For the past couple of days, an article on the demise of foreign language programs at colleges and universities has been among the Chronicle of Higher Education's most-read pieces. (Chronicle articles requires a subscription; for free reading on the same topic, check out this U.S. News & World Report blog entry.)
Such programs, it appears, are feeling the pressure from two directions. On one side is the ongoing movement to abandon liberal arts in favor of professional and business programs geared to the marketplace; on the other, an impulse among college deans to emphasize more politically oriented (and politically correct, perhaps) programs on cultural studies.
This second impulse makes it easy to drop Spanish classes in favor of courses where students read about Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales (all in English, naturally). As the article's authors write, "[T]he abandonment of [languages] . . . implies that art and literature do not matter unless they can be turned into surrogate politics. ?Relevance' these days is understood in an extremely narrow sense."
Yet foreign languages are as needed today as they were 50 years ago, both for doing business and for promoting intercultural understanding. As members of a religious movement that is increasingly based outside of the West, a movement that has always crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries with the Good News of Jesus Christ, evangelicals ought to feel particularly pained by this loss of foreign-language education. After all, we look forward to a day when "every nation, tribe, people, and language" will worship before God's throne together. We are, by identity, mission, and goal, people of many languages.
One of the truisms I heard repeated often during my time working with Wycliffe Bible Translators was that language was the bedrock identifier of any culture, and that preserving languages was the best way to preserve cultures. Canceling a German program at the University of Southern California won't harm the Federal Republic of Germany, of course. But it does harm us. Here's hoping that some colleges and universities will buck the trend.