November 13, 2012

The dangerous undying dream of an American linguistic empire


Lawrence Summers

Paul Cohen has written an interesting article for Dissent Magazine about the continuing myth of a coming golden age for idiomatic American English around the world. You know how this one goes: English, specifically North American English, has been adopted the world over as the lingua franca of the business class. It has become a mark of education and acumen around the globe, so much so that native speakers of English would be better off jettisoning their study of foreign language in favor of a more practical use of their time.

If that argument sounds at best beside the point, at worst an outrageous example of the continuing colonial instinct in higher education, well then you have never been president of Harvard University. Cohen cites a recent op-ed written by Lawrence Summers for the Times calling for, among other reforms, a turning away from the study of languages. Summers, you may remember, has been chief economist of the World Bank, Secretary of the Treasury, and director of the National Economic Council as well as president of Harvard. He continues to be an inveterate misogynist and more or less the embodiment of the worst aspects of the late capitalist Liberal tradition.

The Summers piece is so thoroughly asinine it is almost a parody. He cites neurologists. He argues for the high science of taped lectures and audio textbooks. Of course only “the best professors” will be recorded and disseminated. He writes:

One leading investment bank has a hiring process in which a candidate must interview with upward of 60 senior members of the firm before receiving an offer. What is the most important attribute they’re looking for? Not GMAT scores or college transcripts, but the ability to work with others. As greater value is placed on collaboration, surely it should be practiced more in our nation’s classrooms.

That strange sense of loss you feel right now is because Larry Summers just made you dumber. Summers’ arguments are the op-ed equivalent of a TED talk, much enamored with scientism and synergy, his every example making clear that Larry Summers is not asking what makes better, more successful people, he is asking what makes better, more successful MBAs. And again:

While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

That’s right, your language skills need to be rudimentary at best when engaging in the worst instincts of latter-day interventionist safari. Cohen’s take on this is exactly right.

For Summers, English is the language of globalization, the linguistic infrastructure for the deregulated circulation of capital, goods, elites, and information. It also furnishes the linguistic middle ground for American diplomacy and military action. We are invited to imagine the twenty-first century as a Francis Fukuyama–like end to linguistic history, marked by the organic triumph of capitalism, liberal democracy, American hegemony, and the idiom of Adam Smith and John Foster Dulles. English is at once a consequence and an instrument of American imperial power, an appreciable asset for American anglophones in the twenty-first-century global contest for competitive advantage, prosperity, and power.

Summers would be laughable if he were not, as Cohen writes, taken seriously by university administrators across the continent, and not just those who might be able to claim slim budgets as justification. Cohen cites colleges as varied as SUNY Albany, the University of Toronto, and UC Santa Barbara in which foreign language curricula are being attacked, sidelined and abolished. Language study is seen as unnecessary in the true role of the American university: churning out an educated social class to further the interests of their father hegemony.

Even by those standards, Summers’ approach is a failure. As this 2011 report by MLA reminds us, one of the tropes of the ongoing American misadventure in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the dire shortage of competent translators. Their offered solution is to integrate language study into the university at every level, to do with the artificial divide between language and literary studies, and to give language professors themselves more power than they’ve traditionally had at the administrative level. All of these seem laudable changes. The MLA approach, however, cites as its goal, “translingual and transcultural competence.”

Students are educated to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language. They are also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture. They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans–that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others.

That is, the MLA’s stated goal is not that far off from Summers’: language “competence” in the service of a national awareness.

Lastly, let me put all of that in contrast to a report by translator Bill Martin, as posted on Susan Bernofsky‘s blog. Martin recently attended the annual American Literary Translators Association conference, this one held in Rochester. At ALTA he attended a talk given by Esther Allen, Bill Johnston, Bernofsky herself and others, addressing the need to “take back theory” for translators. The translators feel themselves under attack for being too focused on practice, and that their critics from within the academy are themselves poorly qualified to critique translation. That’s right, in this particular issue it is literary translators, the output of those very same programs that Summers would plunder, people who devote their lives to the quixotic dream of rewriting the work of obscure poets from global hinterlands, it is translators who are too rooted in praxis.

There is more to be said here about theory and practice as they abut the antimonies of utilitarianism, nationalism, and language in the academy, but if there is lesson to be derived from these ongoing debates, it is simply that in the academy, as on our shelves, the translator is always right. No, wait, make that two lessons: the translator is always right, and Larry Summers is an ass.




Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.