In other words, get an education

February 16, 2007

If universities are to be more than just training institutions, degree courses should contain a foreign-language component, says Bob Brecher

As we all know, the past 20 years have seen a revolution in British higher education. Where going to university was once the preserve of a minority, now it is something for nearly half of all school-leavers.

This revolution has engendered a good deal of debate - admittedly largely vacuous - about why such "widening participation" has had virtually no impact on working-class numbers going to university.

Disconcertingly, this revolution has done nothing to spark discussion about other fundamental questions: what sort of place is a university supposed to be, and what is the difference between being educated and being trained? It is not that there is any lack of sterile talk about the place of "vocational" degrees compared with "academic" ones. The point is that very little real thought is being given to what the difference might be between an educated person and someone who has been merely trained. What is the difference, say, between legal education and legal training, or between medical education and medical training, or between an education and a training in media studies?

So here is one very small contribution. I am not trying to offer any sort of definition of a university education, nor to suggest anything like a sufficient account. I want to draw attention to one element that seems essential: reasonable proficiency in a second language. Why is that so important? Because it is a practical reflection of a deeper, intellectual difference between education and training. Education offers people some insight into the world they inhabit. To be an educated, rather than a well-trained, practitioner of, say, nursing, civil engineering, school teaching or biochemistry, is to be able - and willing - to reflect on how one's practice affects the world, socially, politically, morally and culturally. That is a key difference between, for instance, learning to be a driving instructor and doing a degree in transport studies.

But what has a second language to do with education? In much of mainland Europe, the question would be thought otiose. In many countries a PhD in any discipline requires reasonable proficiency in at least one foreign language, and often two. Nor is this merely a reflection of the position of, for instance, English or German as a historical and/or contemporary lingua franca. It reflects something much deeper: the impossibility adequately to reflect on one's own culture and society without the external perspective offered through a facility in the language of another.

Different languages are not simply a matter of attaching different labels to the same items but, crucially, of thinking about the world differently.

The demotion of foreign language learning in schools reflects the UK's increasing intellectual and political isolationism and helps to bring it about. Of course, you can get by in English around much of the world, but getting by is not the point - or at least, it is not so far as education is concerned. So, an illuminating measure of the extent to which training has replaced education in the UK's schools is our boorish monolingualism.

Perhaps one way of doing something about it would be for universities to insist on a foreign language component across all our degree courses. Not only would this make a useful difference lower down the educational ladder, it would also be a fundamental contribution to graduates having, and being seen to have, a university education.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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