Op/Ed: Modern foreign language programs don’t prepare students for the work force – The University of Alberta example

Warning: This post may offend literary scholars and literary theorists.

One of Canada’s most reputable institutions of higher learning, the University of Alberta, announced today that it is cutting 20 arts programs. Languages and culture programs are taking the brunt of the cuts. Included in the cuts are undergraduate major programs in classic languages, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian. A full list of the cut programs can be found here.

For years I’ve said to my colleagues that languages programs that focus mainly on literature and culture are doomed. I agree that there is immense value in learning literature and culture, but the reality is that it won’t get you a job — unless you want to become a literature professor.

Employers looks at people with literature degrees and ask themselves, “What can you do for us?”

I remember sitting in a department meeting 15 years ago asking if we could incorporate courses in foreign languages for business and commerce?

My colleagues who were literature experts hissed at me. I became an instant heretic. The suggestion was tantamount to treason in a department where the senior professors were literary scholars.

I was proposing specifically that we incorporate language and culture courses of a more practical nature that students could use as viable and marketable professional skills to position themselves for success in the global job market.

Consider the difference between these two scenarios:

Scenario #1:

Prospective Employer: So, I see you did a major in Italian. Tell me more about that.

Italian major graduate: I learned about Dante, Petrarch and major Italian literature, along with grammar, structure and syntax.

Prospective Employer: How would you use what you learned on the job?

Italian major graduate: I’m not really sure…

This is the reality of most modern language majors today. They learn about literature, culture, art and history, but without concrete skills that are easily transferred to the work place. Employers can’t make those links either. The value that languages major brings to an organization have never been made explicit.

(In case you  think I’m exaggerating about the kinds of topics Italian majors learn about, I took my example from the current University of Alberta web page on Italian studies course offerings, though I suspect the web page will be defunct before too long…)

Scenario #2:

Prospective Employer: So, I see you did a major in Italian. Tell me more about that.

Italian major graduate: Unlike traditional programs in modern languages, the one I took was modernized to include courses in Italian business language and professional culture. The courses I took introduced me to fundamental business language in Italian so I can converse more easily with clients, as well as understand how business is conducted in Italy, including cultural norms and social expectations in the Italian workplace. I also took courses in current issues that included a survey of key political and economic factors that allows me to understand the situation in Italy today, as well as where it is headed tomorrow.

The value that this graduate would bring to an organization is much greater. It is difficult to internalize the nuances of foreign business practices. It goes beyond knowing how to dress or greet one another. The subtleties are vast and almost impossible to learn without guidance — for any foreign culture.

I say this as someone with two degrees — a bachelor’s and a Master’s — in literature. I loved studying literature. It goes without saying that we need to teach students critical thinking skills and that learning about culture is important to understand the human race. I learned first hand what it meant to live under the poverty line for a number of years in my adult life. My degrees in literature did not prepare me for the work force. I had to learn to market my skills in other ways. Only then was I able to pull myself ahead of the low-income cut-off (LICO) line. It was a long road and one that my colleagues with full-time tenured positions as literature professors are unlikely to understand.

The days of the self-indulgent scholar are quickly coming to an end. The romanticized version of a scholar puzzling over pile of ancient texts is quickly fading. I’m not suggesting there is no value in learning ancient texts and literature. I’m saying that surrounding yourself with ancient texts is not a viable career option for most language and culture students of the 21st century.

For years literary theorists in institutions of higher learning have stubbornly refused to entertain the idea of expanding modern language and culture programs beyond literature. We could call it professional hubris. The repercussions are that modern foreign language programs are now being cut. It makes me feel sad, but I can’t help wondering if international language programs that focus solely on literature and art aren’t doing a disservice to their graduates?

Imagine what would happen if we taught our students how to navigate cultural differences in the workplace, adapt to global professional environments and learn basic workplace vocabulary, rather than literary terminology. Imagine how we could help our students understand clearly and explicitly the value their foreign language and cultural skills bring to an employer, regardless of whether that employer is corporate, government or non-profit.

It’s not about selling out to corporate consumerism. It’s about giving our students professional opportunities outside the literary realm. There are more jobs outside the literary realm than inside it. Why wouldn’t we want to create opportunities for our students to be successful in other sectors, too?

What’s your take on all this? Should foreign language programs that focus on literature, art and culture be saved? What needs to be done to revitalize and revamp foreign language programs to make them more viable?

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