French? Need Not Apply.

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own.

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Kunst and Alterthum

A friend who is a foreign language educator sent me a link to a site discussing the elimination or “deactivation” of basically all foreign language study at SUNY Albany, with the exception of Spanish.   It would appear that this decision was motivated by purely economic bottom feeder line reasoning.

I could state some lame pun here about being “speechless” or not having “the words” to describe my disappointment.  But, I have to say a thing or two.

As some of you may have already read, I studied foreign languages at SUNY Stony Brook in the 1980s.  At the time, I viewed this as an alternative path of study after abandoning my earlier decision to follow a course of education to prepare for medical school.  Stony Brook is one of the four major university centers in the SUNY system.  The other three are Buffalo, Binghamton and Albany.  According to Wikipedia, SUNY is “the largest comprehensive system of universities, colleges and community colleges in the world.”  Overall, there are 64 campuses across the state of New York.

Thus, the decision to eliminate all French programs (BA, MA & PhD) as well as BA programs in Italian and Russian at a university in the world’s largest university system is a devastating and short-sighted decision.

Those already engaged in the “deactivated” programs will be allowed to complete their studies and earn their degrees.  However, all faculty and staff have been advised either to take early retirement or to seek employment elsewhere.  This means that our state will have seven (7) fewer tenured positions for French scholars.

Poly Sci, please.

I just keep thinking back to my SUNY experience.  It was outstanding.  I studied under some of the best and brightest French and Italian professors.  I have kept in contact with a few of them up to the present date.  However, had this deactivation announcement come down during my university years, I would have seriously questioned continuing in my field of study.  There is a strong possibility that I would have viewed further pursuit of my degree as futile.  In my mind’s eye, I can see the filled-in scantron form effectuating my change of major to psychology or political science.

Thus, I think we can also expect a fair number of students currently engaged in SUNY Albany French, Italian and Russian programs to change majors.  I fear that, in the minds of the bean counters who made this awful, tragic decision, this effect will justify their faulty reasoning.

Granted, the following perceptions about French and foreign languages are out there:

  • English is growing in popularity around the world;
  • The USA is the world’s last remaining “Super Power”;
  • France-American relations have been deteriorating in recent years (especially since the W. administration fanned the flames of French resentment during their march to war in Iraq over the past decade);
  • French and foreign language degrees do not guarantee automatic jobs in the 21st Century workplace;
  • In terms of “on the street” utility, Spanish is much more significant than those “other languages”; and
  • French is a difficult language for Americans to learn to speak properly.

All of these factors possibly went into the decision by SUNY Albany President, George M. Philip, and his hand-picked rubber stamp committee to deactivate the programs in question.  However, the main reason apparently cited was “undergrad majors-to-faculty ratio.”  If this is true, that means that the whole thing is a numbers game.  SUNY, Inc. is eliminating an under-performing division.  Sales are down.

If you can speak three languages you’re trilingual.  If you can speak two languages you’re bilingual.  If you can speak only one language you’re an American.

~Author Unknown

I’m also thinking now of all those bright high school students who are linguistically gifted, and who may be interested in pursuing a path of study in French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Russian or other “non-Hispanic” languages.  In light of SUNY Albany’s decision, what incentive do they have to go on?  Smells to me like we’re about to see more young people with English degrees flooding an already saturated market.

As younger generations would put it: FAIL!

A different language is a different vision of life.

~Federico Fellini

— The Major


8 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for posting this. I really hope we can at least ‘make some noise’, as my Executive Director at the Graduate Center, Peter Consenstein, put it.

    I actually had a conversation in August with someone who is studying Spanish and who asked me, when I mentioned that I study and teach French, ‘Why French? I mean, like, no one speaks it anymore.’ It immediately occurred to me that the person before me had NO idea what learning a language means and entails. Evidently, she’s not the only one…



  2. Posted by Becky Klebe Galipeau on October 3, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I majored in French in college, and although I am not currently working in any foreign language field, I have no real regretsw about my decision to major in a foreign language. To eliminate all foreign language programs but Spanish is to further advance the perception of Americans as a linguistically (and culturally) egocentric people. In college and since, I have encountered so many people that had a negative view of France and its people; and stories of “rude” treatment while travelling there, that before I went there one summer during college I found myself being warned that anti-Americanism was rampant. As it turns out, those who had offered these warnings made no effort to learn even the rudimentary conversational phrases that are so common to travellers (Ou est la gare? Une biere, s’il vous plait.).

    I have no doubt that these same people now condemn multi-lingual options on phone menus and complain that they hear more Spanish than English when shopping at Walmart.


  3. Posted by Val on October 4, 2010 at 8:30 am

    I feel like we’re returning to the “freedom fries” time… What a shame. Everything that is supposed to open your mind seems to be seen as not important.
    Education is and has been about being efficent, making money without spending to much for school, getting as little education as possible and still get a job… being educated and wiser is not an always an option and now it is not offered, problem solved…
    What you see is what you get… great.


  4. will post to facebook, nice piece.


  5. Posted by Francisco Solares-Larrave on October 5, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Seems to me like a political decision in which the president resorted to numbers to send home a group of professors. What happened to German? Also, this is the result of people assuming that education and training are synonyms… when they’re not. Indeed, this is very sad news, comparable only to the shortsighted decision of the president of Drake University in IN, who also disbanded the departments of foreign languages and told students to go abroad to learn a language.


    • Posted by Gene on October 7, 2010 at 8:39 pm

      The short-sighted decision would have been that of Pres. David Maxwell of Drake University, IA (Iowa).


  6. Thank you for this engaging post on the dangers of eliminating these courses of study at SUNY. I completely agree with your stance on this issue and in my own blog, I discuss the benefits of bilingualism and how important it is to foster foreign languages. I think it is horrible that because numbers are down in the French, Italian, and Russian courses of study, that these programs get booted. What kind of model does this teach the students, our future, that when numbers are down, we should just give up instead of trying to fight to conserve what is of utmost importance? I too agree with what you state as a “short-sighted decision” because it hurts students in so many different ways. Learning foreign languages is extremely important to our future in order to grow in cultural awareness and communicate with others around the world without relying on them to learn our language. In an emerging global economy, the presence of foreign languages, especially in our universities, is of utmost importance. As you state, although the United States is the world’s “Super Power” and English is extremely beneficial to know, this does not rectify us in not having to learn other languages.

    It is horrible that the bright and distinguished faculty who this affects will be out of a profession they most likely prized. Likewise, you raise a very interesting point about students questioning whether they should declare another course of study. Although they are allowed to graduate in these fields, I would feel as if all my studying had gone to waste since the university seems to be devaluing the importance of these majors. Also, the fact that they are keeping Spanish at the university but removing these languages does not seem fair or even fathomable to me. Why keep one language thriving while debunking others? Foreign languages are all important and we should promote them equally. While I understand completely that Spanish is widely spoken here and we should learn it to communicate, why are we again restricting ourselves as a country to just learning one other language? I believe we should expand on what we do not know instead of just limiting ourselves to what is necessary in our country. So much for the university’s motto of “the world within reach!” I learned a lot from reading your blog and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you again for your thoughts and interesting take on this issue at hand!


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