Mahmoud Al-Batal

The College of Liberal Arts celebrated its diverse career path for students on Tuesday with a panel discussion on the changing role of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

The college, well-known for its distinguished Plan II Honors Program, has more than 10,000 students and 45 majors in 21 academic departments.

The panel included liberal arts Associate Dean Marc Musick and Arabic professor, Mahmoud Al-Batal. Al-Batal is the director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad and the director of the UT Arabic Flagship Program.

The flagship program, established in 2007, graduated 55 students in May 2013. Al-Batal said these students are not necessarily trapped in this one field thanks to their liberal arts education.

Al-Batal said these students have used their training in the Arabic language in many different ways, such as working for the government, teaching or going into graduate school.

“Students can go into many other fields such as law school and medical school,” Al-Batal said. “We don’t have to be thinking in terms of what I’m going to be doing with Arabic.”

Musick said as technology changes, a liberal arts education does not have to transform much because students are already taught to adapt to change.

“Plan II and my liberal arts education has prepared me to approach a lot of different options,” said Andrew Wilson, Plan II history senior and president of the Liberal Arts Council. “I’m not just constrained to teaching or going to graduate school. I have so many different paths available.”

Plan II was established in 1935 to give students a broader education for uncertain futures and allows roughly 175 students each year to take small classes in many different areas. 

The United States is largely monolingual. In fact, only about 15-20 percent of Americans consider themselves bilingual, compared to 56 percent of Europeans surveyed in 2006 by the European Commission. This difference is problematic for a number of reasons, especially on the 40 Acres, where we like to think that “what starts here, changes the world.” 

Arabic professor Mahmoud Al-Batal says that the inability to speak a foreign language makes it difficult for Americans to compete globally on a linguistic and cultural level. Some critics of the United States’ monolingual nature have focused on problems in university-level language courses that result in students failing to reach higher levels of proficiency in a foreign language. 

Many of us have heard of the infamous quote, “English was good enough for Jesus Christ, and it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” We have also laughed at or lamented the ignorance that often colors debates of programs and legislation for foreign language education, in which the mandate to learn a second language is often portrayed as a threat that needs to be quelled. 

It wasn’t always like this, however. The United States used to take a much friendlier view toward bilingualism. In the 19th century, immigrant communities maintained — and even published in — their native languages, and educational policies were generally tolerant of this linguistic diversity. However, ideologies began to change in the 1880s, with a huge influx of non-English-speaking immigrants and developing reactionary nationalist movements. Eventually, this change in ideology led to a movement of “Americanization,” which adopted a push for English as a linguistic identifier of the “American.” As World War I raged, English monolingualism became synonymous with support for the U.S. Eventually, legislation removed foreign language instruction from most elementary schools.

This lack of foreign language education for children persists to this day, despite much research suggesting that bilingualism has a significant positive effect on children’s linguistic, cognitive and educational development. The benefits of bilingualism are not just cognitive: Hebrew professor Adi Raz said that knowledge of a foreign language provides huge cultural benefits.

“We don’t just teach language but also culture. By doing so we emphasize the importance of understanding the ‘other,’” Raz said.

Knowledge of a foreign language also helps with employment. “A person who speaks another language is perceived as more intelligent, smarter and a better student,” Al-Batal said. 

Nevertheless, as English has become the global language for commerce and science, many Americans feel that learning a second language is not necessary. We see this here on the 40 Acres: Students complain that foreign language classes are too hard and too time-consuming. This view, coupled with a wholly monolingual environment, pervades not only adults’ outlook on foreign language learning, but also that of children. Even children that are exposed to foreign languages in school are less likely to be motivated to learn them.  

In the last decade, there has been a growth in the number of dual language programs in the United States. These programs, in general, are instructed in two languages with a goal of bilingualism and biliteracy. These programs are highly successful for young children because they involve immersion in a second language environment on a daily basis. However, these programs tend to be expensive and exclusive, meaning that not all parents will have access to them.

 Although there may be no quick fix for the poor motivation and lack of interest in foreign language courses on campus, we are the future leaders, legislators and teachers who can make a difference in the way language is taught in the United States.  

“We are blessed with such diverse communities here in the United States, and English is common among all of us, but we need to create other [linguistic] links, not just to American citizens, but also to other citizens of the global village,” Al-Batal said. 

Policies and programs for foreign language education need to change, as do social expectations for what we get out of our educations. If what starts here really does change the world, our students should care about whether they can speak up and be understood beyond English-speaking countries. 

Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land. 

On the first day of the protests in Egypt, Jordan Bellquist spent an ordinary day at home with Mama, her Egyptian host parent.

Bellquist, a radio-television-film and Arabic senior and Arabic Flagship Program participant, knew there were protests in Alexandria, but everyone expected them to be peaceful.

On Jan. 28, or the “Day of Wrath,” police turned violent and started using tear gas against the protesters in Egypt. The next day, Mama called Bellquist and told her not to go outside because then President Hosni Mubarak had released Egypt’s criminals to scare the protesters into submission. The criminals set fire to the police stations, Bellquist said.

The situation changed drastically two weeks after the “Day of Wrath.” On Friday, Mubarak announced he would step down from his 30-year reign, relinquishing power to the military until Egypt’s elections six months from now.

Mahmoud Al-Batal, the director of the flagship program and Middle Eastern studies professor, said Egypt had long suffered from Mubarak’s regime, which included using martial law, rigging elections, stealing the wealth of the country and limiting power to a small group of cronies.

“[The government] lost the trust of the people,” Al-Batal said. “And no one challenged them, including the U.S. [In 30 years,] anyone who ran against him was thrown in jail; that is why he was disliked.”

After the “Day of Wrath,” Bellquist received a call from her program officials who informed her she had to move to the U.S. resident director’s apartment with other flagship students. Not all of the students had landlines, the primary method of communication because of the lack of Internet and cell phone service.

At the director’s apartment, the students had no access to any news sources. The director did not have a television set, and the government cut off Al Jazeera — one of the only stations broadcasting the protests — the day before.

Despite Bellquist’s lack of communication, one thing was clear from all of the Egyptian people she talked to: It wasn’t because of the curfew or the protesters that she couldn’t go out at night. It was that Mubarak had let out all of the worst people in Egpyt, she said.

“It’s hard for Americans to believe that,” Bellquist said. “But that’s what it was. He was the one that was destroying the country, and he did it because he wanted to scare the protesters into submission.”

The accusation did not come as a surprise to Middle Eastern studies senior Jasmine Bogard.
Bogard studied abroad in Cairo for six weeks last year. During her short time in Egypt, Bogard said that it was obvious the Egyptian people did not want Mubarak in power even before the protests started.

“He was a dictator. It was the huge elephant in the room that people avoided talking about,” Bogard said. “He’s been sick. It’s been the unvoiced question: What’s going to happen when Mubarak dies?”

In addition to an unpopular president and national government, Egypt also was home to a corrupt police force, reviled by most of the Egyptian population.

The police worried about U.S. citizens’ safety in Egypt. Nothing dangerous could happen to someone from the U.S. because it would affect Egypt’s livelihood, Bogard said. To prevent anything from happening, her group had Egyptian police as bodyguards. For Bellquist, however, the experience with Egyptian police ran much deeper.

She encountered Egyptian police while out one night with a male friend. While there is no law in Egypt banning public affection, Bellquist said the police could put people in jail if they demonstrated a public display of affection. Although they did not show any affection, Egyptian police stopped Bellquist and her friend and harassed them, asking Bellquist for her passport and her friend for a bribe.

In light of the corruption and authoritarian rule, Bogard, who followed the situation on Al Jazeera, BBC and Twitter, said the protests against Mubarak and the police’s totalitarianism unified the Egyptian people.

“It wasn’t, ‘I’m a Muslim, I’m a Christian, I’m this, I’m upper class or I’m lower class,’” Bogard said. “One chant that was being said a lot on the Internet and on Twitter was, ‘Muslim, Christian, we’re all Egyptian.’”

To Al-Batal, the youth protests, in particular, signify a new understanding in Egypt.
“These protests indicate that there is a new generation in Egypt, the young people, and they are sending the world a message that they are not willing to live under the oppression and dictatorship of the Hosni Mubarak regime,” Al-Batal said.

On Friday, Egyptians and their allies all over the world rejoiced, optimistic that one day soon, they would have the democratic elections and official representation many had dreamed of for 30 years. For Bellquist, the announcement meant she was one step closer to going back to Alexandria, back home.