Surprise: a presidential commission set up to study the nation's need for foreign- language and international studies has concluded that the nation needs to do more in foreigh-language and international studies. The price tag ( $180 million on the federal budget) and some of the particulars ("The Group Projects Abroad Program under which teachers and college faculty members participate in intensive summer study programs should be doubled in scope") give the commission's report a certain flavor of academic pork. Still, though the report ("Strength Through Wisdom") tends to stint the personal considerations -- enjoying it, wishing to become a better educated person -- that draw many students, its national-interest rationale is to us incontestable. Language and area-studies expertise is vital to the American world position, for the specific skills that are imparted and for the cultural insights obtained. The United States has let its commitment slip over the last 10 or 15 years. The report forces Americans to ask why.
The main explanation lies in the changes that overtook American education in the 1960s. Colleges fell under increasing pressure to accept students who came not from traditional "good" high schools where language study was established, but rather from schools providing less traditional and less rigorous prepartaion. The feeling grew that it was not quite right, or it was too late, to teach a first and perhaps common foreign language at the college level. Meanwhile, students were insisting that academic requirements, such as having to show a certain language proficiency either upon entering or leaving college, were irrelevant, restrictive and authoritarian. The Vietnam War left a come-home, leave-foreigners-alone legacy, especially among the young, that may further dampened language study. The crucial financial support provided by foundations to advanced international research centers began to dry up.
Turning all this around is well beyond the reach of even as vigorous a report as this one. Pressures to admit students of varied kinds and levels of preparation remain strong, though student demands to control the curriculum have abated. Even at Harvard, the college often cited as being poised to start a bell-wether trek back to a foreign-language requirement, the discussion has been desultory. There is a fear that a language entry requirement may cost the college students. There is no consensus on the place of language study, except of a rare or difficult language, for undergraduates. Meanwhile, other faculty departments have carved up the curriculum, and the budget. At the high school level, computers became the "language" of choice during the period that foreign-language study languished; at the college level it now is statistics. Many states and localities will drag their feet.
But their is a clear and direct and plausible answer that cuts through the intricacies. It is that language study is essential to being educated and to living in the modern world. The single best way to promote it is to make it a college-entry requirement. The new report slips past this point, saying that a lanuage should be required for admission or graduation.Make it for admission, and much else -- not everything -- follows.