Foreign languages and democracy — where is the connection here?
On June 6, the citizens of Hampden, Frankfort, Newburgh and Winterport had an opportunity to make changes to Regional School Unit 22’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013-14 at a district budget meeting. It was a painful 3-hour process, filled with emotion and sometimes confusion. It truly illustrated the saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government – with the exception of all others.”
As an immigrant from Germany and a naturalized citizen I am aware of what not having such a form of government can do (such as 60 million people perishing in an abyss of persecution, genocide, war and anarchy between 1939 and 1945, caused in large part by totalitarian regimes including my home country). So I am thankful for this painful, emotional, confusing and sometimes nerve-wracking process called democracy.
After two hours of a slug fest that led to restoring more than $142,000 for “regular instruction” (read: two teacher positions), to restore the funds needed in social science, English and math, a second motion to add about $85,000 to restore 1.5 teachers in foreign languages was defeated 57-55. This means that most likely foreign languages will not be taught at the middle school level — Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden and Samuel L. Wagner Middle School in Winterport — next fiscal year.
This is wrong on so many levels that it could fill a book. First, research shows that students learn languages better, faster and more naturally at a younger age. English was introduced in fifth grade in my school and a second foreign language in seventh grade. By the time I graduated in 1982, foreign languages were being introduced in many schools at the third- or first-grade level, with third and fourth languages introduced before high school. Competitiveness and preparation for a global marketplace is the main issue here, but there is so much more.
Learning a foreign language inherently means learning a foreign culture and thereby building a bridge to that culture. After World War II, under the leadership of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle of France, a massive student exchange program was created, sending tens of thousands of students back and forth to make sure a new generation would grow up without considering the other country to be its “inherited enemy.” Germany fought three major, devastating wars with France in a time-span of 75 years (1870 – 1945), but now we have a common currency, a peaceful border that only exists on a map and even a joined armed forces corps that is integrated into NATO.
For us here in Maine, this first bridge is often the one to our French-speaking Canadian neighbors that live a mere three hours away. That bridge building, for now, is off the table in a school system that is otherwise remarkable and strives to be a leader in the state. Some school principals and administrators voted against cutting foreign languages, but others are understandably conflicted: They are taxpayers, too, and may have reached their limit as far as property taxes.
But there is hope: The democratic process does not end here. Voters may defeat the proposed budget at next Tuesday’s referendum. The process continues in that case. If the budget receives approval, part of the restored funds could be used for a foreign language program. That is up to the school board. Anticipated government funding could be more than expected, and those funds could be allocated as well.
Certainly, the narrow defeat shows what should be at the top of the list of programs to restore as soon as possible. This also provides an opportunity to retool the foreign language program in order to return it with the funding, power and quality it deserves.
There is more hope: As a foreign-born immigrant and now citizen, I am painfully aware of lesser town government alternatives. The fact that you can inform yourself fully, attend meetings, be part of the process and make motions to change proposals that derive from due process is something to celebrate. It makes me proud to be a citizen of this country that I have chosen to make my home. So even a defeat can feel good, despite the pain.
Still, worries remain. We don’t want to see our students fall further behind their international peers, miss exposure to foreign cultures, and with that, miss opportunities for further peacemaking in our time.
Peter Witt is the president of an international construction equipment company in Bangor and a resident of Hampden. A naturalized U.S.-citizen from Germany, Witt is also a volunteer on the board of directors of the MSAD 22 Education Foundation, an independent, philanthropic organization partnering with the school district. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.