Duke University: Polyglot Boarding House

Middlebury College is widely renowned for their top-quality, immersive foreign language learning programs. Central to the Middlebury curriculum is the infamous language pledge, a promise which all students must take to use for communication only the language one is studying for the duration of the program. Whether during the summer in idyllic Middlebury, Vermont, or overseas at one of the school’s satellite locations, hundreds of students every year commit themselves to Middlebury’s infamous language pledge, immersing themselves in the culture of the target language and internalizing all the subtle cues and linguistic patterns that occur over water cooler talk, gossip, run-of-the-mill transactions, etc.

Fulfilling one’s obligations under the language pledge is difficult. Most people process their emotions and thoughts by speaking about them. Living in a strange, new place with all of the emotional turmoil that brings can be overwhelming, especially when one lacks the vocabulary to articulate one’s experience. In rare moments of longing, the average Middlebury student might call home and speak in his native tongue for awhile. But those instances of quiet desperation are understood to be private.

The language pledge is as much a matter of respect for the other people in the room as it is a personal commitment to self-improvement. Speaking the language of the host country notifies the people of that country of one’s regard for their culture, time, and welcome. Thus, a certain intimacy may be achieved with friends of completely different backgrounds through speaking the host language. As for classmates, staying true to the language pledge in public and private settings communicates to them that their learning process is of as much value as one’s own. The shared experience of stumbling toward fluency also lends to the development of comradery among fellow students.

Ultimately, Middlebury Language School graduates are generally regarded as the best in the field. The positive outcomes of immersing oneself in the target culture cannot be overstated. From the national security perspective, Middlebury Language Schools are fantastic tools of cultural diplomacy.

This week, Duke professor Megan Neely became the latest victim of Twitter’s call-out culture, the cherished bludgeoning device of our increasingly mendacious moral commissars. In an email disseminated to graduate students in Duke’s Biostatistics Masters program, Neely suggested that students speak English at a reasonable volume rather than Chinese at 150 decibels while in the department’s break rooms. Several professors had become bothered by many such disturbances. Neely courteously offered the students guidance on how to improve their behavior.

Thus Neely became the latest symbol of white America’s implicit and pervasive bigotry that victimizes even the richest among us.

The galaxy-brain reason many claim offense at the situation is that the United States doesn’t have an official language. English isn’t in the Constitution! No matter that the Constitution is written in English. Must we have an explicit rule for that which is implicitly understood to be true? In the multilingual, multicultural, multinational economic zone that America has become, the answer to that question is yes.

The students at Duke did not take a language pledge when they enrolled. Thus, they cannot be punished for failing to live up to the standards that Americans failed to set. Despite this, the principles upon which the language pledge is predicated exist without the enunciation of the rule itself. Basic respect, reciprocity, and a certain level of reverence for the host country’s generosity in their welcome are in order for international students of any variety, with or without a language pledge.

Neely’s request was far from unreasonable. Moreover, it is doubtful she would have said anything had the Chinese students respectfully kept their voices at an appropriate level. Still, undoubtedly, the media will conflate the image of Neely with the persnickety and cruel Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter to gratify their childlike sense of good and evil.

There is nothing wrong with insisting on a national language. In fact, doing so likely would ease the relationship between outsider and insider by creating a space for clear communication. To suggest that newcomers should not have to or cannot achieve the arduous task of learning English because it is arduous is an amazing self-own for activist immigrants and an equally amazing example of truly implicit bias for their “allies.”

A general language pledge in American immigration policy and academic institutions alike is in order, but it will never, ever happen. America has no explicit standards for visitors or immigrants to our country. Americans are not allowed to have standards, for any standards at all are an expression of discrimination and an imposition on those very American principles of liberty and equality. Liberty and equality as envisioned by the Founders have experienced drastic mission creep. At this point, criticism of an immigrant is considered a violation of their human rights. Complete non-discrimination is the only standard, and Americans allow themselves to be beaten into submission when they violate this standard by vocalizing an implicit preference for how things should go in their home country.

Neely not only apologized profusely for her words, she stepped down from her position of leadership in the department to demonstrate her absolute contrition for politely suggesting that speaking English in America would help students succeed professionally and interpersonally in the long-run. Saul Alinsky would be so proud of the way the modern Left has internalized his rules for radicals as their unholy commandments: Pick the target, freeze it, and polarize it. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.

They win every time.

In a show of utter obsequiousness Monday, Duke Vice President for Public Affairs Michael Schoenfeld said, “Duke’s engagement with China, with Chinese students, and with Chinese scholars is broad, deep and longstanding. We deeply regret that this particular incident might have compromised the very valuable and mutually beneficial relationship that Duke has with its Chinese students.”

This is, in other words, a plea to the Chinese government to continue incentivizing Chinese nationals to pay full tuition at Duke, to keep Duke’s satellite institutions in China running smoothly, and to keep Duke in consideration when it comes to endowed chairs, scholarships, and various other donations that the Chinese government enthusiastically administers to those avaricious American institutions who find themselves willing to abide by the politburo’s preferences for a price. Thus we see one of the first overt examples of American leaders bending the knee to their Chinese overlords. More will come.

And reciprocity be damned! As we clutch our pearls at the audacity of Neely’s email, let us not forget that the academic exchange relationship between China and America is completely skewed. In America, Chinese students enjoy the fruits of freedom and access to American archives without friction. Meanwhile, as reported by the Hoover Institution last year, Americans in China have the inverse experience:

Whole subject areas and regions of the country are now off-limits to American and other foreign scholars for fieldwork; previously normal interactions with Chinese scholars are now often heavily circumscribed; many Chinese scholars have become reluctant to meet with American counterparts; a growing number of libraries are off-limits; central-level archives have been closed, and provincial; municipal archives are increasingly restricted; interviews with government officials (at all levels) are more difficult to arrange; public opinion surveys must be carried out with Chinese partners, if they can be conducted at all; simple eyewitness social research in rural and, even some urban areas, is considerably more limited than previously. In short, normal scholarly research practices permitted elsewhere in the world are regularly proscribed in China.

In every sense, Duke is a story of sycophant America’s lack of self-respect and embrace of complete passivity as our cultural institutions come under the control of anyone but people who love America. Let it be emphasized again that self-flagellating on behalf of the call-out crew does not satisfy them and will not satisfy your internalized guilt. Americans should not apologize for who we are explicitly or implicitly. The Chinese don’t. Ever.

In his private correspondence dated exactly 100 years ago this month, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the acceptance of immigrants in America is entirely “predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American.” Roosevelt detested the divided allegiance of the hyphenated American and emphasized the need for one flag, one nation, and one language as unifying national symbols: “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house.”

As the situation at Duke demonstrates, mere dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house we have become.

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Photo Credit: Lance King/Getty Images

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