Economist Thomas L. Friedman has discussed how the world economy has made national borders obsolete. You might think that the languages would be valued more highly right now. Yet Americans still learn foreign languages at woefully low rates.
As I have stressed several times in this blog, the value of the humanities transcends the question of job preparation. But the question increasingly posed to all academics these days is the value of their fields—“value” often understood strictly in terms of economics. Will this information help someone get a job? For many reasons, the humanities fare worse in answering this question these days.
My field, Italian, suffers the same fate as the rest of the humanities. Sometimes more so. We simply haven’t done a good job overall of explaining the benefits of Italian. People associate Italian with pleasure—food, fashion, art, and opera. But business?
For decades, Italy has been a part of the G-7 (or G-8 or G-20) groups of economically powerful countries. Last year Italian automaker Fiat announced its take-over of Chrysler. Business has become transnational, and Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler is only another example of that fact. Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler is a clear example of how Italian is a valuable business asset.
I wish I could say that I had some foresight of Fiat’s owners’ decision. I had no more prescience than anyone else in the US. And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make.
No one saw Fiat’s decision coming. But in the wake of Fiat’s purchase, Italian appears a little bit more essential. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Particular areas of knowledge seem trivial until they suddenly become necessary. In the first half of the twentieth century, physics was a backwater. Then World War II necessitated the production of an atomic bomb, and then the Cold War required many more. With the government’s interest—and investment in—nuclear physics, it became the cutting edge. Similar shifts take place all the time. When President Nixon declared a war on cancer, oncology research became a booming field. With the threat posed by the Soviet Union, federal moneys went to Russian and Slavic languages. And what field could be less lucrative than paleontology—until, that is, Hollywood produces a blockbuster about dinosaurs.
A university education benefits the individual, of course, but it also benefits the society. The community profits by having people trained in many different areas. It is arrogant to presume that some fields of knowledge are essential and others are not. Because who can tell? It is just a matter of time before circumstances require a group of individuals trained in those areas.