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photos by Lara Shipley


July 9th, 2008 · 10 Comments

What’s that? Barack Obama thinks that our schools should be as successful as those in other developed nations at ensuring that American students master a foreign language? Elitist! Next he’ll be suggesting that we try to teach math or reading as well as Canada and Japan. Not in my America, MENSA-boy!

Update: Some folks piling on here are adding that Obama is a hypocrite on this front, suggesting that he’s himself a monoglot. Actually, he’s told The Hill he speaks Indonesian and “a little Spanish.” Though having heard his accent in the latter case, I don’t mind if he refrains from deploying that knowledge.

Update II: Apparently, we have a difference in interpretation. Here’s the actual relevant quotation:

I don’t understand when people are going around worrying about, we need to have English only. They want to pass a law, we just, we want English only. Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English, I agree with this. But understand this, instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English—they’ll learn English—you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. We should have every child speaking more than one language. It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup.

At the Standard, they appear to find it obvious that Obama is just personally mortified that his countrymen are making him look bad at Au Bon Accueil, and cited French and German specifically because we should be preparing our students to sing along with Bizet and Wagner. (Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.)  I thought it was equally clear, in context, that the point was that we should be embarassed that European students consider fluency in three or four languages perfectly normal, while our schools have trouble with two, and that the choice of French and German was merely illustrative. Of course, if you’re precomitted to the narrative that Obama is an arrogant snob, then the first reading is natural enough. I’ll even allow that it’s consistent with the text, so to speak. But it boggles the mind a bit to see it dubbed a “mischaracterization” when someone fails to strain for the least charitable reading.

The  really odd thing here was that usually conservatives are better at making the point that our educational standards in much of the country are embarrassing. But then, I suppose what I used to like most about conservatism was a certain species of elitism that may have died off with Bill Buckley. This was the conservatism that insisted a decently educated person would know some Shakespeare, even if he was a Dead White European Male. It was a conservatism more concerned with encouraging and celebrating excellence than ensuring mediocrity didn’t interfere with self-esteem. It was a conservatism that could use the word “refined” as sincere praise, rather than as an ironic term of abuse. It was, in other words, a conservatism prepared to assert that the proper response to ignorance was, indeed, shame, not defiant pride. Honestly, one of the more depressing things about contemporary politics is that what used to be the central redeeming feature of the right has instead become their favorite attack on the left.

Tags: Academia · Stupid Shit



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gil // Jul 9, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Yes, this criticism is stupid, but Obama’s education agenda isn’t really worthy of your defense.

    Let me know when he favors school choice, or non-union teachers, or less federal spending and meddling.

  • 2 James // Jul 10, 2008 at 8:03 am

    I don’t think his bahasa Indonesia is really up to a level beyond basic either…

  • 3 Ashish // Jul 10, 2008 at 8:57 am

    How would it make him a hypocrite if he were a monoglot?

  • 4 Gil // Jul 10, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    To be fair, lately, you do seem to be reaching for the least charitable interpretation of criticisms of Obama, but not of Obama himself.

    It’s not a “mischaracterization”, but it’s also often no better than what you mock.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like mocking. But, when it looks like part of a pro-Obama campaign, I like it less.

  • 5 southpaw // Jul 10, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    The Weekly Standard and the National Review need to get together on this.

    As John McCormack would have it, this proposal reveals that Obama is a snob because he holds his countrymen in low regard.

    As John Derbyshire sees it, this proposal reveals that Obama is a fantasist because his countrymen are way too fucking stupid to ever learn another language.

    Seems a bit inconsistent.

  • 6 Scott Wood // Jul 10, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I would feel more comfortable if Obama showed some recognition that learning English as a second language is much more valuable to a Frenchman or a German than learning French or German would be for me.

    As it is, I suspect that he considers my speaking only English to be a character flaw rather than a reasonable trade off for the other things I spent my time learning.

  • 7 Xanthippas // Jul 11, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Someone please explain to me how being embarrassed about the fact that so few Americans can speak a second language is “elitist.” Check this out: while watching coverage of the Euro 2008 (yes I know, watching European soccer makes ME an elitist so take what I say with a grain of salt) I was struck by how many of the players were doing their press conferences in English. Note: England was NOT in the tournament. So, European ATHLETES can speak languages foreign to their own, where as our most highly educated citizens can speak nothing but English. What’s NOT embarrassing about that?

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jul 11, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Well, maybe. I guess it’s the critiques of Obama that are jumping out at me as silly and unfair beyond the ordinary parameters of partisan hyperbole, so I end up talking about those. I think in part that’s because most people regard this election as being more centrally “about” Obama.

  • 9 Gil // Jul 12, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    That makes sense.

    Perhaps you should read more of the criticisms of McCain to see that there’s plenty beyond-the-pale stuff being coming from that side, as well.

    And, it’s hard to avoid the election being “about” Obama, since he doesn’t have a political history that tells us much. People seem to be asked to have faith in his personality.

    In any case, I think it’s good to be aware of possible biases, and to avoid unjustified partisan support.

  • 10 john marzan // Jul 13, 2008 at 4:16 am

    I’m not surprised many Europeans are becoming more proficient in English, because here in Asia, more and more Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are becoming bilingual too.

    And English is their preferred second language.

    The Chinese, the Japanese and Filipinos want to learn English because A) it is the language of the world (not French, not Spanish), the language of business, and B) because they want to do business with Americans, the global and economic superpower.

    And if I were barack, i would not pander to the mexican vote by telling them that Americans should learn spanish. Instead, I would tell the immigrants that being proficient in English is the key to success and will open doors for the newcomers.

    As for the Americans, I don’t think their population is less bilingual than the brits and aussies.

    of course, learning a new language is a good thing! spanish is nice (to communicate with the maids and laborers), but mandarin is better, so that americans will be able to talk to their new Chinese bosses in the future.