Thu 22 Jan 2009
The College should work towards instituting a language requirement by 2020.
The COFHE survey from 2006 showed that 51% of Williams students surveyed did not think studying a foreign language was a worthwhile goal during their college career. We recommend every effort to change that perception, not least because more international job opportunities are open to those who can demonstrate proficiency.
1) Although this is just a draft, it is absurd to suggest a new requirement while providing zero discussion of the details. Just what sort of requirement are we talking about? Would one year of Japanese 101-102 be enough? Or do you need two years? Three? Without at least an overview of the issues involved (and how those issues are handled at other schools), there is no reason to take the authors seriously. They should either do some real work or drop this section.
2) A foreign language requirement was almost implemented at the start of Morty’s term. Morty is glad that it failed because of the opportunity costs involved. We all agree that it would be wonderful if student X learned Japanese. But, assuming student X does not want to, which 4 courses do you think he should drop in order to fit in JAPN 101-102 and 201-202 into his schedule? Morty’s point, obviously, is that Williams students only get to take 32 courses and the vast majority of them are wonderful. We should think long and hard about forcing them to sacrifice the courses they want to take for the courses that we want them to take.
3) Morty also mentioned that the language faculty were against the requirement because they knew that there are few things worse than having students in your class who do not want to be there. Have the authors surveyed the Williams language faculty about this proposal?
4) I believe (contrary information welcome) that at every elite school with a language requirement, you are allowed to pass out, either by scoring at a certain level on the AP or the Achievement Test for the language or by passing an exam given by the school. Williams would, almost certainly, offer the same option. And virtually every rich student at Williams would be able to take advantage! Almost every prep school and high quality public high school offers four years of foreign language instruction while guiding/insisting that students bound for elite colleges/universities take advantage of the opportunity. Almost all such Ephs would be able to pass out easily. So, this is not a requirement that binds Williams students equally. It only binds those who did not go to Milton or Newton North. Not that there is anything wrong with screwing over the poor kids!
5) But even those Williams students who did not go to fancy high schools will often have studied several years of foreign language. Many of them would be able to pass out of the requirement as well. How many students would that leave? 200? 50? I really don’t know, but it is a much smaller number than 500.
6) Call it 100 students who could not pass out of the requirement. But some number (25?) of them would take a foreign language anyway. After all, many Williams students want to learn a new language. And bully for them. So, now we are down to 75 students who did not have the opportunity to take a foreign language in high school (or turned down that opportunity) and who don’t want to take a foreign language at Williams. And all of these students will have a very good reason for the decisions they make. Maybe they are very poor at languages. Maybe they are indifferent to learning a language but there are just too many other wonderful Williams courses that they want to take. Do you really think you are doing these (mostly low-income) students a favor by forcing them to take a foreign language? Write a paragraph to them explaining why.
7) The 51% of Williams students who “did not think studying a foreign language was a worthwhile goal during their college career” are almost certainly correct for them. These students do not argue that other students should be prevented from learning Japanese. They just don;t want to learn Japanese themselves. Can you blame them? Learning Japanese is hard! Especially if you have trouble with languages in general, especially if you are taking other serious courses. (I speak from experience.) Do you really think that you know better than them?
8) This sort of sloppy thinking does not belong in a Williams report:
We recommend every effort to change that perception, not least because more international job opportunities are open to those who can demonstrate proficiency.
Of course, if two otherwise equal candidates are applying for a job at the IMF or McKinsey and one of them speaks English and Japanese fluently while the other is English-only then, obviously the former has an advantage in getting the job. But that is not the question relevant to whether or not Williams should have a language requirement. In this case, do any of the 75 students who can not pass out of the requirement and would not otherwise study a language improve their chances of getting a job? Almost certainly not!
First, the vast majority of Williams student never compete for jobs in which speaking another language is a meaningful advantage. Second, even for those jobs where it is, the key distinction is between fluency and non-fluency. McKinsey won’t care if you took a year or two of Chinese at Williams. If you can’t talk to the client fairly fluently in language X then, for most practical purposes, your knowledge of language X is irrelevant to the job. If you just take two years of X at Williams (and then stop), your knowledge of X will be mostly useless as far as the IMF is concerned. And the IMF knows this. Third, the sort of student (recall the characteristics of the 75 students actually effected by the requirement) who did not study a foreign language in high school and does not want to study it at Williams is highly unlikely to want to study the language for more than the absolute minimum he is required to at Williams. Moreover, this sort of student, untalented and resentful, is unlikely to try very hard in the class or do very well. And won’t he be fun to teach!
Summary: A foreign language requirement at Williams would only impinge on mostly poor student from below average high schools with no talent or interest in languages. Forcing them to study a foreign language will not materially improve their job prospects or life outcomes. The Ad Hoc Committee on International Educational Initiatives should either tackle these issues in their report or remove the recommendation entirely.
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