. It is McConeghy’s argument that foreign language instruction is too “élitist.” According to his plan, foreign language programs should be reconstructed to make them more “relevant” and “appealing” to students. This entails the de-emphasis of literary culture in favor of a version of popular culture articulated around the idea of class conflict as the basic human condition. Under this concept, literary culture becomes a tool of oppression used by those who hold power against those who find themselves in the position of powerlessness.
What McConeghy’s article calls “internationalizing the curriculum” might more accurately be described as giving it a political character, infusing it with multiculturalism, and making it one more forum for the ubiquitous “victimology” associated with the humanities and social sciences. This could lead to absurd results in some cases. How is it possible, for example, to “internationalize” German, a language largely confined to Central Europe? And what about Swedish, Thai, or Athabascan? As is increasingly typical across the curriculum, this proposal gives little attention to the intellectual significance of instruction in a second language, and portrays the language course as a vehicle for promoting the concerns of so-called oppressed groups associated, however loosely, with other languages. In this framework, Turkish guestworkers in Germany become more important than Schiller and Goethe. Are Turks important? Of course. But why not, in that case, study Turkish?
Traditionally, teachers have understood the value of learning another language to reside in the rigor of acquiring a grammar, syntax, and vocabulary different from those of one’s native language, and in exploring the literature of the new language to gain insights which can then be compared with the insights generated by one’s native literary tradition.
For this reason, freshman composition consisted historically of a study of rhetoric involving much analysis of literary and other texts. One acquired mastery in one’s own language in part by immersion in the best that it could offer. The admirable goal of foreign language instruction was to make students literate in a second language by a similar method of high-level immersion. The guiding theoreticians in composition programs seem to have rejected this insight. Many teachers of foreign languages are preparing to do the same. Hence the strangely named “internationalization” of language courses.
In his model syllabus for an “internationalized” German program at Michigan State, McConeghy limits mandatory literature courses to two, placing emphasis instead on a sequence of “life and literature” courses. In the model course, called “German Life and Literature: Cultural Differences” (German 440), the syllabus directs students to study “mainstream strategies to deal with difference” by reading an anthology (in English!) called Contemporary Perspectives on Psychotherapy with Lesbians and Gay Men.
This roughly parallels the freshman composition course at Eastern Michigan University which requires students to study anthologies of black separatist and Marxist literature.
The representative “internationalized” German syllabus directs students to spend a week on “Turkish Women Workers in Germany,” a week on “Male Guestworkers in Germany,” a week on “Peasants in the Middle Ages,” two weeks on “Afro-Germans,” one week on “Gays, Bisexuals and Lesbians,” two weeks on “Male Homosexuals,” one week on “German Immigrants in Michigan,” and an equivalent one week at the very end of the course on “German Jews.” Only one text listed in the bibliography for this course, Die Judenverfolgung in Mannheim 1933-1945 by H. J. Fliedner (from which students read a total of 85 pages), appears to provide a serious discussion of the Holocaust.
Traditionally, the “internationalized” argument claims, foreign language teachers “choose course materials according to how well they suit a certain language level or represent the literary expressions of the period.” But under the “new paradigm,” McConeghy continues, “our first criterion . . . would be how well [the materials] reflect the values and beliefs of the members of our target culture at a given time.”
As the “internationalist” school sees it, foreign language studies in the American university are “dominated by a hierarchy that places literary studies above all others, often to the exclusion of cultural studies beyond the first two years of language learning.” But in what sense, one may wonder, are literary studies not part of cultural studies? Since literature is the forum in which a culture’s most perceptive observers document their own tradition—as Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola did for French culture in the nineteenth century, as Herman Melville and Mark Twain did for American culture during the same period—literature is a central and indispensable element in the study and acquisition of diverse viewpoints other than one’s own.
The error of traditional language teachers, McConeghy argues, is that they stress “correctness before communication” and promote “literary periods, genres, and great authors” over “culture.” “Culture,” however, certainly includes the history, politics, art, and literature of a people, even if it is not comprised exclusively of these things. What McConeghy appears to be doing covertly is rehearsing the familiar Marxist attack against “bourgeois” or middle-class culture by championing the so-called proletariat. This type of argument, although common in the academy, has little empirical relevance to late twentieth century life in a technological and democratic society.
Where does this type of thinking lead? It leads to a German major who focuses a disproportionate amount of attention on the lifestyles of contemporary German gays and lesbians and, devoting two weeks to the study of Turkish women guestworkers in Germany, can spare only one week in which to consider the Holocaust. The “new paradigm” largely rejects the traditional content and methods of language instruction, generated and refined over long periods of time, and embraces pedagogical values similar to those evident in today’s degraded freshman composition course. The associated rejection of “correctness” is nothing less than a rejection of grammar, the basis of rigor in language, and the rejection of canonical literary texts in favor of popular culture.
The “internationalized” formula is not presently the universal formula for foreign language studies, but given the success of similar ideological formulas in English departments, it enjoys a great likelihood of becoming the typical formula for foreign language studies. A Spanish teacher at Central Michigan University advises me that she is now forced to teach with a textbook that explicitly disdains grammar and correctness and favors popular over literate culture. This is a sign that foreign language programs are in trouble.
An article in Foreign Language Annals on the teaching of Spanish adopts terminology from contemporary composition theory, asserting that, “since facts are unstable,” as the writer claims, “many suggest that the acquisition of cultural knowledge should be process-oriented rather than product-oriented.” Another article in the same issue advocates “holistic scoring,” a grading system that rejects the traditional criterion of linguistic correctness in favor of the now-familiar concern with so-called expressiveness and so-called student self-esteem.
McConeghy is thus by no means simply one lone, eccentric voice. He represents an influential movement within college level foreign language departments. Foreign language studies appear to be embarking on the same path taken by composition studies thirty years ago, and the result is likely to be the same: the nullification of intellectual standards in the field—and another group of students tragically ill-served.
Susan B. Delaney, an associate professor of French at Central Michigan University, explains the tried and tested rationale of traditional foreign language instruction:
Grammar provides the structure that makes communication in a foreign language possible. Without a sound grammar base, the student can at best speak a pidgin language full of vocabulary but not held together in a way meaningful to the native speaker. The misunderstandings that result from faulty grammar can be harmless and comical, but they can also be embarrassing to the badly taught speaker, and confusing, boring, or even insulting to the foreign listener. Ultimately, the American student who is poorly educated in the grammar of a foreign language, appears less intelligent than he or she really is, because complex thought cannot be conveyed in the absence of an equally complex linguistic apparatus.
Delaney’s formula agrees with Koper’s statement about the centrality of grammar and other basics to the study of English composition cited in the previous chapter. The absence of their type of thinking from so much of the existing curriculum may well explain the troubling observations about the knowledge and ability of today’s college graduates made by the researchers quoted in chapter 1. Delaney also remarks, in conversation, that her students have difficulty with French grammar and she attributes this to their never having learned English grammar. Part of the tragedy of the transformation of foreign language programs from their traditional form to the form dictated by the “new paradigm” is that, once this transformation is complete, there will be no place in the university where students are challenged to live up to the standards embodied in grammar and literature. As the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin liked to say, the limits of one’s language determine the limits of one’s thoughts. Heather Mac Donald might well have been thinking of this insight when she noted in her article on freshman composition that failure to instill language competency leaves students unable to think.
Foreign language programs have served the incidental but useful purpose of teaching many students what the mandatory freshman composition course now fails to teach them, but this may not be the case much longer, as viewpoints like McConeghy’s become dominant. Of course, the downgrading of foreign language instruction might ultimately be irrelevant, since fewer and fewer undergraduate majors require students to master a foreign language.