The crescent-shaped room was packed, hardly any seating left, as people crammed in to participate in or at least observe the conversation about to take place. Rather than sit in the back as I normally do, I was invited to sit in the front row beside an individual who promised to ensure my ability to speak and make motions. This was it. Six years of struggles by the student body to protect and preserve liberal arts education in an increasingly utilitarian, balkanizing university were entering the endgame. But, as the debate progressed, it became increasingly apparent that, despite how my words seemed to make sense to and impact those listening, I was losing the argument. The final vote to eradicate the foreign language requirement for Bachelor of Arts students and end the equality between so-called Ancient and Modern languages at Ashland University proved that. It had dawned on me that, after six years of losing the argument to students, the opponents of the liberal arts had instead decided to change the rules of the game and thus circumvent this student-led movement to preserve classical education.
Henry Kissinger once said that university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. University administrators and faculty can be incredibly stubborn and vindictive because what they fight over does not generally have any importance beyond the realm of the campus. Thus, six years after a simple resolution from the Student Senate asked for a Greek language class to be offered at Ashland, the university provost and Faculty Senate have initiated the largest alteration to the academic programming of this university in over a decade. Resolutions, petitions, newspaper articles, and even the first student-led sit-in on this campus in decades have all been circumvented by a new “Global Competency”structure that is eradicating the study of language for the sake of learning and emphasizing the need to become “competent” about contemporary cultures around the world in an effort to ensure that students are aware that they are apparently “global citizens” with certain (unspecified) responsibilities. Only in a university setting could a simple request for a challenging course be twisted and corrupted into such a vast alteration to the academic nature of the institution.
Here, though, the stakes grow much more important. What began as a request for one class has turned into a frantic struggle to preserve the liberal arts tradition of this university and to ensure that the university can continue to “train” professionals in their particular fields while still cultivating their souls, challenging their minds, and helping them learn to live successful and meaningful lives. The students have affirmed time and time again that we support the liberal arts, and that this university ought not just prepare students to be educators, nurses, lawyers, businessmen, and scientists, but also prepare them to live as free and thoughtful human beings.
Essential to the liberal arts — the attempt to liberate and ennoble the human mind from the accidents of nationality, sex, and race — is the study of language. Language structures how people think and view the world. One can only truly understand someone if one understands how he thinks – Shakespeare can and has been translated into every language, but can only be truly appreciated and understood in his archaic English. The same goes for the writings of Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, the Apostles, Machiavelli, Cervantes, Dumas, Rousseau, Goethe, and other great minds throughout the vast expanse of time and space. Our words are the only things that can overcome the accidents of time and space and allow us to recognize our common humanity and converse with people. The study of words and language is thus ennobling whether you seek to converse with a Spanish-speaker in downtown Los Angeles or with the ancient satirist Juvenal. The study of language does not just meet a goal of cultural competency; it meets a goal of human competency.
This is the argument that the students of Ashland University have set forth for six years now. Because the opponents of a classical liberal education could not defeat the arguments presented by the students, they turned to trickery by deliberately misleading student leaders as to their intentions and then circumventing the entire argument. Rather than accept the nobility of what we asked for, they instead have sought to change the rules of the academic structure of the university to emphasize cultural studies over language studies, thus destroying one of the last vestiges of the liberal arts at this university. All that remains of Ashland’s liberal tradition — one that goes all the way back to its founding a century and a half ago, when students had the privilege of learning German, French, Greek, and Latin — is the University Core, which is itself an unfulfilling skeleton of classical education. The battle for the liberal arts at the university level has been lost, despite the argument having been won — every argument they presented us with we defeated in debate, but we still lost the fight. The trumpeters of simple cultural studies, salable skills, and trained professionals have won the day. And it is the sad irony of the day that the Arts professors — specifically the foreign language ones — embraced the death knell of a strong language program while professors from the Sciences and the College of Business sought to protect it.
However, the struggle is not over; it has just taken a new form. The fight that my peers and I have been a part of for years has drawn to an end, and a new one must begin. There is still hope for students to be able to interact with the words and thoughts of the ancients, even within this new global passport structure that the Faculty Senate has accepted. It is up to individual departments now to try save what they can, and it is up to students to continue challenging this university to challenge us, to remember that an education has to be measured by more than economic value and cost effectiveness, to remember that no career is value-neutral, and to remember that knowledge itself is power.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours is a senior from Cleveland, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.