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Do Not Create a Foreign Language Requirement

Did the Ad Hoc Committee on International Educational Initiatives (led by Professors Darrow and Rouhi) ever complete the final version of this report 2009 (pdf)? Not that I can find. Perhaps that is all to the good, since one of their recommendations would have been a very bad idea:

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. (Who knows this history well?) Morty was 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. (See here for the contrary view.)

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. 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 students 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.

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To read, or not to read…

The Washington Post highlights a new study from the American Coucil of Trustees and Alumni on the absence of a Shakespeare requirement from the English Major at numerous top colleges.  Of 52 top national universities and liberal arts colleges reviewed, only 4 — including Harvard, but not Williams — required English majors to study Shakespeare as a requirement of completing the major.

Chairs of the English departments at Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and Yale were given space to respond. Prof. John Limon noted that he personally recommends to his advisees that they take at least one Shakespeare class, and emphasized the breadth of Williams’s offerings and requirements.

 we do have more courses devoted to Shakespeare than any other single author — usually four a year. In addition, we have a literary history requirement of one course before 1800 and another course before 1900…

And there are students who can make good use of the English major for all sorts of purposes, which lead them in many directions but not to a course in Shakespeare [e.g., techniques of cultural analysis]… That may be bad in several ways, but it does not invalidate that use if the major.

Compare the response by Geoffrey Sanborn,  Amherst’s English chair:

Sanborn said it’s important to remember that English is about more than its canon… we conceive of literature as a basic form of expression that’s taken as wild variety of forms, in a range of cultures and across time… We’re trying to create lifelong, engaged, animated readers … [and we] trust students to be adult enough to choose, with help from their advisers, a path through the college.”

57% of the 266 Amherst English grads have taken a Shakespeare course. I wonder what the comparable number, not provided, is for Williams.

Although both chairs raise the “bit we have advisers to steer them” trope, I favor Prof. Limon’s response, which seems more engaged with what makes an English major distinctive in a liberal arts curriculum.  And the authors of the study — who undoubtedly place a high value on the literary canon, are highlighting a very crude statistic. After all, if a student can satisfy a Shakespeare requirement with some course like “Reimagining Shakespeare as a Crypto-Anarchist,” or some such thing, does it really mater that it’s a requirement?

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Wick Sloane ’76 in The Stanford Review…

Sebastain Gould, Stanford ‘12, took time off after freshman year to serve as a Machine Gunner for the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of: Sebastian Gould and the Stanford Review)

Wick Sloane, well-recognized as an advocate for the community college system, its’ path for veterans, and the potential for these students at four year schools such as Williams, is featured in an article in the Stanford Review Veterans at the Elites. The author, Harsh Govil, quotes his belief on the value of these young men and women to elite colleges

“For some, the benefit of having veterans is clear. Sloane poses the question, “from a teaching perspective, if you think you provide one of the best educations in the world, how can you miss a chance to have these young men and women in the classroom?”

Richard Nesbitt, Director of Admissions at Williams, is also extensively quoted in the article. While explaining his view of the difficulties of integrating veterans onto the campus, he mentions a new program the college is exploring. Here are Nesbitts’ quote and the conclusion of the article

“We are talking to marine corps veterans as part of [our] leadership scholar program,” said Nesbitt. The program is at a discussion stage and is being developed to help identify high ability veterans interested in a liberal arts college. Although no agreement has been signed yet, this structured approach to identifying the “right fit” veterans would go a long way in ensuring that they stay in the classrooms even after the first quarter. If adopted by other schools, this approach could lead to a healthy veteran community in colleges like Princeton or Harvard.

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Foreign Language Requirement

Thanks to “a parent” for pointing out a draft report on international education initiatives. The Report has much to recommend to it. Read the whole thing. But at least one idea is very bad.

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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Requirements

Another interesting discussion from Morty’s visit to College Council.

President Schapiro said that the public speaking requirement failed by one vote in May 2001 when the writing requirement, quantitative reasoning, tripling of the number of tutorials were all passed. President Schapiro wanted to require tutorials and thought a public speaking requirement would be a way to get students involved in tutorials. For public speaking requirement, 80% of the grade would be based on oral presentations. Would like to bring it back as something that would come out of the 2020 Committee. He said that one problem with requiring tutorials is that those who really want to be in course shouldn’t be paired with those who don’t want to be there. However, he hoped to bring back the discussion of public speaking and thinks there should be a tutorial requirement. He then said that Williams competes against wonderful schools that don’t have any requirements at all and this is problematic. He doesn’t want Williams to be perceived as a paternalistic institution where students are not trusted to make their own decisions.

Exactly right. The only requirements that Williams should have are 32 classes and a major. Everything else is either unnecessary or counterproductive. Now, individual departments have the right to require whatever they want. If PHIL wants to require a tutorial to be a philosophy major or ECON wants to require two writing intensive courses, then that choice is within the purview of those departments. See here for related discussion.

Note that the topic of public speaking requirements is particularly ridiculous because Williams already has a public speaking requirement, at least if you are a MATH/STAT major. I am unclear on the exact details (clarifications from current students welcome) but I think that every MATH/STAT major needs to present a public colloquium (see here for an example by Kristin Sundet ’08. This is a serious presentation, requiring students to thoroughly master a small part of mathematics. All the students that I have discussed this with have praised the exercise, describing it as one of the highlights of their academic careers at Williams.

No professor at Williams should propose a public speaking requirement until her department has already instituted one.

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