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How do we defend the teaching of modern languages and cultures at universities

In this video we hear Jan Culik give an excerpt from a keynote lecture, given at the University of Orléans, France, in June 2015
Jan Culik: This is an excerpt from a lecture that I gave in June 2015 at the University of Orleans in France at the conference, which dealt with the issue of teaching foreign cultures and foreign languages at universities. I started with a fairly provocative statement– ladies and gentlemen, we are failing. We are not putting our message across. We may be doing strategically important cultural studies, but it doesn’t seem to be making any impact. Maybe it serves us right that managers often want to close down language-based teaching of foreign cultures at universities. The result of Western interventions in the Middle East and the Far East is an eloquent testimony to our failures.
Now, it is Russia’s near abroad, the Ukraine and Europe, which is being destabilised, most recently by economic hardship, Islamophobia, and fear of the other, especially the refugees. We do not communicate effectively what happens in other cultures, how other cultures feel and think. Information flows from west to east. Western politicians think that everything can be understood from the western mainly Anglo-Saxon point of view. They do not know local languages and they do not have experts. The British Foreign Office has no so few Russian-speaking specialists that it admitted last year that it had not noticed Russia was about to occupy Crimea. The complexities of the local cultural discourses are ignored. The results are often serious.
Fragile countries in the third world whose cultures have not been understood before western interventions may perhaps be an extreme example, but a milder version of the same is threatening to happen even in Europe, now with the refugee crisis. Afghanistan may be an extreme example, but it seems symbolic. The BBC has recently shown a brilliant video documentary by Adam Curtis called Bitter Lake. There’s a sequence in it where he shows dramatically how the British forces in Afghanistan, in that province, Helmand, where they were supposed to organise and conquer and help the democratic forces, totally misunderstood. They helped the corrupt local governors.
As a result of this, they actually had the local population rise up in arms against them, and because they rose up in arms against the western army, they thought, this must be Taliban, so they started killing them. And this basically produced a total mess– absolute cultural misunderstanding. Do find that video on YouTube– Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis. Systematic failure of western interventions makes the strategic importance of language-based cultural studies extremely topical. The failure of western foreign policy in third world areas of conflict has concentrated the mind of at least some western politicians and diplomats, and made them realise the importance of language-based cultural studies.
Needless to say, this applies not only to the areas of conflict and to the so-called fragile states in the third world, but then potentially to all cultures in the first and the second world, especially in Europe when we consider the growing destabilising pressures of economic crisis, nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, which seem to be buffeting us from all sides. Literature and the arts are a potent strategic medium whose analysis should be able to discover under what myths societies are labouring, and to enable politicians to compare intercultural notes. And with the knowledge of the subtleties of local cultures, to avoid misunderstanding. Western societies have not been doing this. Most of the cultural progression is from west to the east.
Every East European knows all the girlfriends of Mick Jagger, but has a West European even ever heard of an East European pop singer or a writer or a filmmaker? Not speaking about what known West European societies actually concern themselves with. In the Middle East, the American soldiers do not bother even speaking the local languages, and they are absolutely ignorant and unconcerned with local cultural concerns. They do what they think is best for these societies without bothering to understand them. When it does not work, they tend to bomb them into submission or kill civilians in these societies by drones. Of course, this does not work and mayhem usually ensues with the rise of the Islamic State.
Are we sure that similar problems will not arise in Europe very soon if we actually do not study the internal cultural discourse of individual European cultures, and do not almost forcibly acquaint politicians with it? Pointing out that it is strategically important to know what is going on in individual societies and what these societies believe in. Look at the current refugee crisis. After 2004, when the East European countries joined the European Union, everybody thought this was the end of a fairy tale, and everything is fine and the European Union is a wonderful, civilised continent of unity on the European continent.
Now we discover with the refugee crisis, that actually there’s a deep rift, deep chasm, culturally between the former communist countries and the western countries. And there is even talk these days about the possibility that this might lead to the breakup of the European Union. Why didn’t anybody actually notice these differences over the past few years? I would like to argue that the teaching of foreign languages and cultures should be any regarded as an important national strategic aim, in fact, as a security issue. In my view, it should be one of the roles of the university to facilitate intercultural communication, thus contributing to also lessening of cultural misunderstandings amongst nations, and decreasing the possibility of conflict.
I think that this topic is particularly pertinent at the present time of considerable international uncertainty. It’s actually quite interesting that the British Academy understands this, and in 2015 they have published a document which warns against the problems here, against all that I’m talking about. The document, you will find it on the web. It’s called “Understanding State Fragility,” and let me, to conclude this talk, quote a few excerpts from it. The British Academy says that the conflict, stability, security, and fragility are immensely outward notions and practises with which to work. And they point out that the record of intervention has been mixed.
They say that is critical from the start to recognise, when engaging with these issues, that the meaning of conflict, stability, and security contain value-laden judgments that set the terms of engagement in ways that may not well acknowledge alternative views. Often they fail to take account of the cultural and political context. It is essential to develop a broad and deep understanding of the historic, cultural, and political contexts of a locality, country, and the region on a case-by-case basis– no simple thing, and not just one factor. It is important to re-orientate the socioeconomic, political, and institutional characteristics of a place, and this requires caution, sensitivity, and a depth of knowledge and understanding.
If we neglect this, says the British Academy, it is to risk failure. When historical, political, and cultural context is ignored, the unintended, perverse, and conflict-generating effects of policies prescribed by the liberal script cannot and indeed have not been fully anticipated or understood. It is vital to draw on a breadth and depth of expertise so as to help shape as ably as possible any potential intervention, and also to identify specific obstacles to potential effectiveness. The problem is, the British Academy says, the declining investment in language and area studies in the UK, as having reduced the requisite pool of relevant expertise access to the deep knowledge of countries in conflict remains limited.
Long-term, steady investment in our cultural and academic assets is of profound importance for our ability to understand, to engage, and to make a positive difference in this world. Context matters. It requires thorough familiarity with local culture, history, languages, society, and politics coupled with multiple philosophical, economic, sociological, and demographic perspectives, amongst others. It is worth considering how, in our own times, it may be possible to draw together equivalent expertise and knowledge that exists so that some of the mistakes of the recent past are not replicated if the decision is taken to intervene militarily, diplomatically, or developmentally in areas of conflict and insecurity.
The tendency to see matters through one’s own cultural lens lends itself to technical approaches which obscure the effect of strategy and practise in these areas. This requires an understanding that technical solutions and templates do you not neatly fit an evolving local, cultural, socioeconomic economic, and political context. The publication of the British Academy emphasises the importance of in-depth and broad understanding of the historical, political, cultural, and socioeconomic context. Those who live in fragile states are never indifferent to local conditions. All of them adapt and find ways of adjusting to the realities created by persistent state weakness. A patchwork quilt of local political orders works, and it is important to study it.
What needs to be understood are the alternative systems of power, influence, and economic activity that crystallise within conflict zones. How topical this is, these days, even about the eastern part of the European Union. What do British politicians actually know that makes people motivated in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic? But this is, of course, a wider problem.

In an excerpt from a keynote lecture, given at the University of Orléans, France, in June 2015, Jan Čulík highlights the strategic importance of language-based study of foreign cultures.

He argues that the West is making the mistake of interpreting non-English speaking cultures incorrectly, exclusively on the basis of its own cultural experience. The impact of this is global destabilisation.

Jan reminds us about the pressing role that languages play in a world ridden by political conflict and war. How can it be that language, literature and culture courses at universities are often the first to be cut by governments’ and managers’ efforts to save money, when understanding languages and cultures is at the heart of global security? How can we create peaceful and secure countries with no mutual understanding of our different ways of life and diverse identities? History has taught us many times over that lack of understanding breeds prejudice and fear. It often leads to hate speech and racist behaviour. Are languages and culture courses academically dispensable or do they contribute to our societies’ progress towards a more peaceful, humane future? Reflect on the above questions as you watch Jan’s commentary.

Jan Čulík is a Senior Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow. For many years now, he has been emphasising the vital importance of intercultural communication. Recently he has been writing extensively about the rise of xenophobia and islamophobia in the post-communist countries of the European Union.

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