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Carter '12: A modest proposal

Brown imposes few requirements on its students. This is one of the reasons many of us are here. The New Curriculum is treated as something sacrosanct, even if many of us do not fully understand the complex processes that led to its development and enactment. Here on College Hill, academic freedom is not merely a belief, but a way of life. And while there are some requirements, they are nothing to sweat about. The successful completion of 30 courses, the successful completion of a concentration, the demonstration of writing competence and the fulfillment of the enrollment requirement of eight semesters are the stringent constraints on our academic pursuits.

Of the requirements mentioned above, the only one that is not a formal expectation at nearly every other institution in the country is the demonstration of writing competence. Within the framework of the New Curriculum, it is perfectly conceivable that one could avoid writing-intensive courses with little to no consequence. But for the class of 2013 and beyond, seniors will be required to display evidence of their writing competency in order to graduate.

In the same spirit as this writing requirement — which, while being a requirement, is certainly not a huge imposition — perhaps another one is permissible: a demonstration of competency in at least two languages. Notice that this formulation is fairly vague. That is no accident.

There is no mention of the English language in that formulation, but since it is the language of instruction in a majority of Brown's classes, it is more than likely that it would constitute one of the languages for many students. So it is easy to see how half the work is already done by the time a letter of acceptance arrives. The same cannot be said for any of the other degree requirements described on the Dean of the College's website.

In the same way that there is no single required language, there is no specification as to what kinds of languages would be permitted. No distinction was made in the formulation between natural and formal languages, that is, between the languages spoken by peoples across the world and the languages used in fields like logic, mathematics and computer science. The latter will probably appeal more to concentrators in such fields, while the former could likely appeal more to those concentrating in the humanities. But there is no saying who will choose what, and it is really of no importance. There is no need to pigeonhole.

But why a language requirement? A complete list of the benefits of learning — or already knowing — another language has no place in a column like this, not only because it would take up too much space, but also because it is simply impossible to account for all the times when learning a language proves useful at some point in the future.  But here is a quick sampler: When you learn a language, it is almost certain that, through learning how that language works, you learn more about how your primary language works. At the risk of sounding like a crude cruise advertisement, a new language presents new opportunities and the chance for discovery. At the very least, it presents an intellectual challenge worthy of a Brown student.

It will presumably be objected that there is no need for such a requirement, that we are doing just fine as is. And there is not a need. And we seem to be doing just fine. But limiting ourselves to talking only about what we need is a dangerous step, for it suggests that if we already have what we think we need, there is no reason to look any further, which appears to be at odds with the very spirit of a Brown education.

Perhaps the word globalization is at the tip of your tongue. If you are inclined to say that a language requirement is a terrible idea, you might cite globalization as proof, saying that as one language, whatever it may be, begins to assert its dominance, the need for learning new languages disappears. But this kind of objection applies only to natural languages — it does not address formal ones. It also fails on the count that that one language might end up being one you do not already know.  

A language requirement here at Brown would have to be appropriately vague, like the one discussed above, to gain any measure of student acceptance.  Such a requirement could only serve to enrich — and not only impose on — a student's time at the University. Whether it ever becomes feasible in a community like ours remains to be seen. All I can say is que sera, sera.

Sam Carter '12 is a philosophy and Hispanic studies concentrator from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at




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