The Slowly Liberalizing Arts 3

русский язык для всех

Many years ago, at Phillips Academy, I decided to study Russian. It was my 3rd year in High School and the academic year 1992-1993. The Soviet Union had fallen. Gorbachev was gone. I had seen the Hunt for Red October, but I was not studying Russian because “It is wise to study the ways of one’s adversary.” I came of age in a time when the Cold War was already warming–I had never personally thought of the Russians as “the enemy.”

At 16, I had no idea that this was precisely the moment that people were turning away from studying Russian in droves. My decision to study Russian was basically apolitical–lots of my friends were studying Russian. Amazingly, the Russian Club was cool (for certain incredibly geeky values of “cool”) and I wanted to be involved with all the great Russian-based activities at school–I was in it for the чай. And as the title of our adorably outdated Soviet textbook told it, Russian (was for) Everybody!

Oh the Humanities

My teachers also did not seem invested in “othering” Russia and Russians; they were interested in language, literature, and culture. In that way, my Russian class was no different from the Spanish classes that had preceded it. I only began to think recently about how different that experience might have been if I had been 10 (or 20, or 30) years older, or if my teachers had had a different attitude. It’s a question that, while I’ve been living here in China, has been repeating in my head: In times of global conflict, when is studying foreign languages not part of the liberal arts? 

And it’s not just conflict. A colleague of mine tells a story of meeting a English professor from Japan at a conference and getting her card. “Department of Economics” the card read, and my colleague of course asked: “But I thought you taught English?” the professor from Japan replied, “The English courses are all taught in the Economics department.” The logic of that university dictated that English study was a necessary part of business study, even literature. Studying literature was a method of cultural studies that would enhance the (future) businesspeople’s ability to understand their international colleagues and to have social conversations. It is still unclear to me, taught that way, how “liberal” a liberal art the study of English is.

Understanding a language well does entail understanding something of the culture(s) from which it proceeds. One might argue that even when studying the languages, ways, and cultures of an enemy, liberal arts educational goals are are still being served, to the extent that real cultural understanding is achieved. Yet I still wonder–if the goal of the learner is to excel in business or to triumph in war–then how much does the goal of the education matter?

The Goal of Education

Recently, William Pannapacker published an opinion piece in the New York Times on the Liberal Arts education.

In a period of rapid, unpredictable change, a combination of traditional liberal-arts education, collaborative research, workplace experiences, and a “can-do” attitude is the safest bet for future employment, as well as the foundation for good citizenship and a life that’s engaged with culture and thought.

I read his piece in the context of many pieces that I have read recently about the troubles of recent college graduates in China, from the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Businessweek, to name just a few. The rapid expansion of college education in China (the New York Times article notes that the number of colleges and universities in China has doubled in the last decade, and the number of college graduates has quadrupled) is raising serious questions here about the purpose and the nature of a college education. One educator in China put it this way:  In the past, English majors, and foreign language majors in general were considered useful tools of the nation, mostly for diplomacy and business. If they understood western languages and thought, that understanding was only useful to the extent it could be used towards those two goals. Most universities with foreign language emphasis were founded with that understanding, but right now, that attitude is changing. English majors are being re-worked into real comparative literature majors; thinking critically, exploring ideas, and developing new modes of understanding are only just now being proposed as goals of English education. It makes it a particularly exciting time to be here.

China seems to be approaching what Pannapacker both advocates and foresees for American liberal arts education, but from a very different direction. To oversimplify the point by a lot–Pannapacker seems to suggest that in the past, liberal arts graduates were great thinkers, and could learn to do anything, but they didn’t really know how to do anything straight from graduation. He suggests that the influx of technology into the humanities, along with other pedagogical strategies, will make liberal arts graduates into competent and adaptable job candidates. China’s English graduates have long been regarded only for their skills–understand this, translate that, interpret for this–but haven’t been trained in the kinds of thinking that characterizes American liberal arts graduates. Changing this (at least at one university) is part of what I was hired to do: when I teach an essay-writing class, my students are well-trained to churn out reasonably “correct” writing. But what makes this a new challenge is that I am (it seems) the first teacher that many of my students will ever have had who tells them to experiment. To try something even if it doesn’t work out. To explore questions even if they can’t find answers. (Alas, as more No Child Left Behind students come of college age, this is also becoming more true in the U.S.)

And the Digital?

I’m really excited to be traveling to Nanjing and Zhejiang to give an introduction to the Digital Humanities in two universities. If this trend in China really picks up steam, I believe that there is no better way to ensure that China’s first real generation of liberal arts graduates (I heard from one professor here that the person who received the first ever PhD in English in China is still alive!) will be well prepared for the world they are entering than by ensuring that technology is not left out of the introduction of liberal arts. Right now, it is assumed that science and engineering students need access to high quality technology and technological education to do their work, but the same is absolutely not true of language students. I hope that I will help convince universities that this is not true and an investment in liberal arts should also entail an investment in humanities technology.