Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The triumph of the trivial

Our nation faces so many grave threats it is hard to know where to begin. There is, of course, the ever-present danger of international terrorism and nuclear-armed rouge states. Besides that, we are menaced by the possibility of environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, global pandemics, and constitutional crises. These are the most pressing issues of the day. Underneath them is another layer of problems, which are slightly less serious, but might one day rise to the level of being a top tier catastrophe if left ignored for too long. Included here is our decaying infrastructure, our declining aptitude in science and technology, our deepening emotional malaise, breakdowns in inter-racial dialogue, and the fact that we eat so much junk food we’re threatening to sink the entire continent into the ocean. Past this area of challenges, we enter the domain of things that aren’t exactly problems per se, but can definitely be classified as annoying: too many cars on the freeway, too little civility in political discourse, too many cell phone calling plans to choose from. Finally, once you wade through all these minor troubles, you hit the bottom of the grievance barrel. This is where all the complaints from people who just like to complain wind up: today’s young people have no respect for their elders, the Gap store is selling those pants that show off your buttcrack, no good movies are coming out of Hollywood any more, and nobody told me that it was rude to fart in the municipal pool.

It’s at this lowest level where many low-level political campaigns thrive. And, since it’s an election year, we’ll be hearing a bunch of these: gay people are going to ruin our marriages, immigrants are moving up here and refusing to behave like passive-aggressive Scandinavians, and–last, but not least–professors in our universities are talking too foreigny. It’s this final one I want to focus on here, because it seems to me an awesomely goofy thing to worry about in a world where there’s like seventy million much better things to fret over. Especially since the article makes clear that this “problem” isn’t even that much of a problem:

The bill would require that schools in Minnesota
State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) ensure
their teachers speak plain English.

It would "request" that the University of Minnesota
do the same; the Legislature can technically only
request compliance from the U because it is an auto-
nomous body under the state Constitution.

MnSCU officials say they're not aware of any problem,
and few international students teach undergraduates
at state colleges and universities. U officials view such
a law as unnecessary. International students already
must pass a spoken language test before they're allow-
ed in the classroom. According to the U's Office of
Human Resources website, the Legislature asked them
in 1985 to improve instructors' English skills.

So, why is Rep. Bud Heidgerken bringing this up now? Is he making noise about a minor-to-nonexistent problem just to get some newspaper ink in an election year? And we should probably bring up a reliable and reliably-ignored factor in Minnesota politics: xenophobia. I mean, according to the Minnesota House of Representatives’ website, his district is 99.1% white, 82% rural, and almost 40% of them are over the age of 62. I’m not calling them bigots, but I am saying that they might be more vulnerable to these sorts of appeals than other audiences. And, lest any of them think that this law is aimed at charming Cockneys or drawling Southern professors, Bud has gone so far as to clarify this in one of his press releases, saying that “many of them are from India, etc.”

I hate to be cynical, but I question Rep. Heidgerken’s motives. It just seems too pat, like he's trying to get credit for resolving a controversy that he fabricated out of whole cloth. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe there is an enormous English-mangling problem in our state’s schools and at last someone’s been brave enough to try and do something about it. I doubt it, though. I seriously doubt it.