Mikitish: Missing classes

What are schedules made of? Econ, psych and everything nice. That’s what schedules are made of.

Or, so it seems. From “Organic Chemistry” to “Game Theory,” a glace at this semester’s most heavily-enrolled courses reveals many annual favorites, with the ever-popular “Introductory Microeconomics” and “Introduction to Psychology” topping the list (“Shopping Spree Fall 2010,” Sept. 20). Notably absent from the top 20, however, is even a single course focused on language. Admittedly, some language courses are arranged in small sections rather than large lectures, but not one foreign language, linguistics, English or even literature course is part of this elite group.

For my part, I am proud to say that I have never taken even a single economics or chemistry course — not because these disciplines are not important, but rather because they are, at least apparently, horrendously over-studied. As important as money and nature and medicine are, we could not study any of them without language. As Friedrich Max Müller once said, “language forms an impassable barrier between man and beast.” Indeed, the Russian word for person originally meant “one who speaks clearly.” Koko the gorilla notwithstanding, today we can still affirm that language is a major part of what makes us human.

Human society, much less science, could not exist without speech. Writing, a paralinguistic record of language, is probably mankind’s greatest achievement, if for no other reason than it has made our other intellectual achievements possible.

And yet language, a true wonder, our medium of communication, is often ignored by the average person, and, if the numbers can be believed, even by the average Yale student. The study of prescriptive grammar, a staple of education since classical times, has largely been abandoned. Foreign languages, and especially the languages of culture (Latin, Greek, French and German), are much less widespread among the educated than in the past. The (relatively) new science of linguistics has always been relegated to a few eccentrics.

But why? The way I see it, the average layman, the typical high school student, whether he wants to be an accountant or a carpenter or a lawyer, will get much more out of the study of English grammar than he will out of chemistry (just take a look at most flyers and newsletters!). Sure, chemistry deals with some pretty fundamental business, but it doesn’t provide a set of tools that most of us use in our day-to-day lives.

Take this one step further. How many chemistry-studying Yalies apply that knowledge on a daily basis? Class aside, almost none. Granted, many intend to go on and become doctors or biochemists or medical researchers. But 750-plus people per annum? And even if it were true, that all of these folks intended use chemistry in their careers, why do so many of our best and brightest pursue that genre of career?

I have nothing against doctors and chemists, nothing against financiers and bankers, and nothing against psychologists and pharmacists. Please, if you love medicine or economics, study it! Make good use of the language your ancestors gave you!

It’s not what classes Yalies are taking; it’s the classes they aren’t taking. To aspire to understand language is to aspire to understand humanity. From literature to philology to psycholinguistics, language and its study offer a window into the heart of the human experience. Language offers man a road through time and space, into others’ experiences and even into their thoughts. Even the failures of language (the Council of Chalcedon) and the abuses of language (pick a politician) grant important insights. In learning new languages, we gain insights about both differences between cultures and what all humanity has in common.

And yet, too many treat writing courses and foreign languages like a chore.

With a basic understanding of language, every other subject, every other course, every other text is illuminated. I don’t expect most Yalies will make a lifetime out of literature, philology or linguistics any more than most will make a lifetime out of psychology. But, it wouldn’t hurt them give these disciplines a try.

I expect to see “Introduction to Linguistics” in the top 20 next semester — that’s all I have to say.

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