A lack of foreign language requirements for state-funded high-schools in Pennsylvania highlights what I consider to be a troubling trend in education. Sixteen states nationally require some level of foreign-language study for students to earn a diploma.
Foreign language instruction is difficult; finding teachers for languages other than Spanish can be a challenge, and there is constant pressure under No Child Left Behind to narrow the curriculum to core subjects like math and reading, the biggest “bang for the buck” when it comes to testing assessments. Not to mention there’s a higher perceived usefulness surrounding Math and English in contrast to other subjects.
However, if you look objectively at a core subject like high-school math–algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and for advanced students calculus–one could raise relevancy arguments that match those commonly leveled against languages like Latin: When was the last time, for example, you factored a quadratic equation, bisected an angle with a compass, or used sines and cosines to compute a distance/altitude? And while math is closely associated with science, economics, and technology–the principal engines of the modern US economy–the dirty secret is that the vast majority of jobs associated with these industries don’t really require a lot of math.
Now, please don’t take that last paragraph as a reason not to study math. I personally think math is a worthwhile subject, one that inculcates–per the teacher quoted in that last anti-math article I cited–a habit of mind. “Your mind doesn’t think abstractly unless it’s asked to - and it needs to be asked to from a relatively young age. The rigor and logic that goes into math is a good way for your brain to be trained.” This is absolutely true. But a similar bit of reasoning can be used for foreign language instruction–not just Latin, but any language.
The reason I think math is promoted more than these is, as I stated above, the association with high-paying career industries, and (more importantly) its emphasis on the NCLB assessments. And it’s emphasized on the NCLB because math is a subject that produces problems with clear, unambigious answers, perfectly designed for written tests. Foreign languages, on the other hand, are often messy with nuance, and beyond a few simple questions what foreign-language teacher gives multiple-choice tests?
If I were king, I’d require everyone to learn a foreign language. Beyond a means of communication, it is a gateway to culture, it forces the mind to approach concepts from an entirely new perspective, and forces one to think about the assumptions buried in his or her own native language (and, therefore, his or her own thoughts). That’s true no matter the language (OK, maybe not Esperanto or Klingon), and I think students are on balance enriched for the experience. If we had a metric that precisely measured that level of enrichment, it would no doubt be part of the NCLB, but is the lack of such a numerical assessment a reason to disregard it’s value?
Another review of “Carpe Diem”, this time in the NY Times Sunday Book Review section (and it includes a wholly unexpected picture of Mr. Mount). Some of the reviewer’s criticism ("no macrons"?) seems somewhat trivial, but I think he gets to the heart of the books purpose as “a better recruiting pamphlet than textbook.”
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