In high school, students usually have extremely limited academic freedom. Many schools offer an array of coursework to choose from, but oftentimes, with such few electives, the most freedom students have is choosing between a government class and a history class. At the University, the opposite is the case. In fact, there are so many different departments that a student could not possibly take a class from every department even if they wanted to. The enhanced level of academic freedom that college students are afforded is perhaps the biggest perk that college has over high school — but it too is limited. At the University, every non-Echols student in the College is required to complete a general education curriculum. These curricula come in different forms, but all require that the student demonstrate proficiency in a certain foreign language by either doing very well on the foreign language placement exam or reaching the 2020 level.
The question of how much academic freedom students should be afforded is complex, and I do not claim to have a definitive answer on the best way for colleges to set up graduation requirements. I consider the idea that students should have unlimited academic freedom, with no graduation requirements except completing a major, very appealing. This would afford students virtually unlimited academic freedom, allowing them to specialize or broaden their interests as they see fit. Such a policy is rare, but not unheard of. On the other hand, I understand that the goal of a liberal arts education is to broaden the mind of the student body, and that often requires forcing students to step outside of their comfort zones. While this debate is ongoing, certain graduation requirements at the University are counterproductive to both the students who are forced to take certain classes and the professors who in turn must teach uninterested students. This is especially true for the foreign language requirement, which the University should cut to one semester.
Requiring students to become proficient in a foreign language does not benefit them, even if the act of learning a new language does. Students who benefit the most from learning a foreign language are the ones who would end up learning one voluntarily, and those who determine that they do not want to would rarely become proficient because of the requirement. Lack of enthusiasm for a new language will prevent students from actually learning — and the research bears this out. According to a recent study, foreign language requirements have virtually no impact on students’ language proficiency. In other words, requiring foreign language proficiency does not actually achieve foreign language proficiency. Most students who are forced to take these classes do not become proficient, making the requirement ultimately ineffective at achieving its goal.
Moreover, requiring students to take so many foreign language classes harms the students who care about foreign language the most. Next semester, I will take my third Spanish class at the University, and from my own personal experience I can confidently say that the majority of the people I have taken Spanish with have no real desire to learn. Most view the foreign language as just another box to check, and treat it accordingly. This results in classrooms where the students lack enthusiasm and interest, which is not only unfortunate for these students, but also for those who actually want to learn. Students come to the University not just for the knowledge that the professors have, but also for the ability to engage with smart and, more importantly, interested students in their classes. In classes where the majority of the students lack any interest, real student engagement simply will not happen. Students who are passionate about becoming fluent in a language will be paired with students who do not care, and their educational experience will be worse as a result.
While the University should not completely do away with the foreign language requirement, the best balance is reducing the requirement to one semester. This way, all students will be able to see the benefits of learning a new language and being able to communicate in a diverse society, without requiring them to continue if they determine that it is not in their best interest. The case against the requirement for proficiency in a foreign language in no way hinges on the false beliefs that learning a foreign language has no benefits, or even more foolishly that English is the only language worth knowing. All that it hinges on is the maxim that students are more qualified than the University to determine what is in their own best academic interest. The University should respect their students’ ability to make personal decisions and thus reduce this requirement.
Sam Mattingly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.