[sixties-l] Has Multiculturalism Failed? (fwd)

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Date: Fri Nov 23 2001 - 01:55:20 EST

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    Date: Wed, 21 Nov 2001 22:48:22 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Has Multiculturalism Failed?

    Has Multiculturalism Failed?

    NY Times Magazine
    November 18, 2001

    Has Multiculturalism Failed?

    I 've been wondering lately what multiculturalism was. I remember, of course,
    that it was a cause clbre of the 80's and 90's, a big deal on campus, a hot
    ticket at the Modern Language Association. I remember all the talk about
    overthrowing the ''dead white males'' of the old canon and opening it up to
    the ''subaltern'' and the ''displaced'' and the ''other.'' And I figure that
    along the way it got some good writers included on reading lists, where they
    should have been in the first place, and some good writers dropped too. What
    it apparently did not do was promote the study of other languages, or indeed
    of other cultures.

    During the very years when the multicultural movement was extending its
    influence, the study of foreign languages was falling into a general malaise.
    Enrollments were dropping, the ranks of competent language instructors
    thinning out and foreign-language requirements quietly disappearing. For
    example, according to the American Council on Education, 34 percent of all
    four-year American colleges and universities made foreign-language study a
    graduation requirement in 1965, while only 20 percent do now. Since the 60's,
    the percentage of college students enrolled in language classes has shrunk by
    half. And for all the multiculti buzz about respecting and exploring other
    cultures, the number of students who studied abroad remained tiny, the length
    of their stays got shorter and the list of countries they preferred --
    Germany, England, France -- scarcely diversified. (How many parents, footing
    the bill, want to send their junior to, say, Uzbekistan? How many college
    students, laser-focused on landing a job on Wall Street or a slot in law
    school, want to put their G.P.A.'s at risk by studying, say, Urdu?)
    Meanwhile, disciplines that might once have sponsored in-depth study of other
    cultures -- political science, for example -- were taken over by scholars who
    eschewed fieldwork in favor of computer models and game theory.

    There are plenty of reasons that Americans don't flock to language study,
    from geographic isolation to our traditional assimilationist credo to the
    widespread use of English. We don't have to! But if multiculturalism is not
    precisely to blame, it is odd that a movement so flamboyantly dedicated to
    the celebration of cultural diversity did so little to check our tendencies
    to cultural isolationism. In fact, it may have reinforced them, by lulling us
    into the sense that we were getting a resoundingly global education when all
    we were really getting was a little Arundhati Roy here, a little Toni
    Morrison there. (In multiculturalism, somehow, black American culture was
    cast as other, even alien, when in fact it is as inextricably and
    influentially American as a culture can be.) Multiculturalism was easy,
    whereas deep knowledge of another place, predicated as it usually is on
    linguistic competence, is hard. Besides, the impulse behind multiculturalism
    was politicized inclusion. You were meant to reach out to groups with
    historical grievances against the white male population of the United States
    and to celebrate their accomplishments. It was the upbeat ethnic-festival
    approach, which is nice, but which also allows you to leave out a lot of
    groups, like those that speak difficult languages or live in rough
    neighborhoods of the world or don't seem to treat women particularly well.

    Of course, none of this would seem all that urgent if it weren't for Sept.
    11. But now, suddenly, the fact that the colleges and universities in the
    United States graduated a total of nine Arabic majors last year seems to
    matter a great deal. So does the fact that the F.B.I. had to issue those
    slightly pathetic pleas for Arabic and Pashto translators in the days after
    the attacks. And so, most disturbingly, do reports that there were warning
    signs in F.B.I. intercepts about the first World Trade Center bombing in
    1993, warnings that went unheeded because the agency didn't translate them
    until later. Now Arabic-language classes at some colleges are filling up, and
    scholarly books on Islam are re-emerging as best sellers.

    In truth, this is an old pattern. It was the cold war, and Sputnik in
    particular, that spurred the growth of language and area studies in the
    United States and the Vietnam War that encouraged serious scholarship on East
    Asia. It would be pleasant to think that ideas and research agendas are
    independent of national-security concerns or war. But in the United States
    the latter have been much more important, especially in language studies,
    than high-minded commitment to the ''other'' ever was. Probably the best
    place in the country to study hard languages is the U.S. military training
    institute in Monterey, Calif. And the National Security Education Program,
    which began in the early 1990's under the supervision of the Department of
    Defense, has been one of the most lucrative sources of scholarship money for
    undergraduate and graduate students pursuing ''strategic'' languages like
    Farsi, Arabic and Mandarin -- with special emphasis on historically black
    colleges and un-elite two-year institutions. Partly it's a matter of
    financing -- national-security needs free up money in a way that celebration
    of difference just doesn't. And partly it's a matter of motivation. Americans
    don't like to learn difficult languages, and to take them on, we seem to need
    a motivation more urgent than the vague feeling that we ought to expand our
    horizons -- something like a wartime imperative or even the religious calling
    that makes those clean-cut, white-bread Mormon missionaries some of the most
    dedicated students of foreign languages around. Either way, there's an
    irresistible twist in the fact that the conservative establishment may have
    done more to advance our understanding of what the other is saying --
    literally, anyway -- than the P.C. academy ever did. Multiculturalism may not
    have prodded us to study cultures fundamentally different from our own; the
    war on terrorism will have to.
    Margaret Talbot is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a
    contributing writer for the magazine.

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