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November 29, 2006


Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* To me, the Pulitzer Prize has become a negative indicator for journalism. The more Pulitzers a newspaper can claim, the more wary I am as a (potential) reader.

Jeff Jarvis isn't so hot on them either, as this recent post indicates.

* Now that I'm in rant-mode, kindly permit me to vent on television screens in public places. While I concede the need for TVs in sports bars, I am not amused by TV monitors surrounding non-bar dining areas of restaurants.

I was really not amused last week in an Albertson's supermarket in Las Vegas where a TV placed near the vegetable section was blabbing away about recipes and food preparation.

Is there to be no escape? Woe! Woe!!

* Time was, to earn a Ph.D. one had to demonstrate proficiency in two foreign languages -- this in addition to the doctoral subject-matter. At Dear Old Penn I somehow got away with only having to know a teensy amount of German.

Other universities were allowing substitution of a computer language for French, Latin or whatever.

The slide down the slippery slope continues.

Apparently public schools in some states can now allow students to take sign language instead of French or Spanish and have that count as a "foreign" language.

I have nothing against sign language even though I don't speak (finger?) it. Still, this strikes me as going a step too far. That goes for computer languages, too (and I've programmed in J, APL and Basic).



posted by Donald at November 29, 2006



Much sympathy on the general dumbing down of our universities. My sister just graduated from Ohio State with a BA and claims she wrote just four papers in four years. Good gravy.

Yet, I disagree that Sign Language is an example of the general laxness. It is a difficult language to master, and properly taught, should be at least as rigorous as spoken languages. But, I've found it more relevant to my (American) life. It makes you more visually aware, and there's nothing like signing to the wife over the heads of your children. Or across a noisy room. A very valuable skill indeed.


Posted by: The Holzbachian on November 29, 2006 6:16 PM

And ASL has a linguistic structure that is very unlike English - much more remote than that of German or French. I assume you wouldn't think of introducing Japanese or Arabic into the schools as a loss or dumbing-down, so why do you feel that way about ASL?

(Of course, the schools might fuck up the teaching of ASL, but they can do that to any subject.)

Posted by: dominic on November 29, 2006 6:42 PM

I'll second you on the tv-screens-everywhere thing. Is it written in the Constitution that TV screens must be put wherever it's physically possible to put them? In NYC, they're showing up in elevators. All CNN, all the time. They're getting to be as bad as cellphones. This is not progress, sez I.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 29, 2006 7:24 PM

Yeah, going to have to disagree with you in regards the ASL. My hometown of Rochester has a large community of deaf and hearing-impaired people. Might have something to do with having the National Technical Institute For The Deaf here, not sure. :) But, joking aside, I find it would be a much more useful language to learn than a foreign language. I'm an American, and despite what the bleeding hearts would like everyone to believe, we have need of a national language. And, forcing people to learn a second language so they can speak to people who come to live here and don't bother to learn the dominant language is just plain stupid. "You have to learn another language so you can speak to the people who can't be bothered to learn ours."* Yeah, that makes sense. I'd rather I'd spent my time learning ASL so I could communicate with people who don't have a choice in what language they "speak". Now, from that point of view, I have to say that learning a computer language in place of a foreign language is a good idea. At least most people in my country would find it infinitely more useful than a foreign language.

*That was the reason I was always given when told I had to take a foreign language. I realize there's more reason behind it than that, but when "educators" come up with these programs, the reasons are not about rounding out my education.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on November 30, 2006 9:36 AM

TVs showing up in elevators puts us in Big Brother territory, doesn't it? No escaping it...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 30, 2006 12:01 PM

Normally, I'd join the chorus in defense of ASL, but I was wondering how much access to source material played a factor in that requirement. Not being able to read books and manuscripts in their native language can be a significant barrier to mastery. So if that was part of the intent behind the requirement, then ASL would be an inappropriate substitute.

I don't think you have to learn something difficult in order to be considered productive, but it should be sensible and useful and have application related to your degree. Otherwise it's meaningless.

Posted by: Alexis on November 30, 2006 12:52 PM

Donald –

I think that one purpose behind the requirement that doctoral candidates know two foreign languages was to ensure that they kept up with scholarship and developments in their field in other countries. In public schools, the foreign language requirement was for college-bound students, some of whom presumably would go on to try for doctorates. Obviously, for many fields, this requirement made little sense, but tradition often becomes unmoored from its original intentions.

The emphasis here was really more on published material in foreign languages. At my college, there were courses like “French for Reading,” “German for Reading,” etc., that bypassed any attempt to give a student proficiency in speaking a language, but focused solely on texts. Don’t know how successful these courses were for students.

And of course, there was a time when knowledge of Latin (and for some, also of Greek) was considered essential to be considered a scholar. But there is no real slippery slope here, just modifications of tradition (like getting away with only a bit of German during a time of a two-foreign language requirement).

From this perspective, substituting sign language, which has little or no original “literary tradition” of which I am aware, for traditional languages is a bit odd, but doesn’t much bother me. Neither does using computer languages to satisfy a foreign language requirement. I might even include something like proficiency in reading music.

I’m not big on educational tradition that serves no real purpose. But I would applaud and encourage discipline and mastery of other subjects in a wide variety of areas, kinda like how scouting awards merit badges for a range of learned skills (and yes, I got one as a kid for learning ASL).

Posted by: Alec on November 30, 2006 2:05 PM

Never having learned ASL, I know nothing about the difficulty of doing so. Therefore it was interesting to find out that a fair amount of effort is required: nothing wrong with that.

The same could be said regarding computer languages.

And the purpose of languages is communication. ASL allows communication with deaf or dumb people. Computer languages allow communication with a computer or other programmers who are familiar with the language in question.

What's missing from ASL and computer languages is culture, literature, perhaps scholarly writings -- important items for Ph.D.-types and for people with "well-furnished minds." One gets these other bits by learning German, French, Italian, Spanish and so forth.

That's why I think ASL and computer languages are a degradation of standards.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 30, 2006 2:17 PM

"Now that I'm in rant-mode, kindly permit me to vent on television screens in public places."

I certainly agree. I think the worst intrusion is doctor's offices where they have some kind of medical advice infomercial hosted by a cheery, former morning TV hostess dispensing all sorts of great advice on ways to stay healthy. Gad!

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 30, 2006 2:37 PM


Sign language communties have cultures every bit as fascinating and challenging to an outsider as the Western European languages you name. Actually, I consider them even more alien.

I think you're falling into the Protestant trap of a "well furnished mind" being made up of words. Camile Paglia has raised questions on the Protestant obsession with words to the neglect of image/feeling/emotion. It's words that ASL doesn't have. In it's place is an entirely new world.

And I know it's not intentional, but the term "deaf and dumb" is highly offensive to deaf people. If your daughter were born deaf, how would you like it when hearing "and dumb" constantly conjoined with her disability?

I think the "N" word has uses that are more playful than harmful. But, "deaf and dumb"? It's more offensive than the N word.

Cheers and thanks for the posting,

The Holzbachian

Posted by: Robert on November 30, 2006 2:41 PM

I blogged about PhD language requirements here. They're disappearing in the sciences, but the science PhD experience may well differ from the humanities sort, which is what I think you're talking about. I've never heard of a chemistry or physics degree asking for two languages, but they used to ask for one, and in chemistry it was almost always German.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 30, 2006 3:38 PM

"Time was, to earn a Ph.D. one had to demonstrate proficiency in two foreign languages": hah! In the University of Edinburgh in the 50s, one had to have Latin and a modern language (which would almost always be French) for entry as an undergraduate. To graduate with a bachelor's degree in a friend's discipline, one had to add German. The discipline in question? "Technical Chemistry". Just two generations ago.

Posted by: dearieme on November 30, 2006 4:47 PM

I agree with your TV screen rant. Earlier this week while gassing my car here in Santa Barbara, I heard a sudden strange noise from above the pump. The station had installed TVs above the gas pumps!! Horrifying!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on December 1, 2006 7:28 AM

I'm not that old (ca. 50), and my Ph.D. (not in Classics, but in archaeology) required reading knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, and German; Italian was a de-facto requirement also to get through some of the courses. In general, the faculty did not care whether we knew the languages or not when they assigned reading: if there was some important article in Danish, Turkish, or whatever, well, by God, you had best figure out a way to read it, sonny!

Posted by: prof on December 1, 2006 8:41 AM


I'm a bit younger than you -- forty-something -- and my Ph.D. required at least two other languages, a reading knowledge of French and German. No substitutions were allowed. I'm an acceptable reader of classical Greek, but that "didn't matter." Ditto with other ancient languages.

So I dutifully bought the books that taught French and German well enough to pass the test. It took five weeks of constant memorizing for each test. Wasted time.

There are so few French language publications in my field -- intellectual history -- that learning the language has never helped me. Similarly, very little is written in German. I've used the German on occasion, but rarely need it. English is the language of scholarship. The only language.

English has replaced Latin as the shared scholarly language ... agreed? Virtually everything is written in English or buried in unnoticed foreign language journals. (Of course, English language academic journals are not worth reading either, but that's another story.)

Just another Prof ...


Posted by: kris on December 1, 2006 1:27 PM

Kris, I agree. In my field (organic chemistry), English is the language in which almost anything important will appear.

German is useful for the older literature, and Japanese would be nice for reading some patent filings. But if a German, French, Japanese, Chinese or Russian chemist wants to publish something that they believe is exciting, they'll send it to an English-language journal.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 1, 2006 1:51 PM

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