The Corner

Obama’s Educational Romanticism

Obama’s idiotic suggestion that all our kids should learn Spanish is, amongst other things (this is multi-dimensional stupidity) an illustration of educational romanticism run amok.

The cold fact is that absent exceptional circumstances — the most common of which is, total immersion at a receptive age — not many human beings can learn another language. Oh, you can learn enough to stumble along and get by on a trip abroad, but if you can attain fluency in a language not your own, without those exceptional circumstances, you are an unusually smart and gifted person. (For my own sad track record, see here.)

Since the generality of human beings do not like to do things they can’t do well, not many of us care to persevere with foreign languages, and whatever was once hammered into our heads at school is lost. Unless you decide to go live abroad in a non-English-speaking country, this really doesn’t matter.

The pointlessness of foreign-language learning is obscured for English-speakers by all those foreigners we meet who have good English. (Scandinavians are especially humiliating in this regard.) We should remember, though, that (a) the foreigners we meet are mostly smart upper-middle-class types who travel a lot (try finding an English-speaker on a Paris street), and (b) the whole world is bathed in English, so that if you are born in, say, Finland, and want to do anything with your life more ambitious than running an autobody shop in Ylikiiminki, you can’t help but learn some English, and (c) for teenagers the world over, English is cool.

Obama suffers from the fallacy — extremely common among high-IQ lefties — that everyone else is just as smart as he is, or could easily be made so with a few educational reforms. In fact, below some cutoff point, which I’d guess at around minus one standard deviation in IQ (that would encompass sixteen percent of the population), education beyond the three R’s is a waste of time, and foreign-language instruction a total waste of time.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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