Arguments over the College's language requirement have a life-cycle much like a volcano's. Elementary language courses annually rate least popular in the Confidential Guide, a majority of the students damning them as ill-taught, dull and unnecessary. The resentment erupts, forms into a formal protest, spills over into Faculty Committee and the Student Council meetings, and finally becomes another layer on the already ample pile of slag burying the problem. This process takes about four years each round.
The question splits easily into problems of policy and execution. With regard to policy, afflicted undergraduates complain that a language requirement is useless, as it takes up time better spent in more exciting fields without the recompense of useful knowledge in return. This complaint is valid, insofar as it points to the absurdity of demanding a thorough knowledge of one foreign language, but that is not the requirement's purpose. All that the College demands is a minimal facility, enough to serve as the foundation on which, if they wish, students can later build a working knowledge. As a compromise between the ideal of an educated man, one who among other accomplishments, can handle at least two languages, and the impossibility of the student's spending time enough to gain such a full and fluent command over a foreign tongue, the present language requirement is an excellent educational policy.
What makes this problem additionally rocky is the much larger question of ridding colleges of the necessity to teach basically elementary courses. The ideal, of course, is that all such courses be taught in secondary schools, releasing college students from the drag on their college carrer and allowing the Faculty more discretion in designing the course requirements. (The Andover-Blackmere Report, soon to be unveiled, deals fully with this complication). Like most ideals, this is a long-range affair at best, since the only means of forcing these courses back into the high-schools is for all colleges to impose a minimum proficiency as an entrance requirement, a possibility which at present is distant. Until this is solved, then, the College must maintain some mechanism to provide students ignorant of any foreign language the means to pass the requirement.
It is this mechanism, the execution part of the problem, which has raised the most constant furor. The complaints would not recur with such persistance if they were groundless. And, in fact, the courses in elementary French, German, and Spanish are little more than dull for student and instructor alike, a malaise traced to dogged adherence to the rules of grammar. Memorizing the order of verbs, pronouns and whatnot, lists of idioms, and verb forms may be necessary, but there is no need for the zealous stress currently laid on them. This process only dulls what ardor there is for learning, through the language, the culture of other nations.
Obviously, the Faculty knows best how to teach such courses. Yet, many other schools have adopted different and highly successful methods of teaching elementary languages, the most bizarre example being Cornell's audio-visual-Lord-knows-what-else system. This dynamism has even rubbed off slightly on Harvard, in the form of the experimental French B section where students must at least speak French whenever they are in class. Perhaps more of this, perhaps a deeper draught on the Cornell system, might alleviate the medium of the present elementary courses.
The University will have to contend with the problem of execution for some time, Andover-Blackmere Report or no. The least the Faculty could do is investigate the best way both to popularize the subject and teach all its fundamentals at the same time.