Thursday, March 11, 2010

On the closure of UNR's foreign language department.

Not on the topic of running, I wrote the following letter in response to the news that the UNR will likely terminate all degree programs in Foreign Language. Though not on the topic of running, I wanted to post my letter because my education-- and the education of others-- is a very important subject to me. Though I don't know how yet, I'd like to believe part of my running will be in support of education in the humanities, particularly foreign language which is an integral part of our lives as the world becomes less of a national marketplace and more of a global one.

To Whom it May Concern,

Recently, the University of Nevada, Reno stated it will (in most likelihood) discontinue all degree programs in foreign languages, excluding Spanish because of the State’s dire financial status. In so doing, the University hopes to save itself from monetary ruin and to continue to offer students what it calls a “quality education.” And yet, this decision makes me (and I hope you, as well) wonder: what exactly is a quality education these days?

Back when I was in school (in those dark ages of 2000-2009 when I was first an undergraduate in English Literature and then a Master’s candidate in both English and French) “quality” meant depth. One was required to fundamentally know, in other words, the three “R’s,” but also how to use a computer, how to read difficult texts millennia old and how to survive on dorm food.

But since we’ve moved into a world no longer constrained by national borders, requisite knowledge for every American has also become the knowledge of other cultures beside our own. How can one understand the tragic events that recently transpired in Haiti, for instance? I, for one, say (after having studied authors from that region of the world in their native tongue) that the best way is the old-fashioned way: speak the way they speak and suddenly words begin to mean something. Imagine: a world no longer filtered through mass media. What is it like to live in Haiti? Ask a Haitian. And how does one go about doing that? Well, it requires you speak French. And that was a program UNR had, once upon a time.

Part of my comprehensive exam for the Master of Arts degree in French required that I was familiar with the entirety of the French literary canon. No small task, I found myself reading texts from the Middle Ages onward in laundromats or even when a light turned red at busy intersections. Among those frenzied moments of study, one 18th century author has remained in the forefront of my mind. Prévost, (an author perhaps lost to future students at UNR) questioned: “Crois-tu qu’on puisse être bien tendre lorsqu’on manque de pain?” (“Do you believe one can be loving if one’s lacking bread?”)

He asked an important question, one facing the University in these tight economic times: can the human creature aspire to greatness (in the case of his novel, love; in the case of the University, a much needed and important academic curriculum) while the” fundamentals” of survival-- i.e., money --are lacking?

I’d like to think there is some method that will preserve the necessary culture and refinement that comes with a proper college education. But times are indeed tough: perhaps the answer to Prévost’s question is, alas, no. Without bread (or funds) all we become are uncultured --and hungry -- brutes.


Rebecca A. Eckland

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