Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pro Lingua Latina (or: In defense of Foreign Languages and Literatures)

2 June 2010

Michael V. Martin, Chancellor
156 Thomas Boyd Hall
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803

Dear Chancellor Martin,

            Surely you, the Chancellor entrusted with the integrity of this institution as the Flagship University in the state of Louisiana, cannot agree with or support the recommendations of the planning task force that the BA programs in Latin and German at Louisiana State University be eliminated and that language options in general be reduced.  It is my experience as a life-long member of the academic community and of LSU's faculty for the past ten years that task forces often make decisions that look good on paper but have disastrous consequences for higher education in practice.  I urge you, therefore, to reexamine your proposal to the Board of Supervisors in light of the following considerations.
            The name of our college has just been changed to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  In his email to faculty Dean Foster stated:  "Our College has been around since 1908, our social science disciplines for well over a century, and the humanities for millennia... Maintaining and expanding our tradition of excellence is the important thing."  Latin and Greek form the basis of the humanities, which may be defined as the interdisciplinary study of languages, literatures, history, philosophy, religion, art and culture of ancient and modern civilizations.  By eliminating the Latin and German BA degrees and reducing the language choices through the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, LSU would effectively be undermining the entire humanities-based education on which the concept of the modern university was founded. 
            Our world is becoming increasingly global, and the modern university should instruct its students in global communication.  Contrary to popular belief, English is not the international language of business and politics. In order to foster business and foreign relations with other countries, we should be well-versed in the subtleties of language and the differences between cultures.  How will our students learn this with the proposed reductions to a department in which not only language courses but courses in culture as well are taught?  Furthermore, the ability to read and communicate in a variety of languages enhances research and cross-cultural enterprises, thereby increasing the skills of our students for their chosen professions.  The elimination of languages at this large research institution will limit the opportunities for our graduates, and is bound to reduce the number of international students and international researchers who are awarded grants that bring money and international recognition to Louisiana State University.
            So what does international business and politics have to do with a BA in Latin?  Latin teaches the basics of English grammar and expression which are no longer taught as part of the basic high school or college curriculum. For the Greeks and Romans, the study of rhetoric was the cornerstone of formal education because the ability to communicate determined your success as a military leader, politician, lawyer, or poet.  Students graduating from LSU should be able to express themselves in a way that reflects the high standards of language and communication of this institution.  Sadly, the dominance of electronic communication has seriously weakened rhetorical standards across the nation and many of our students lack the skills to communicate effectively in the professional world.  And if students are not able to communicate effectively in their own language, how will they be able to compete in world where people are trained to speak two, three, even four languages?
            The study of Latin at its most basic level provides students with an awareness of the correct method of expression in their own language and a vocabulary suited for intellectual discussion, thereby improving these crucial communication skills.  Latin also teaches problem-solving that approaches the level of mathematics, and the study of classical civilizations leads to an understanding of the principles on which our Western culture is based.  Students graduating from an American university should be aware that our founding fathers were well-versed in the classics, and that our legal system, history, literature and art are inextricably linked to the civilizations of the Greeks and Romans.
            It is my understanding that Louisiana State University is currently defending its accreditation through SACS.  While there is no stated language requirement in SACS' Principles of Accreditation, paragraph 2.7.3 clearly requires a general education component, including courses from the humanities  which will ensure a "breadth of knowledge" and which "do not narrowly focus on those skills, techniques, and procedures specific to a particular occupation or profession."  The reduction of programs and languages in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures would dramatically reduced the already low number of General Education Humanities courses available to satisfy this accreditation requirement. 
            The elimination of any language at a large, internationally-supported research institution such as LSU does not belong in Phase One of the process to reduce costs, even in the face of severe financial crisis.  Your email of 24 May even indicates that the savings to the University with full implementation of this plan would be $1.5 million, a drop in the bucket compared with the $43 million cuts the University has received during the past academic year.  If you blast the foundation of a university education with such tactics, the rest of the institution is sure to crumble.
            Chancellor Martin, stand up for the University, stand up to the nay-sayers who tell you that humanities are of tertiary importance in the scheme of higher education.  Reconsider your recommendation to the Board of Supervisors and fight to keep the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and its programs intact and central to a meaningful educational experience at Louisiana State University


Instructor of Classics

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