Do physicists need French?
A hundred years ago, the headlines were all about whether ancient Greek should be a necessary qualification to get into Cambridge. Technically speaking it wasn’t actually a qualification you needed to be admitted in the first place. But, if you wanted an honours degree, you had to do a preliminary exam in Greek soon after you arrived – which was pretty much the same thing in practice.
The arguments went as you might expect. The abolitionists claimed that the Greek requirement was preventing highly intelligent boys (sic) from coming to Cambridge, if they weren’t already at a select group of socially elite schools (the access argument). They also suggested that it was pretty ante-diluvian requiring a dead language when you could be getting the boys to learn a modern language, French or German (the utility argument).
On the other side, the retentionists argued that Greek was an essential part of a liberal education, and that it would disappear from schools unless Cambridge continued to require it. To this the abolitionists retorted that it wasn’t Cambridge’s job to take responsibility for the school curriculum.
The arguments went on from 1870 to 1919, when in the brave new post-war world the Greek requirement was abolished (and, true to the retentionists fears, the decline of Greek in schools had begun).
A hundred years on and the radical choice of the early twentieth century – namely French and German – are now in their turn to be toppled. Cambridge is planning no longer to require a modern language from all students across the board.
The arguments are strikingly reminiscent of those on “the Greek Question”, and both sides have a point.
On the one hand is the access argument. If only 17% of state schools now require pupils to study a foreign language after the age of 14, then you’re de facto excluding a lot of potential students if you make it a necessary condition for Cambridge entrance. (Or, to put it another way, you’ll find it hard to make your government access targets...)
This is backed up by the utility argument. Why should we care if physicists know French, since the language of science is universal English?
On the other side, is the argument that an elite university cannot be a monoglot university, and it is to challenge the very excellence of Cambridge as an institution to suggest that it should be producing graduates who know no language but their own. (That has been part of UCL’s argument for introducing the requirement that Cambridge now plans to abolish.) And you can add to that the likely prediction that Cambridge’s decision on this will further weaken the precarious position of modern languages in schools.
In my position, the safest place to be is on the fence. But deep down, as you’ve probably guessed, I am sure that this proposal cannot be right. It is the duty of a university such as Cambridge to stand up for the highest academic standards (that’s a responsibility that being a world class institution brings). If it believes that modern languages are an essential part of excellence, then it should be doing everything it can to ensure that all children have access to them (access in the real sense) – not acceding to short term quick fixes to meet some cynical government target.
As for the argument that physicists don’t need French. . . It may be that the international language of science is English, but do we really think that we are properly equipping our best scientists to work in the international world of Europe, China, India, etc, if they don’t even know what it is like to learn a language to a decent level of competence? Isn’t ‘networking’ something we are now supposed to train them to do? I bet that doesn’t all happen in English.
Maybe the idea is that we are going to teach them all a foreign language when they get here. But I doubt it somehow.