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Archive for February 17th, 2005

Orientalism

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I’m currently teaching 12 first-year students at the very good university where I’m about to finish my aforementioned dissertation… The other day in class, I polled them on what languages they’re taking… Interesting findings.

Out of 12, only 3 are taking foreign languages (not good).
Out of the 3 that are taking foreign languages, none are taking European languages (I think this is good…)
The languages in question: Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili.

My general line of thought is that it would be a fantastic thing if American students chose their foreign languages based on their importance in the whole world, not just US academic tradition. When I was an undergrad, I took the latter approach. 4 full years of both French and German. The French I’ve made good use of, the German I haven’t. Wish now that I knew Chinese, Arabic, even Spanish for the Latin American element. 

On the other hand, knowing my students (future meritocratic technocrats, present technocratic meritocrats) I can’t help but think that this new emphasis on non-Western languages is just a repetition of the high enrollment in Russian back before the end of history. The "Know your enemy" logic that produced, for instance, Condi Rice. WHY are they learning Arabic, Chinese?

(The Swahili-taking student is a special case, bound for greatness, I think… Last semester, I had another white student who was obsessed with Africa – but that was, I think, because she plans some sort of Xtian missionary work down the road. Not good. This one, this semester, is all game – provocatively left-minded in exactly the right sense… The kind of student that makes it all worthwhile… Feel like the small things you do, teaching thesis arguments and Heart of Darkness and so on, may one day have a part in making a difference in the world… For the better…)

I also had one of my better students from last semester contact me to ask if he could name me on his application for Marine Corps ROTC as a reference… Lovely… Obviously, you play it straight, ’cause that’s what teachers do, but there’s a kind of natural temptation to take unorthodox steps to protect this warm, 18 year old body from the absurd harm that it might just put itself in front of… If I were a better, braver person…

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February 17, 2005 at 1:10 am

Posted in academia