April 30, 2018

EDITORIAL: Arts Faculty, Don’t Gut the Language Requirement

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The Arts & Sciences Curriculum Committee’s recommended changes to the College’s language requirements, in particular the halving of the credit requirement from 11 to 6, are misguided and should not be adopted by the arts college faculty today. Foreign language is and should remain an integral part of a liberal arts education, and the proposed changes will only do a disservice to students and departments throughout the college.

The committee (on which no language professors sit) notes that students often find the current requirements burdensome; many students aim to take a single intermediate-level semester of a language they studied in high school, and some even transfer out of the College to avoid those courses. While this may be true, the response to such apathy should not be to lessen what is expected of undergraduates. If students have issues with foreign language classes at Cornell, those issues should be addressed, not swept under the rug by lowering the requirements altogether. Unless the committee believes there is something intrinsically repulsive about foreign language for students (note: there isn’t), they should endeavor to make those classes more enticing and rewarding rather than minimizing them.

The report notes that 63 percent of students elect to take one intermediate-level language course entered via placement exam rather than start a new language. The report implies that by lowering the requirement from “11 credits in a single language” to “two courses, at least three credits each, in a single language,” students who might otherwise take the intermediate-level track will instead choose to start a new language. Leaving aside questions of desired proficiency (it’s hard to learn a language in two intro semesters), that just doesn’t add up.

Now, we are but mere wordsmiths at The Cornell Daily Sun, unfamiliar with the mathematical sciences, but even we know that one is less than two.

If the language requirement is as cumbersome as the committee believes it to be, very few students who under the old rules took just one intermediate course, would choose to take two semesters of a totally new language merely because they wouldn’t have to take a third. If the option remains to go “one and done,” that option will remain by far the most popular.

But let’s leave the math to the mathematicians and the game theory to the economists. Here at The Sun we know a little about language, and we know that learning a language other than English is incredibly important. Because at a time when America’s leaders are taking great pains to isolate our nation from the rest of the world, communication is the key to bolstering our relationships with other nations and other people. It’s much easier to be angry at someone when you can’t understand them. It’s much easier to shut yourself off from the world when you are unable to connect with everything and everyone out there. Cornell’s plethora of language courses (there are so many!) offer us an invaluable door to the rest of the world. Let’s embrace that, not diminish it.