¿Que? What’s a university without a foreign language?

Reading about West Virginia University’s plan to solve a budgetary shortfall by eliminating the study of foreign languages, it occurred to me the entire purpose of a college education has been turned inside out since my undergraduate days.

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FILE - Woodburn Hall on West Virginia University downtown campus is shown April, 24, 2015, in Morgantown, W.Va. West Virginia University on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, recommended the elimination of 9% of the majors offered on its Morgantown campus along with a wide-ranging reduction in faculty to address a $45 million budget shortfall. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson, File) ORG XMIT: NYPH904

Woodburn Hall on West Virginia University downtown campus is shown April, 24, 2015, in Morgantown, W.Va. West Virginia University on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, recommended the elimination of 9% of the majors offered on its Morgantown campus along with a wide-ranging reduction in faculty to address a $45 million budget shortfall.

AP

Reading about West Virginia University’s plan to solve a budgetary shortfall by eliminating the study of foreign languages, it occurred to me the entire purpose of a college education has been turned inside out since my undergraduate days.

Back when I enrolled as a freshman at my friendly neighborhood land grant college — Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey — most of us worried about whether we had what it took to be recognized as educated citizens.

I recall a mandatory convocation in which newly enrolled students were advised to look to the left and right. One of the three of us, the speaker warned, wouldn’t make it to our sophomore year unless we took our studies seriously. As I was already in receipt of a curt letter from the admissions office informing me that given the contrast between my SAT scores and mediocre high school grades, I’d be well advised to get on the stick, this warning got my attention.

Mainly interested in baseball, basketball and girls during high school, I’d been an indolent slacker who read everything I could get my hands on except my textbooks. Some of my classes may as well have been conducted in Swahili for all I knew about what was going on.

But if I flunked out of Rutgers — or Jersey State, as we sometimes called it to annoy slumming preppies — I’d never be able to look my hardworking father in the eye. So I got busy.

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Most of my fellow students came from blue-collar backgrounds like mine and were the first from their families to go to college. Many heard languages other than English spoken at home — Italian, Polish and Yiddish, mainly. My roommate’s parents spoke Russian. Foreign language requirements struck most of us as burdensome, perhaps, but an essential part of becoming an educated individual.

So when I read that WVU plans to cancel the study of foreign languages altogether and lay off the faculty ... Well, I’ll spare you the hillbilly jokes. I’ve been a fan of the school since the days when the great Jerry West — “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” they called him — played for the Mountaineers. I also had several friends at Rutgers who’d grown up there, football jocks all.

But here’s the deal, as explained to The New York Times by Lisa Di Bartolomeo, a professor of Russian, Slavic and East European studies: “Other universities have closed particular languages,” she said. “But nobody has closed an entire department of world languages that we know of. The word that we’re hearing over and over again is ‘unprecedented.”’

The phrase “third-rate trade school” also comes to mind.

Altogether, WVU plans to drop 32 of the university’s 338 majors and lay off 169 faculty members, or 7% of the Morgantown faculty. Needless to say, the campus is in an uproar, with many blaming the school’s high-flying celebrity president, E. Gordon Gee, an academic controversialist who has earned upward of a million bucks a year while serving as chief executive of several different universities during his career. Gee sparks controversy everywhere he goes, partly due to his lavish lifestyle at public expense.

“We simply have lost the support of the American public,” Gee explained to the Times. His critics contend that elaborate capital building plans and swollen administrative costs are largely responsible for the budget shortfall, very much including WVU’s athletics department. Suffice it to say the basketball coach is the highest-paid individual on campus.

But back to that freshman dorm at Rutgers. It never occurred to me then that what I was being offered was a gentleman’s education. We all took two semesters of composition, taught mainly as a literature course. Everybody read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” at the same time, a powerful experience. We’d sit up late debating its meaning. You can’t begin to understand Russia without reading Dostoevsky. Also Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” the first adult book that ever made me cry.

Everybody was also enrolled in a history of civilization course that was team-taught by the school’s excellent history department, with senior professors lecturing on their specialties. World War II veteran professor Henry R. Winkler’s annual lecture on Nazi Germany drew standing ovations. Many Rutgers students returned to hear it again.

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Twelve hours of science were required, with labs. Eager to know how the world worked, I took biology and physical geography. I’ve never forgotten Melvin G. Marcus — a charismatic one-time naval aviator — showing us aerial photos of New Jersey beaches to warn against the folly of building on sandbars, later dramatized during Hurricane Sandy.

A gentleman’s education, indeed. Learning to read, write and think. Understanding something about the world outside our windows. We naively believed that was the whole purpose of education in that benighted era before anybody imagined it was possible to omit the study of foreign languages and call the institution a university.

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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