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've been wondering lately what multiculturalism was. I remember, of course, that it was a cause c´l²bre of the 80's and 90's, a big deal on campus, a hot ticket at the Modern Language Association. I remember all the talk about overthrowing the ''dead white males'' of the old canon and opening it up to the ''subaltern'' and the ''displaced'' and the ''other.'' And I figure that along the way it got some good writers included on reading lists, where they should have been in the first place, and some good writers dropped too. What it apparently did not do was promote the study of other languages, or indeed of other cultures.
During the very years when the multicultural movement was extending its influence, the study of foreign languages was falling into a general malaise. Enrollments were dropping, the ranks of competent language instructors thinning out and foreign-language requirements quietly disappearing. For example, according to the American Council on Education, 34 percent of all four-year American colleges and universities made foreign-language study a graduation requirement in 1965, while only 20 percent do now. Since the 60's, the percentage of college students enrolled in language classes has shrunk by half. And for all the multiculti buzz about respecting and exploring other cultures, the number of students who studied abroad remained tiny, the length of their stays got shorter and the list of countries they preferred -- Germany, England, France -- scarcely diversified. (How many parents, footing the bill, want to send their junior to, say, Uzbekistan? How many college students, laser-focused on landing a job on Wall Street or a slot in law school, want to put their G.P.A.'s at risk by studying, say, Urdu?) Meanwhile, disciplines that might once have sponsored in-depth study of other cultures -- political science, for example -- were taken over by scholars who eschewed fieldwork in favor of computer models and game theory.
There are plenty of reasons that Americans don't flock to language
study, from geographic isolation to our traditional assimilationist credo
to the widespread use of English. We don't have to! But if
multiculturalism is not precisely to blame, it is odd that a movement so
flamboyantly dedicated to the celebration of cultural diversity did so
little to check our tendencies to cultural isolationism. In fact, it may
have reinforced them, by lulling us into the sense that we were getting a
resoundingly global education when all we were really getting was a little
Of course, none of this would seem all that urgent if it weren't for Sept. 11. But now, suddenly, the fact that the colleges and universities in the United States graduated a total of nine Arabic majors last year seems to matter a great deal. So does the fact that the F.B.I. had to issue those slightly pathetic pleas for Arabic and Pashto translators in the days after the attacks. And so, most disturbingly, do reports that there were warning signs in F.B.I. intercepts about the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, warnings that went unheeded because the agency didn't translate them until later. Now Arabic-language classes at some colleges are filling up, and scholarly books on Islam are re-emerging as best sellers.
In truth, this is an old pattern. It was the cold war, and Sputnik in
particular, that spurred the growth of language and area studies in the
United States and the
Margaret Talbot is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a
contributing writer for the magazine.
Margaret Talbot is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing writer for the magazine.