As a continuation of our series on the Task Force on General Education’s November 14 report, the Board will comment on the second recommendation regarding the foreign language requirement. The task force recommends requiring all A.B. students to take a foreign language class “regardless of any existing proficiency.” This proposal would mean that students who have already met the University’s standards of proficiency, whether by achieving a sufficient score on a standardized test or by taking the University’s placement exam, would have to take one course at a higher level in their known language or begin an entirely new language. While the Board agrees with the many benefits gained from A.B. language instruction, we do not believe that the marginal benefit of mandating an extra class outweighs the limitations it places on students.
The report reasons that the foreign language requirements have more value than just learning a new language because they expose students to different cultures and broaden students’ international scope. Learning a foreign language expands the bounds of education through the presentation of new cultures, a deeper understanding of language mechanisms, and critical thinking.
We agree with the reasoning behind this recommendation; however, the Board believes that those who have already reached a high level of proficiency, such that they have earned a 5 on an AP exam, a 760 or higher on an SAT II language test, a 7 on a high-level IB exam, or an A on the British A-level exam, will have already sufficiently gained the cultural benefits from their previous foreign language experiences or education. Some students who place out are native speakers, who were likely immersed in a different culture at home, with language as just one part of their thorough cultural exposure. Others have had extensive foreign language education that has taught them concepts beyond grammar and the technicalities of language, allowing them to excel on standardized tests. There are even high school students considering attending Princeton and our peer institutions who take advanced language classes for the exact purpose of placing out of languages in college and having more flexibility with class choice. In both cases, these students have clearly acquired the skills and cultural intellect needed that one or two extra classes at Princeton would be of little or no marginal benefit. .
Such low gain would also come at a steep cost. A.B. students are only required to take 31 classes at Princeton. Between the existing 10 distribution requirements and the many required classes for concentrations and certificates, students have very little room left in their academic program to explore new interests. The Board believes that mandating that at least one of these few electives be a language course imposes a high marginal cost on all students. For reasons explained above, we do not expect the marginal benefit to students who have already attained a high degree of language proficiency would exceed the marginal cost of this recommendation.
Moreover, there is nothing currently limiting students who would like to pursue learning more languages or a more advanced level of a language. Those who are already interested in foreign language instruction will seek out those opportunities to learn more. The Board encourages students to continue their language instruction, and we encourage the University to strengthen its efforts to encourage students to pursue language courses without mandating that they do. Academic Advisers, PAAs, and RCAs could expound more on students’ choices if they have achieved sufficient proficiency, such as better publicizing heritage tracks for native speakers or foreign language programs such as the Humanities Research Center, which contains an extensive amount of independent language study materials, and language tables at each Residential College.
Finally, the Board draws a meaningful distinction between the requirement of taking a foreign language past proficiency and the 10 distribution requirements in Princeton's general education program. As the Spanish and Portuguese department says, "language knowledge is a set of skills," and there are many well-defined and unambiguous ways of testing that a student has attained proficiency in that skill. By contrast, the distribution requirements' purpose is to expose Princeton students, in a content-neutral way, to a range of ways of thinking and ensure students take a well-rounded academic program. We believe Princeton can maintain a set of rigorous but flexible general education requirements without mandating that all A.B. students continue language skill instruction in college past the point of the most important benefits.
Though we understand that the cultural advantages to which the University is trying to expose all A.B. students are part of the current trend in higher education and among Princeton’s peer institutions, the Board maintains that those worldly insights have already been satisfied if a student has met the required proficiency, and that it is therefore unnecessary to require those students to fulfill this requirement.
Connor Pfeiffer ‘18 recused himself from the writing of the editorial.
Jacob Berman ‘20, Sergio Leos ‘17, William Pugh ‘20, and Jack Whelan ‘19 abstained from the writing of this editorial.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief.