Plus Ça Change


The philosophy underlying an American liberal arts education can broadly be summed up, to quote former Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1887, that “every educated man should know a little of everything and everything about something.” Whether or not Harvard’s Core Curriculum currently achieves that goal is somewhat dubious, and the curricular review process should, with any luck, improve things a great deal. One area, however, that there has been little buzz about—and thus seems in danger of being overlooked—is Harvard’s obligation to ensure that all its graduating seniors have a mastery of at least one foreign language. Then again, plus ça change.

At the moment, the Core requires that all students take at some point during their Harvard careers two science courses, two history courses, two literature and arts courses, as well as the amorphous semi-historical and psuedo-literary no-man’s land of Literature and Arts C. Yet, in spite of the doubling up of these areas—and the existence of moral reasoning, social analysis, quantitative reasoning and foreign cultures requirements—there is no meaningful language requirement whatsoever. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not for one second suggesting that students should be exposed to less history, literature or science in exchange for learning a language. Learning a foreign language, however, should be viewed as just as important as any of those areas of academic pursuit, and not, as many now see it, as merely a pointless relic of Harvard’s days as an aristocratic finishing school.

The absence of a serious language requirement reflects reasoning so shoddy that it should never have been allowed to stand in the first place, and should be jettisoned as soon as possible. The premise that requiring students to learn a language at Harvard is a waste of their time, as many of them have already mastered languages in high school and do not need to waste their precious college careers continuing with them is patently absurd. First of all, the standards currently acceptable are far too low. Right now one can “place out” of a Harvard language requirement with a 600 score on the SAT II. As every student knows, those standards are risibly low; not only does one not need to have a mastery of a language to achieve a 600, one doesn’t even need the ability to survive a day as a tourist speaking that language. (Trust me: I comfortably placed out of a Harvard language requirement and I’ve tried and failed to last a full day in Paris, speaking nothing but my pigeon French.)

Then again, even if the standards were raised, the idea that students can place out at all based on high school experience is deeply flawed. Indeed, Harvard doesn’t let students off Lit. and Arts A because they read a lot of Shakespeare in high school. (Trust me: I’ve tried and failed on that score too.) The liberal arts philosophy which I discussed earlier applies to the classes which students should be exposed to at Harvard, not before they reach Cambridge. And the idea that taking a foreign cultures course is an acceptable alternative to learning a language is comical. After all, in depth knowledge of “Korean Cultural Identities” doesn’t help much when the task at hand is getting from one side of Seoul to the other.

As administrators, Faculty members and those few undergraduates lucky enough to serve on committees begin to debate how these requirements should be refashioned, they should take note of the importance of learning languages in today’s international climate. Long before Sept. 11 and the war on Iraq, Americans were frequently perceived abroad as ill-educated boors who cared next-to-nothing about anything beyond their borders. At school in England, my friends would often snicker about the Americans with their backpacks and sneakers who pass through foreign cities, taking plenty of photographs but understanding (and learning) next-to-nothing about the countries they visited. The European view of President Bush as a gun-slinging cowboy running roughshod over the international community was a convenient extension of that same stereotype. Now, of course, it is more important than ever that Americans disprove that perception of themselves. And Harvard students should, of course, strive to be in the vanguard of that offensive.

The recent liberalization of study abroad policies is a good first step as it allows interested students to travel for credit more easily; creating a serious language requirement, however, would be even more meaningful as it would ensure that all students were forced to confront the world outside America. Indeed, those students who dodge languages at Harvard are probably those who most need to be forced to take them. Harvard has a Core Curriculum precisely to ensure that students are forced to confront important topics, even if they fall outside of their favored fields.

The problem, of course, for the committee members, is that there simply is not enough room in today’s academic schedule to allow for additional requirements. (That’s disregarding the rumblings that more sciences may be added after the curricular review is complete.) But when all is said and done, the solution here actually seems relatively simple. So that vitally important skills like learning foreign languages are not forgotten, concentration requirements should be first standardized and then reduced to, say, 12 half courses. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with only knowing almost everything about something. But there’s plenty the matter with knowing very little about a great deal. N’est-ce pas?

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.