Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin graduated from college in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian Studies after studying abroad in Japan.
I would like to thank Bevin for drawing on that formative experience to remind Kentuckians during his Tuesday budget presentation that the study of world languages, literatures and cultures is a valuable pursuit that has led countless college students to successful careers in education, business, international relations, the arts and — as his own story demonstrates — public service.
Of course, Bevin did no such explicit reminding of these important facts. Instead, he proposed “funding that incentivizes outcomes that are specific to the things people want ... All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so, they’re just not going to be subsidized by taxpayers like engineers will be.”
Who decides what “things people want,” by the way?
At the University of Kentucky, where I am a professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures, students have the opportunity to study 10 different languages, from Arabic to Russian and Japanese.
While studying language, they also take courses in literature, linguistics, folklore, cinema, mythology, media and communication — a curriculum they may also combine with coursework in the College of Business and Economics to major in Foreign Language and International Economics. Their majors lead naturally to further study in my department at the graduate level in Teaching English as a Second Language and Teaching World Languages.
At this moment of rapid globalization, majors in our department learn to become well-rounded citizens of the world, both by studying abroad and by studying the world’s great thinkers and artists, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western. They learn to speak and write effectively in both English and their chosen world language, and they come to understand the importance for their future professional lives of thoughtful communication and confident self-presentation.
Moreover, many of our majors are also double majors and are regularly engaged in internships in other countries (one of our current double majors in French studies and biology, for example, just returned from a semester working in a research lab in Switzerland).
Unfortunately, Bevin’s proposed cuts to Kentucky’s public universities, and plans to incentivize certain majors at the expense of others deemed less worthy or practical, risk denying Kentucky students the very course of study Bevin presumably found to be so intellectually and professionally rewarding. Our former majors are now educators, translators, businesspeople, doctors and lawyers throughout Kentucky.
By proposing that government, rather than students themselves, should decide what they study (and apparently what “people want”), he makes it harder for college students to bring their international knowledge and experience back home and impoverishes the commonwealth he, no doubt, wishes to enrich.
A great state like Kentucky, I would suggest, deserves well and broadly funded public universities.
Jeffrey N. Peters is a professor of French literature at the University of Kentucky.