Governor Jennifer Granholm has laid down
the gauntlet: a 5 percent reduction in state funding for all state
universities that fail to keep tuition increases below 2.5 percent.
Those that cut costs and keep tuition increases under that magic
number will only see a 2 percent reduction. The University
administration now has some tough choices to make. It’s clear
that cuts are going to have to be made, but after steep cuts in
funding last year, what’s left to slash? Let me make a humble
suggestion:

Mira Levitan

Cut the LSA language requirement.

Let me start with a disclaimer: On principle, I have no problem
with the language departments, their instruction, or their programs
in general. In an increasingly global economy, it’s evident
that a second language can be a valuable asset. However, the big
problem with a four-term language requirement, especially at the
University, is in its inherent inefficiency.

 

It’s a waste of the university’s money.

I pay the same tuition whether I sit in a 600-person lecture
hall or whether I sit in one of the 30-person discussion rooms
typical to language classes. So if I’m University President
Mary Sue Coleman, I try and make sure that Dan Adams and all the
other undergrads are packed in like so many sardines into lecture
halls. That’s pretty much how it works, but due to the
inherent intimacy required for proper language instruction,
lecturers who could and often do teach several hundred students in
one sitting, instead teach around 30 students.

If the university wanted to cut costs, instead of requiring
foreign language, just require something else. Pack me and a couple
hundred other kids into the Natural Science auditorium and hire
someone smart to talk to us for a couple of hours a week. Even with
a full professor making six figures, it’d still be a more
efficient use of the University’s precious time and
resources. Sure, if I had my preference, I’d like all my
classes to be smaller, but the benefits of small classes are
somewhat muted when the topic of instruction is how to ask where
the bathroom is in French.

 

It’s a waste of my money.

It’s no surprise that the University, the world’s
most expensive public university, has a foreign language
department. Then again, so does Washtenaw Community College. This
isn’t intended to be a knock on the language instructors
here, many of whom are among the university’s best and most
dedicated faculty, but their hourly rate is pretty steep, whether
I’m learning advanced game theory, or how to speak elementary
Spanish. Where is the value in that? Truth be told, there are
dozens of ways to learn a language: Take night classes at a local
school or pick up a language program for the computer —
virtually anything would be cheaper than University tuition.

 

Too little, too late

The University only seems to care enough to make me go through
the motions, but not enough to force me into actually learning the
language. Do the math: One semester of language, at 15 weeks a
semester, and four hours a week, comes out roughly to only 60 hours
of total class time spent speaking and learning a language. Factor
in the 120 hours of recommended study time at home for 60 hours of
class time, and you get a generous estimate of 180 hours spent in
one semester speaking your language. I have an experiment: Cash in
that tuition check, and spend two weeks in Puerto Vallerta drinking
beer and eating tamales on the beach, and you’ll probably
speak more Spanish and get more culture than if you’d spent
that time in Ann Arbor, filling out worksheets and barely passing
Spanish 231.

Tomorrow, though, I won’t bolt to Mexico. Instead, along
with the rest of the damned, I’m going to make my lonely
march up to the Modern Languages Building and stumble through
Spanish as best I can. Maybe I shouldn’t complain —
after all, I did sign up for a liberal arts education and the
diversity of classes that such a program entails. But no matter how
much sugar I sprinkle on, the medicine isn’t going down any
easier. I have a sneaking suspicion that this half-assed knowledge
of a language that’s being jammed like the proverbial round
peg into my square hole is going to abandon me somewhere between
fluency and ignorance.

So just let me choose. From how I understand it, the language
requirement isn’t all about language — it’s about
teaching students about the culture of other nations through a
language-oriented curriculum. If this is the case, give me the
culture and spare me the cost and time of a four-term language
requirement. The language departments will get students that
won’t behave like the condemned, and those who don’t
care to learn a language here can opt out, painlessly and without a
peep.

Adams can be reached at
“mailto:dnadams@umich.edu”>dnadams@umich.edu.

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