Monday, December 13, 2010

The Centrality of Language Education

Facing substantial and protracted budget difficulties, several public colleges and universities (and even many private institutions) have responded by instituting efforts to reorganize or eliminate academic programs. Such efforts can be both useful and productive. For public institutions in particular, we do have the responsibility to regularly evaluate our programs in order to insure that we make the best use of the limited resources that we have. Maximizing the use of our resources and being accountable are duties that we owe the people of our state and our students, their families, and others who support us. In the current fiscal climate every college and university has to make difficult decisions and choices.

Recent announcements by some institutions that educational programs in selected foreign languages will be reduced or eliminated have generated a vigorous debate. It’s not my purpose here to criticize those decisions, but simply to point out that such steps would, in my judgment, be wrong for the University of Rhode Island. Because it is an important strategic priority for URI to prepare our students to thrive in a global economy and an increasingly globalized society, education in foreign languages is central to success. Certainly language acquisition is important, but not necessarily sufficient; we should strive, whenever possible, to acquaint our students with the cultures, literatures, and histories of those parts of the world where those languages are spoken. Rather than reducing the scope and breadth of modern language education at URI, I believe we should be seeking the resources to expand our programs and to increase the number of our students who study foreign languages.

And, indeed, we are. A proposed new major in Chinese will soon, I am confident, add to our existing modern language majors in Spanish, German, French, and Italian. In addition, we offer students the opportunity to study Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese, modern Greek and Hebrew. It is noteworthy that our Italian program is the largest undergraduate-only program in the country. Enrollments in our other modern language majors and minors are also strong. URI’s International Engineering Program (IEP) is internationally regarded for its excellence and impact. Students in the IEP graduate with dual degrees in an engineering discipline and a foreign language program. Language education is also a key component of our programs in International Business and in the Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design Department. The University of Rhode Island has established a leadership role in the integration of the study of modern languages into academic programs where it is important.

In my view, the current national and international contexts argue for the continued, and even accelerated, development of academic programs with an embedded modern language component. For example, as the University of Rhode Island builds the Harrington School of Communications and Media that will be examining modern communications and media in an international context, I think we should consider options or programs that include foreign language education.

I am writing this in China – a country that is impossible to visit without appreciating the value and power of multilingual capability and multicultural understanding. One of the keynote speakers at this year’s annual meeting for Confucius Institutes, Dr. Tu Weiming of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Beijing University, Research Professor at Harvard University, and a former Professor at Berkeley, emphasized that as our world becomes more complex the ability to understand and accommodate diversity becomes more, not less, important. I agree. He further, and provocatively, suggested that one of the reasons for America’s rise to greatness was that, for much of its history, we were a “learning” nation, productively assimilating, adapting, and using knowledge and wisdom from across the world. Dr. Tu suggested since World War II America has become a “teaching” nation, and less interested in learning from others. This also strikes me as accurate and, if so, it would pose a threat to our continued competiveness and success. As a nation, we can still learn a great deal from other nations and cultures; the knowledge and wisdom we gain will make us stronger. Those Americans with language skills and multicultural understanding will provide much of the essential leadership in this regard. It is the responsibility of the University of Rhode Island to educate such citizens.