SINCE 1759

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Cogs and Ends
Education’s Heists

Magritte's "Golconde" (1953)

Twice in the last few weeks I heard a leading educator in the region and a business leader in the state say how important it is to teach foreign languages to students and to start early. Great. When I mentioned that I’d be teaching my children French, they both recoiled as if I was a delinquent parent. Why French, they’d say, when Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, along with English, are the languages of the global economy. Don’t I want my children to be competitive in that economy? The questions go to the heart of the purpose of education. My two-fold answer may well prove me delinquent in the eyes of most outcomes-based brigades today. But if it’s education we have in mind rather than the manufacturing of brave new cogs that fit efficiently where bottom-liners like them to fit, then mine is probably the better answer. From a humanist’s perspective, it seems to me unquestionably so.

First, I think it’s irrelevant what foreign-language students learn as long as they learn at least one language other than English (assuming that they are learning English: a hopeful assumption in too many cases). If my son decides to learn a Bantu language and my daughter Navajo, I’d be just as happy as if they learned Spanish, Swahili or Arabic. It’s not the specific language that matters. It’s the act of learning it that does, that opens the mind, trains them to think more broadly, exercises their brain in the same way that learning music or developing an appreciation for art does. I’m pushing French because it’s my mother tongue, it’s a beautiful language, no one has ever caught a disease from reading Balzac, Voltaire, Tintin and Babar in the original French. Au contraire. I happen to think that learning French strengthens the immune system against various diseases like materialism and superstition.

Standardized tests can’t immediately measure the links between learning’s inherent value, whatever happens to be the thing being learned, and the benefit that kind of learning produces. It’s like measuring aesthetic value. It can’t really be done, even though the value might be obvious. It’s probably why number-crunchers ridicule the notion of learning for learning’s sake. So what can’t be graphed as competence-inducing and quantified as job-producing is judged by a one-word condemnation: idealistic. Which brings me to the second part of my answer.

I’ve never considered my children’s education as a means to an end. Education is an end in itself, just as my children are ends in themselves. I’m not raising them to be “productive citizens.” I’m not raising them to be taxpayers. I’m not raising them for them to take their rightful place in the global economy. All those things may be just what the marketplace is ordering — and schools are producing with increasing submission. But I don’t know what creating intellectual lug nuts has to do with education. That’s not to say that if they want to be doctors or pilots or engineers they should study Swahili and hope for the best. But it is to say that I’m raising my children with the hope that they’ll be, foremost, individuals who see the purpose of their life validated by what and who they are (what and who they keep making themselves to be, education being the only lifelong form of self-employment they’ll have) rather than by the job they hold or the place they’re holding onto in the so-called global economy.

In many ways, learning a dying tongue like French is the culturally noble thing to do, a greater service to globalism and “diversity” — that favorite buzzword of the modern corporate citizen, after all — than would be the learning of those business languages that do to culture what malls do to the landscape — sprawl it down to a single, lucrative purpose. Imagine if one day all the world spoke just English and two or three other languages. Great for business, maybe. But how much poorer the world would really be. Ask yourself then, next time you’re in the middle of a business seminar about diversity, to what extent the seminar sponsors mean what they say by diversity, as opposed to projecting diversity as another one of those means toward an end that has nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with more efficient productivity.

Of course I want my children to be productive, to pay their taxes (who else will contribute to my Medicare and Social Security pennies?), to have good jobs. But I hope those will be the incidental results of a well-rounded, liberal education, foreign-language skills included. That implies that the job market naturally accommodates the critically minded, the independent minded, the skeptically minded. That’s the part of the equation that’s idealistic: Subversives are not generally welcome in the workplace. But better that than submit to the outcomes-based brigades, if a life well-lived, rather than a job unquestionably served, is the purpose of education.

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