liberal arts 2.0

some time ago (by which I mean, nearly two months ago now), certain smart & savvy nooks of the internet were all abuzz with the New Liberal Arts. It’s time, they say, to rethink what we want our liberal arts education to do for us in this twenty-first century world, in which our present curricula stands rigid and trembling under the pressures of great changes: in a neat syllabus of “art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, and science”, where is there space for the digital archive, water and food crises, social networking, financial ethics, global warming, internet laws, avant-garde photography, new journalism, electronic music-making, and the crash course in internet life skills? What, in short, does the class of the twenty-first century need to know?

Tim @ Snarkmarket showed that this sort of soul-searching is not new in spirit, and has at least one predecessor writing, nearly a century ago, about the new liberal arts of the twentieth century:

Fortunately, we no longer hold the older notion that culture is inseparable from certain specialized forms of appreciation, such as ability to read Greek, speak French, recite sonnets, or discuss the latest fiction; and we are slowly learning to conceive it as something deeper than the mere possession of etiquette and a set of conventions…

A careful examination of the pedagogic practice…of secondary school and college of liberal arts will show the persistence of methods derived rather from an ancient vocational education, and ill serving the purposes of liberal learning.

— David Sneddon, ‘What of Liberal Education?’ (1912)

Nearly a century later, Liberal Arts 2.0 is being conceived of in just this spirit of scrutiny of entrenched pedagogic practice. Better yet, these new David Sneddons are compiling the fruits of collective reflection, in a book to be published, described enthusiastically by some as “the course catalogue for some amazing new school”. And so I jumped in! here is my starry-eyed pitch for the new liberal arts, and (hopefully!) might be in said Amazing School Course Catalogue. Class: Translation, er, 101.

If there’s anything at all that a modern curriculum should make clear to everyone, it’s that there’s no room for the monolingual any more. Because our modern world is so small today — and by small I mean globalized, rather than parochial, which is another kind of smallness; because in this world it is possible to know more about what’s happening in Gaza than what’s happening in our own neighborhoods; perhaps in no other age has cultural and linguistic insularity been more perilous. We can’t afford not to speak to people whom we can’t speak to.  We can’t afford not to read writings that we can’t read. We can’t, in other words, afford not to understand people whom we do not understand.

I therefore propose that translation should be one of the new liberal arts: translation in its literal sense of transmitting texts from one language to another, but also in the metaphorical sense of a sustained, collective effort towards genuine intercultural understanding. It couldn’t function as a standalone class in a single college: it must be plugged into a network of participating colleges from as many countries as possible, and it needs to be a genuinely global effort.

Every student would declare at least two languages: their native tongue and one or more languages of their choosing, however firm or tenuous their grasp of them. Seminar groups would consist of students who declared the same two languages, so that discussions could take place in two mutually intelligible languages, at varying levels of ability. These are the groups they’d work in, communicating in online forums and discussion groups, live chat, and video conferences.

How do you learn translation? Perhaps from the real world:

  • Students could choose a suitably global event, collect media coverage of this event in different languages — in print, by broadcast, or online — and draw comparisons. How are the same events recast in different languages to different cultural audiences? What prejudices, slants and spins might be exposed by such an endeavour; or where might common ground arise where we least expect it?
  • Students could investigate and report on literature outside their native language and together, as a group, come up with a more global literary canon.
  • Students could work together to translate and exchange something they loved with someone else: a play or poem, the lyrics of a song, a funny TV ad, a speech by a personal hero.
  • Students could take each other through tours of their internet, in their language. What blogs, news sites, and journals do they read? (For all its globalizing dimensions, whole swathes of the internet exist in languages we cannot read).
  • Students could read to each other — poetry, short stories, anything — in their native languages. Even if you don’t understand it, hearing things in another language can be an enchanting, empathetic experience.

The point of a class like this wouldn’t be merely to develop competence in a language for its own sake, but to show us new worlds of literature, sounds, ideas and ways of being that exist outside what we know — to create opportunities for us to come to know them, and perhaps, to fall in love with them.

If done right, this class would even be a new kind of community service. Every translation generated in this class would go into a digital archive, for the benefit of future classes and a wider global public. Every graduating class of translators would add to a growing pool of bilingual world citizens: they might be anything from the greatest diplomats and the savviest journalists right down to the teenager who makes friends with the new foreign kid in school when no one else can, or will. And generation by generation, the world would fill with them: these deeply sympathetic people who would be nodes between cultures, slowly forging rapport and understanding from the friction and incomprehension that plague our small world today, with such vast, grievous consequences.


7 responses to “liberal arts 2.0

  • Tim

    This is awesome, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since Robin shared a draft with me (I was writing an entry on “languages,” which we ultimately scrapped due to too much overlap).

    One of the things I’m wondering about is whether there’s room left for the bilingual any more, let alone the monolingual. Is deep knowledge of a single other global language a significant enough substitute for a knowledge of dozens, even if only ambient, pidgin, hacked- and patched-together?

    Here I have to confess some personal bias — I started my academic career with a working knowledge of French, but quickly became half-expert in a wide range of other Euro-American languages (plus HTML), and an amateur learner of Chinese (plus Python)… and I still know I’m clueless about whole subcontinents.

    Maybe a second semester follow up to this course on translation would be a self-consciously shallow tour of a good dozen of the world’s languages — just enough to fake it, to read a newspaper, to tell someone that you love them.🙂

  • Rachel

    Singapore and Malaysia are places where you pick up ambient patois practically by osmosis, and most commonly people end up speaking varying degrees of English, Chinese dialects and Malay. There’s a significant, though extremely marginalized Tamil-speaking minority, though, and one day I decided I would learn two or three phrases in Tamil and deploy them wherever possible. You just won’t believe how much delight has come out of this! Once, after paying for some food, I said “thank you” to the proprietors in Tamil, and from their astonished, broad grins and excited chattering among themselves, I might as well have told them they had won the lottery. So I’m a total fan of the shallow language learning, because no matter what it is you’re learning to say, what you’re actually saying is: hey brother, I’m trying!

  • Johanka

    This is more of a reaction to your previous comment than to the blog post itself: Growing up in a strictly monolingual nation state, the present day Czech Republic, I’ve been always envious of people who are lucky enough to live in multilingual environments, like the one you grew up in, Rachel. I wonder which language(s) did your immediate family speak at home when you were little – is English actually your mother tongue? Or is it common in Malaysia that people grow up essentially without a (single, distinct) native language? Somehow I would have loved to have this kind of experience.🙂

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  • spsukaton

    This is actually really cool. In California, every high school student is required to take two years of a foreign language in order to graduate. Our two state university systems have the same mandate – take two years or test out. Every school has Spanish or French. Some have German, Tagalog, Chinese, or others as the regional population dictates.

    But these kids (most, anyway) can’t translate the way you described, unless the actually pick up the language as a major or minor.

    I was wondering what I, personally should do with languages when I read this. Thanks, Rachel.

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