The Year of Languages
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
A commitment to modern language study and study abroad is closely linked to both the founding of the United States and the emergence of a distinctively American approach to higher education. The Year of Languages has asked us to reexamine and reaffirm our fundamental commitment to the study of languages and study abroad. In my mind, celebrating the Year of Languages demands that we reclaim essential components of our distinctively American higher education-components which we, as a nation, all too frequently ignore or neglect and which are essential if we are to prepare youth worldwide for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.
The history of my own institution, Dickinson College, is particularly illustrative of the ties that bind us all to our revolutionary heritage and which, in turn, give guidance for our future. Dickinson was born out of revolution and chartered in September, 1783-just a few days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, thus becoming the first college or university founded following the formal ending of the American Revolution. As such, Dickinson represents a distinctively American institution of learning and engagement.
Dickinson's founder was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a revolutionary who signed the Declaration of Independence and was widely noted for his accomplishments in science, medicine and psychology. Rush held very specific ideas about what a distinctively American higher education should look like in mission and course of study, ideas that were shared by his good friend, Thomas Jefferson. By founding Dickinson, Rush was establishing a college that would serve as a defining model of higher education for the emerging nation.
Rush believed that undergraduate study should be ultimately useful. Students should leave the College prepared on the basis of a liberal arts education to build a just, compassionate democracy. Rush argued that, while the continued reading of Greek and Latin (inherited, of course, from the European tradition) should be included in the curriculum, the writing and speaking of these languages should be eliminated. His rationale for this suggestion was purely practical: Latin and Greek did not connect most fully with those contemporary areas of developing knowledge that would be important to the new nation as it built its human capacities in business, agriculture, medicine, law, the arts, literature and all other forms of pursuit. American undergraduates, instead, should engage the study of modern languages-German, French and even the languages of Native Americans.
The study of modern languages, moreover, was to be accompanied by serious, sustained study abroad. Rush, himself, believed that one of the most influential periods of his life was the time he spent studying medicine in Scotland which followed his undergraduate years at Princeton University. Rush envisioned months of study in residence for qualified American undergraduates and decades of continued contact following their return to America. Students were to fully engage the culture and traditions of another country, not just its universities. Rush wanted young Americans to approach and speak in detail with people in all professions and from all walks of life. For Rush, such comprehensive and varied contact provided the opportunity to discover the very best thoughts and practices engaged in abroad which could, in turn, be adapted and applied to the emerging nation. Rush was so passionate about the importance of studying abroad that he went so far as to encourage all citizens of his home city, Philadelphia, to travel internationally at some point in their lives!
Dickinson College has remained ardently faithful to Dr. Rush's vision for American higher education. The College has a 94.7 percent study abroad participation rate-the third highest in the nation. Dickinson also stands second in the nation for the percentage of students who study at least a full year internationally. Fourteen languages are instructed on a campus of 2200 students and we regularly stand among the highest percentage of students (per capita) at an American college or university majoring in foreign language. Equally important is the fact that a high percentage of our students are double majors, thus using their linguistic and cultural study to inform other areas of intellectual pursuit. Lastly-and perhaps most critical to Rush's ultimate ambition for American education-our mission includes the advancement of a global sensibility to prepare our students to engage usefully through public diplomacy an increasingly challenging world.
William G. Durden
Honorary Board Member, "The Year of Languages"