Language Schools Commencement Address
August 15, 2008
President Liebowitz and Vice President Geisler, thank you for inviting me. It is a privilege being here on such a lovely day. When England's poet Laureate wrote "few earthly things are more beautiful than a university," he surely must have had Middlebury in mind. John Masefield also found beauty in the institutions of higher education because they are "a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know."
Middlebury and its network of C.V. Starr schools abroad are on the front lines of combating ignorance about our world. The challenge is daunting and I am glad that the Institute I serve is allied with you in facing it through the Fulbright and Gilman programs, generous grants from the Starr Foundation, and by all we can do together to help ever-more Americans to study abroad and to speak the language of the places where they are going.
There is also a very special reason that I am honored to accept your invitation, even though it did not include a ticket to one of the Spanish Department's summer parties. And it explains why I am not addressing you in French.
At Harvard forty years ago, among the requirements to earn a PhD was the demonstration of proficiency in two modern foreign languages. I was able to choose statistics as my major language and French as the minor. We had one hour to translate one page. Since each page was from either Rousseau or Sartre, the time for me made no difference. Even 24 hours, it turned out, would not have been enough.
In the history of the Department of Government there, moreover, I was eventually told that only MacGeorge Bundy had taken the French test as many times as I did and still failed. He actually never passed one and was given the name of a medical doctor who was able to certify that certain persons were incapable of learning French. That name was also given to me. My mentor, Sam Huntington also mentioned Middlebury several times and urged me to spend a summer here. However, the eighth test I took began with the stirring words that I have never forgotten: "All France is divided into 22 regions and these, in turn, into 96 departments." It then proceeded to name each, identifying the principal products - mainly cheese from what I could tell -- with which they were associated. I passed, happily, rather than made history. But Sam would be glad to know that I also finally took his advice.
So permit me to address you in the language in which Harvard let me major.
70; 50; 30; 1.
Now if I left it at that, this would replace President Andrew Jackson's six word speech in Latin at Harvard in 1833 as the shortest commencement address in history.
But you will not be that lucky.
Each number represents a dimension of the challenge we face in opening American minds to the world.
In mathematics, seventy is the smallest "weird number" (where the sum of its proper divisors is greater than the number but no subset of those divisors sums to the number itself). And in Judaic tradition, it was the original number of the world's nations and languages. In my field, it stands for ignorance about the world. Seventy percent of college-educated Americans today cannot find Iran, Israel, or Indonesia on a map. The same proportion cannot name the current or past president of Russia. And seventy percent of our citizens do not possess a passport.
Fifty stands for the percent of college-educated Americans today who cannot name the second major branch of Islam.
Thirty is the number of graduates who received a degree last year in Arabic in the entire nation. That is 10 times smaller than the number who earned one in film studies at my alma mater and 100 times less than the number who did so in film nationally.
Less than one is the percentage of Americans who will ever study abroad during any part of their higher education.
As these numbers suggest, what is happening here makes Middlebury a special place. You are actually making international a part of what it means to become educated. This promises a profound shift in what all of us can take away from higher education because it affects not only what students say but also what they choose to read, what they talk about, and how they actually think.
Perhaps because of my job, I am often asked what the curriculum ought to be if a school were creating one to take account of the globalized world we share. Behind the question is usually a hope for either a-one-course that-does-it-all prescription ("World 101") or at least the "right" mix of courses and disciplines that would credibly cover the dynamics that are changing international relationships. Almost every audience is disappointed by my answer: require every entering student to arrive with a passport and all to graduate speaking another language.
Perhaps this also explains why I am president of the IIE and not of a university today.
But I believe that if all our students had passports, they would find ways to use them and that if they were able to speak another language, it would open the door to understanding how people think and work beyond one's own immediate culture and surroundings. And that understanding may be the best thing any of us can do to prepare the next generation for life in a world that scholars once again agree is flat.
Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon noted (in Latin) that three inventions - printing, gunpowder, and the compass -"changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world." In today's world, more people still have access to guns than to international education. Maybe that is why the world is still a dangerous place. What Middlebury does is provide both the compass and the language to use it for directions in different locations.
So I am humbled and also inspired by the degree you have given me. Through it, your Trustees have recognized the importance of all who work to promote international education and mutual understanding. And maybe if there were more of that, we would have a lot less need for gunpowder.