Re: Off topic: language death in the US

From: James Partridge (
Date: Wed Mar 14 2001 - 13:59:00 EST

There has been a lot of debate about this on SeeLangs - the Slavonic and
East European Languages list. In the spirit of fair debate I'm forwarding
the long response to this Chronicle article (sorry about the length - I hope
no one objects), sent by the man at the centre of the furore, David Maxwell,
the President of Drake University. I realise this isn't really a Unicode
issue per se, but since Michael Everson has brought it up perhaps Unicoders
would be interested in the other side of the story.


James Partridge
St Edmund Hall
Oxford University

----- Original Message -----
From: "Michael Everson" <>
To: "Unicode List" <>
Sent: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 6:08 PM
Subject: Off topic: language death in the US



[Forwarded Message]

I recognize that the following letter is quite long; given the furor that The Chronicle's recent coverage of Drake's foreign language decisions has catalyzed, and the personal attacks to which I have been subjected, I would ask that you do your best to print it in its entirety, either as a letter or as an op-ed elsewhere in The Chronicle. I can only assume that The Chronicle will be inundated with letters on this topic, and hope that I am afforded this response.

many thanks

To the Editor:

I am not at all surprised by the vehemence of the responses to The Chronicle's recent article, "A University Plans to Promote Languages by Killing its Language Department: Russian professor-turned-president eliminates all jobs in French, Spanish, and German." Indeed, The Chronicle's incendiary headlines seem intended precisely to invoke an emotional, rather than intellectual, response, and I managed to fuel the flames with a few comments that, in retrospect and in print, read like ill-considered wisecracks. Were I still a full-time member of a foreign language and literature department (which I was for eighteen years), and did not read the article carefully--with all of the skills in understanding subtexts that most of us develop as literature critics--I, too, would be joining in the Colloquy in loud protest against Drake's seemingly draconian measures, and criticizing (politely) its seemingly arrogant and ignorant president. I would like to think, however, that I would have done it with civility and respect. For the past week, my e-mail inbox has looked like the transcript of The Jerry Springer Show. I have a scholar's commitment to the value of debate, and a thick enough skin to not take disagreement personally, but I must admit to be truly astounded by the volume of mean-spirited, self-indulgent, personal attacks that have been submitted to the Colloquy; they do nothing to advance the debate, and they do everything to embarrass the profession.

First, I would like to emphasize that Drake University did not "kill" its language department; we removed it from artificial life support after years of sustained attempts to bring it back to life. Those who seem so ready to criticize the University for this decision have indulged in a behavior that they would not tolerate (I hope) in their students: a failure to undertake a close and nuanced reading of the text (The Chronicle article), a willingness to leap to unsubstantiated conclusions (would real scholars ever base their research on a single newspaper article?), and a failure to demand more evidence before reaching a conclusion (I am astounded that many people took the time to send me belligerent diatribes via e-mail, condemning both the University and me personally, yet only three wrote to say, "There must be more to this than meets the eye, because it doesn't make sense to me. Can we discuss?")

As might be expected, it would be neither judicious nor appropriate for me to go into great detail publicly regarding the situation that we faced in foreign languages at Drake University; if nothing else, it would be demeaning and unfair to the faculty affected by our decision. I must limit my comments on this issue to points that were made in the course of Faculty Senate discussion, and that are therefore in the public domain. The decision was based solely on quality; on the need to produce outcomes that met our students' learning goals, and that were consistent with the goals and mission of the University. Allegations that the decision was driven in any way by financial considerations are simply incorrect. It was not a decision that I, as president, forced on anyone; thankfully, I have neither the power nor the desire to do such things. Rather, it was the result of a lengthy, institution-wide review of all programs--a process that involved, in one way or another, the vast majority of faculty and staff on the campus. The recommendation that we phase out on-campus language instruction came from the faculty of Arts & Sciences, and forwarded with support by the Provost and, ultimately, from an elected faculty/staff/student Review and Priorities Advisory Committee. While I am responsible for accepting that recommendation (and for proposing the basic design of what we might do next), the notion that this was forced down anyone's throat by the president is entirely incorrect.

In the particular case of foreign languages, the institution-wide Program Review Initiative followed years of concerted attempts to reform and reposition the program. Faced with low and declining enrollments, expressed dissatisfaction among students and other faculty, a devastating external review, and a failure to respond both to offers of targeted faculty development resources and finally to a mandate that the department produce a feasible, credible strategic plan for its own renewal, the University was left with little recourse. As I indicated to The Chronicle in an e-mail that was not quoted--or paraphrased--in the article, in ideal circumstances, we would of course have preferred a different solution to our dilemma. But ideal circumstances are rarely encountered in higher education, and sometimes drastic situations require a dramatic response. The decision that we reached was not taken lightly; the minutes of the Faculty Senate to which some have referred in the Colloquy do not show the careful deliberations of a faculty advisory group within Arts & Sciences (which rated the language program twenty-sixth in quality out of twenty-six programs in Arts & Sciences) and the lengthy deliberations of the elected Review and Priorities Advisory Committee. Ultimately, all of us saw the decision to phase out our on-campus language offerings as unfortunate, frustrating, and painful.

Nonetheless, we are excited about the opportunities that our new approach affords, and optimistic that it will provide significant and meaningful learning opportunities for our students. My good friend (at least until now) Prof. Heidi Byrnes has correctly pointed out to me an in email that a real danger here is that other senior administrators will see our approach as prescriptive, given my alleged (my term) credibility as the former director of the National Foreign Language Center. However, ours is a solution that we have chosen at Drake as a response to the particulars of Drake's situation; it is not intended deliberately as a model for others, nor do we intend it deliberately as an assault on the integrity and competence of the foreign language profession. I am entirely aware of the potential shortcomings of this model (though I don't agree with all of the alleged flaws pointed out in the Colloquy), and do not want to minimize their importance; but they are vastly outweighed by the gravity of the situation that we faced, and by what we believe to be the potential for success of the new initiative. We will do our best to exploit the significant opportunities that this model affords, and to minimize the impact of its flaws. We will also continually monitor its effectiveness and impact, and make the necessary adjustments accordingly. I should note that several of the alleged shortcomings of our approach identified in the Colloquy strike me as straw men, erected for the purpose of self-righteous posturing. We are not tossing unprepared students into uncharted and unstructured waters overseas, nor are we encouraging them to enroll in other institutions' programs. We are forging partnerships with overseas universities to design programs that specifically address the learning needs and goals of our students: they will include carefully crafted instructional programs, course content in culture (high culture and behavioral), home stays, etc. I have no idea where The Chronicle's phrase, attributed to me, "can't shoot the breeze with a bank teller," came from; our aspirations for our students in terms of linguistic and culture knowledge and capability are far more meaningful than that: it is our hope that they will develop a sufficient level of competence (which, in my definition, requires both linguistic and cultural knowledge) to function effectively in culture. No one has said that culture is not important, and no one has said that language and culture are not essential to liberal arts education. What we have said is that we are going to try to address these essential subjects in a manner that is far more effective than what we have been doing at this university. Finally, cost to the student is not an issue, as some have alleged (calling this an elitist approach); these will be exchange relationships in which there will be no change in cost (or financial aid) for Drake students.

I would also like to clarify some of the impressions regarding my views on language learning in the U.S. conveyed by The Chronicle. While I do agree that a U.S.-based classroom is not the place to "master" a foreign language, I did not remember saying anything remotely resembling the fact that I am "convinced that colleges in this country need classrooms at all." I also did not say that I was an ineffective teacher. I did not rely on the "grammar-translation" model; even I knew, then, that it wasn't a very creative approach. Quite the contrary, my students became quite competent in Russian language and culture--but I do feel that I could have been much more effective had I been more knowledgeable about second language acquisition and applied linguistics. In that sense, I was typical of the time; very few--if any--of my colleagues across the country in those days had any formal training in language pedagogy, let alone applied linguistics. What I did say is that we were constrained by the model, a one-size-fits all, 3-4 hours per week exposure to a foreign language in an English-speaking environment--and that no one expected students to come out of that model with communicative competence, unless they complemented it with an immersion experience.

As Director of the National Foreign Language Center, I had the opportunity to interact, in one way or another, with hundreds of language programs, language faculty, and college/university administrators around the country. While I do not pretend to ultimate wisdom and knowledge, I do have some idea of what's going on. So allow me, if you would, to make my views perfectly clear: I know that there are extremely competent foreign language teachers throughout the United States who are doing wonderful, creative things with up-to-date, effective materials--I have met and observed many of them. I know that there are thousands of language teachers out there working very hard, and very effectively, to serve their students well. Of course I know that many things have changed since I was a full-time language and literature teacher--more sophisticated pedagogy informed by research, the application of technology, better training of language teachers, and so on. I also know that there also exist extremely incompetent, unimaginative, and ineffective foreign language teachers who are not only failing to meet students' learning goals, but destroying any interest the student might have in learning a language. I have met and observed them too, in numbers and in places that I find disturbing--and not twenty years ago, but in the last three or four. I have observed first-hand the "grammar hell" that one submission described in classrooms at elite private colleges, top public institutions, and many other schools. I don't think it's the norm, but it's also not hard to find. I recognize that some of my comments, as reported in The Chronicle, may convey an uncharitable view of the profession as a whole; where my remarks were ill-considered and intemperate, I sincerely apologize--where they were quoted out of context or paraphrased inaccurately, I am as frustrated as anyone in reading them. Any criticism that I have made, in The Chronicle and elsewhere, has not been direct criticism of individuals (exercising the restraint that seems to have escaped many of the participants in the Colloquy), but of a system that--in spite of the best efforts of many--seems to be failing us. And that is the issue about which I would have hoped The Chronicle's coverage would have sparked a debate, a discourse that might have helped all of us address the difficult problems that we are facing on many of the nation's campuses.

Let me provide just a few bits of evidence for my contention that the system is failing to serve us well:

*We are the only country in the developed world that puts the burden of foreign language learning on the post-secondary system.

*There is virtually no effective articulation among levels of the education system.

*Only 8% of the nation?s undergraduates are enrolled in foreign language study.

*The average persistence time of the students who do study a foreign language is 2-3 semesters, hardly enough time for most students to acquire usable competence.

*Fewer than 15% of the pitifully small number of students studying any foreign language are studying any of the less commonly-taught languages that are so critical to the nation's interest (and to a truly global education), and very few of those who do stick with it long enough to achieve anything remotely resembling mastery

*Most colleges and universities offer only a one-size-fits-all language learning track for its students, regardless of their learning goals and backgrounds, i.e., whether they are studying language for general education (or liberal education) purposes, to achieve communicative competence, to prepare for graduate school in the field, or to acquire formal knowledge and/or literacy in the language of their own family; I simply do not believe that a single class--or sequence of classes--can address all of these goals with equal effectiveness

*The National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, conducted a three-year Language Mission Project with sixteen colleges and universities seeking to refocus and revitalizing language education; one hundred and ten four-year colleges and universities applied for participation, and the application process required a detailed explanation of their dissatisfaction with current practice on their campuses.

*Similarly, the NFLC and AACU conducted four national workshops entitled, "The Crisis in Foreign Language Learning in Higher Education," which collectively attracted senior academic officer/faculty teams from nearly one quarter (well over 200) of all the four-year institutions in the country! We learned from our interactions with the institutional teams that there is a significant and pervasive level of dissatisfaction and frustration with the language programs on hundreds of the nation's campuses.

I do hope that this response in some measure serves to clarify Drake's situation and plans, as well as my views on the state of foreign language learning in the United States. I will be delighted if Drake's action, and The Chronicle's coverage, serve to catalyze an ongoing discourse on some of the issues that I have raised above, and on other critical concerns that I know others will introduce. We all owe it to ourselves--and to the profession (of which I am still proudly a member)--to demonstrate that we are capable of a discourse that is more meaningful, more useful, and more civil than much of what has taken place in the past week.

David Maxwell President, Drake University

---------- End Forwarded Message ----------r

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