Ky. voices: Save youth from useless eloquence; quit teaching French

January 3, 2011 

On its opinion pages The New York Times recently posed the question: "Do colleges need French departments?" and went on to cite the example of the State University of New York at Albany, which is getting rid of its degree programs not only in French, but in classics, Italian, Russian and theater as well.

And HigherEdMorning just announced that Louisiana State University, the University of Maine and Winona State are making similar cuts in foreign language offerings.

As a teacher of the language of Voltaire, I can attest from personal experience that French programs are dangerous and ineffective. Here are two reasons why they should be abolished for the good of American youth.

Such programs might, in the wrong hands, teach self-awareness. In the year 1572 of the Age of Explorations, a Frenchman named Michel de Montaigne discovered a kind of eighth continent of the world. That continent was the Self (le moi). His Essays chart that journey of his exploration.

Now, if Montaigne were to learn they are dropping the study of French at the university, he would not be surprised. This is old news. The tsunami of identity studies, gender studies and meta-studies has long since pounded and swept his Essays away, deep into caverns of our gadget-ridden schools. Hardly anyone reads them any longer. Soon, there will be no one left who has read Montaigne.

From the point of view of social order, this is no doubt for the best. Self-discovery is not only useless, it is also dangerous and costly to society. The loss of Montaigne, by the way, will not make us selfless. It will merely make us more passive and superficial. The less we know about ourselves, the more we are apt to follow the leader.

Such programs, in the wrong hands, might also teach an explosive brand of humanism — even faith in a higher power, a super-humanism.

Montaigne's Essays attracted some ferocious disciples. Some were also his worst enemies (as French teachers can sometimes be for French programs). For example, the mathematical genius and mystic named Blaise Pascal freaked out when reading the Essays in the 1650s. He got sick over the "self" Montaigne had discovered.

Then he made another dangerous discovery, one that will no longer threaten American education if we can just drop the study of French. Pascal discovered what he called the order of the heart—a form of reasoning that only the heart can understand. With implacable and scissors-like perception, Pascal came to a series of now scandalous conclusions.

First, he dared think human dignity consists in thinking itself and bodies alone cannot produce one iota of thought. It gets worse. Pascal also dared to think that no amount of thinking or school intelligence can "extract one impulse of true charity" in human beings. For that, we need God.

I think it might be beneficial if our students no longer read Pascal, for the news that we humans are something more than complicated matter might truly disturb them. They are being taught, after all, that we are no different than animals and plants.

Montaigne and Pascal are dangerous characters, indeed. Their thoughts about the self and about the heart would just get in the way in a world bent on efficiency and on reaching materialistic goals.

Pascal even said he was no one's goal. He also said we are wretched creatures, stupid to be satisfied with the cheap entertainments of earthly existence. And he said these things in a French prose full of lightning and thunder.

Montaigne was not as tempestuous, but was just as useless and eloquent. He said we humans are neither angel nor beast; it is only when we try to act like angels that we turn into beasts.

If we stop teaching French, we will be protected from the wisdom of such thinkers as it recedes from consciousness along with the language they invented to impart it.

Ken Keffer is Stodghill professor of French and German at Centre College.

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