Last week, while I was busy
procrastinating revising my conference paper, I became tangentially involved in a minor kerfuffle on Twitter regarding the foreign language requirement for doctoral students in the humanities — specifically, for PhD students in U.S. history and/or English/American literature.
The chief interlocutors in the debate were Rosemary Feal of the MLA, Rob Townsend of the AHA, and Erik Loomis, an environmental historian who writes for the blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money.” (Loomis is an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island.)
Feal was touting the MLA’s latest recommendation calling for “advanced competence” in a single foreign language for students pursuing PhDs in English, and Townsend seemed to think the same requirement would be a good idea for U.S. history PhDs. Loomis, on the other hand, decried any foreign language requirement for U.S. history PhDs as an unnecessary bit of academic gatekeeping that smacked of elitism and would alienate students from working-class backgrounds. He suggested that it would be more useful and valuable for students to learn a programming language. I will respond to (some of) Loomis’s ideas about the needs of working-class students below.
First, though, I’d like to say a brief word about Twitter — what it is, and what it ain’t. Twitter is a great medium for making quick synaptic connections — promoting links, bloggers, blogs, news articles, finding interesting people doing interesting work. It’s a great place for starting conversations, but an infelicitous forum for carrying on a sustained argument. Generally speaking, a Tweet is less a fully-articulated thought than a place-holder or pointer indicating that one has some Ideas Worth Discussing that Ought to Be Explored in More Depth Elsewhere. Happily, Erik Loomis has elaborated his ideas on the language requirement in a blog post here.
Loomis, Feal and Townsend are not the first academics to publicly disagree about the worth or utility of a foreign language requirement. Indeed, this is a Very Worn Argument. If you want to have a little fun with JSTOR, do a search for “foreign language requirement” (in quotes) and “history.” Here are the search results, ranked by relevance, and here they are ranked by date (newest to oldest). As you can see, the earliest salvos in this debate are pretty dang old.
Doug Steward’s 2006 article, “The Foreign Language Requirement in English Doctoral Programs” (Profession: 203-218), is especially helpful in sketching out a historiography of the debate about the foreign language requirement for literature PhDs. Steward’s assessment of the issue offers a far more nuanced and nicely argued version of the basic idea that informed my incredulous tweet accusing Erik Loomis of advocating provincialism. Steward writes:
Our linguistic and research biases in the English profession are as “US-centric” as biases usually are in the United States, and that includes a kind of obeisance to the definition of science that obtains here. Two consequences of such a deference to the scientific research model are narrow specialization…and the utilitarian devaluation of any skill, such as knowing a foreign language, that does not yield quickly tangible research benefits. These biases also include an unconscionable, if unconscious, complicity in the English language’s global hegemony and in the views that language is a transparent medium of communication and that English is the language of the United States….Culturally, English monlingualism means national isolationism and a parochial self-regard. If this is a problem in the United States English-language population at large, I can think of no good reason to condone such isolationism among the most educated Americans — those with research degrees… (213-214)
Now, Steward is talking about English (including, of course, American Literature). Simply substituting “the U.S. history profession” for “the English profession” here would probably represent a wildly inappropriate conflation of one discipline’s history and character for another. So I would be grateful if my colleagues and/or readers who are historians of higher education or have an especially good command of the history of the profession would offer some insights here on whether or not Steward’s assessment “in the abstract” might be aptly applied to the particular situation of U.S. history or U.S. historians. Narrow specialization, complicity in the English language’s global hegemony, parochial self-regard — is this us? Alternately, if someone can point us to an article that lays out the history of the foreign language requirement (or lack thereof) for U.S. history — something I was not able to find — that would be helpful. Perhaps U.S. history has been less monolingual as a profession or discipline than English or American lit. And perhaps not.
In the meantime, though, I would like to address one aspect of Loomis’s argument. He writes:
History should be a tool for work. It should be a tool for the work of many of us. And our students are in fact leaving the history major because they don’t see it as valuable for their future. Holding onto the belief that people should major in humanities because they will be smart has its own value, but it’s also not enough to compete in the reality of the 21st century university marketplace, particularly among students with working-class backgrounds. We need to show our students that history does have concrete value for their future, including BUT NOT ONLY, that it will make them more educated and interesting.
It is not clear what Loomis means here by the “reality of the 21st century university marketplace,” but I assume he means the academic job market, since he concludes his post with a discussion of the difficulties of finding a tenure-track job. However — and regrettably — the “marketplace” has come to the university in a multitude of ways that reach well beyond the “job market.” I suppose a resigned acknowledgment that the market has triumphed once and for all, that only those skills that are easily instrumentalized and obviously and immediately lucrative are worth the time and money it takes to teach them or learn them, is a sensible and even defensible position. But it is a presentism with no future — no future for the academy, and no future for the working-class students about whom Loomis is rightly concerned.
Whatever the degree requirements for getting a PhD in history, the profession of U.S. history as a whole — I mean the whole field, broadly construed — requires that there be scholars who are conversant in languages other than English, not only for archival research but also to critically engage with current scholarship. If the hegemony of “the market” has done anything, it has helped to undermine the paradigm of the singular nation-state with discrete geographic, economic, cultural and epistemic borders. The field of U.S. history extends far beyond the borders of the United States, and the contours of the field for practitioners within the U.S. seem to be bending towards something like a transnational turn, if that’s not already in our rearview mirror. So the profession will continue to need trained historians who are skilled in languages other than English, and those scholars who do have such language skills might have a competitive edge in “the market.”
Besides, if “the market,” rather than the profession, is to dictate the skill set that makes for well-trained historians, how are working-class students served by the suggestion that they forgo language training? It is hard enough to compete for a tenure-track job against star applicants from top-tier programs that will probably not waive the language requirement. Why make it harder by choosing to further diminish the kind of training offered to PhD students at non-elite institutions? You do working-class students no favors by telling them to aspire to be less skilled and less prepared than the top tier of their cohort. If anything, language training should receive more emphasis and support at non-elite schools. Instead of clamoring to have this requirement waived, PhD students in U.S. history should clamor for more and better language training for undergraduates at their institutions, and more support for intensive language tutoring in their graduate programs.
As a profession, we don’t have to stand by and let “the market” decide that a less skilled, less well-trained academic workforce is beneficial. It’s not beneficial to society, and it’s not beneficial to the discipline of history. It’s only beneficial to those who seek to deliver education on the cheap. Working-class students — and I have been one, and I guess I still am one — have been shortchanged in so many ways already. They don’t need to be complicit in the further narrowing of their own horizons. Instead, they — we — ought to collaborate with the other disciplines in the humanities — and especially with the beleaguered foreign language departments — to contend for a more robust, more rigorous graduate education for all of us.