Why Study French & Francophone Studies?
French has a place both at the basis and on the cutting edge of the liberal arts. On the one hand, when one asks how a subject of study acquired its modern identity – whether it be the novel, cinema, Native American civilization, the concept of probability, crime, germs, or even what it means to possess a self – more often than not the answer leads through French culture.
In fact, the very means by which students investigate such subjects, the essay, is itself a version of what is originally a French invention. On the other hand, over the last several decades, as many of the liberal arts have expanded to include new subjects and methods, French thought has played a starring role. Figures such as Roland Barthes (cultural studies), Franz Fanon (postcolonial studies), Pierre Bourdieu (sociology), Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropology), Michel Foucault (history), Ferdinand de Saussure (linguistics), Jacques Derrida (literary studies), and Luce Irigaray (women's studies), to name a few, have radically reoriented and in some cases even created their disciplines. These old and new contributions of French & Francophone cultures to the culture of the liberal arts make French & Francophone Studies a field that provides keys to the advanced study of its sister fields as well as a rich destination for inquiry in its own right.
The benefits of French are not just intellectual; they are professional, too. The academic reasons for studying French are already reasons why it provides a powerful entrée into any number of career paths in a marketplace that increasingly demands an international perspective. Intensive exposure to a foreign language sharpens one's capacity to think and express oneself not only well but also in ways other than those determined by one's native background. And being able to think otherwise fuels innovation, whatever one chooses to do. More specifically, French provides access to trends in sectors that are particularly vital to the economies of today and tomorrow, including medicine, cinema, aerospace engineering, public transportation, comic books, luxury goods, slow food, and environmental technology.
On the political front, French offers critical perspectives on challenges faced by Western democracies. At one time France had an empire that included what are now Algeria, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, French Polynesia, Guadeloupe, Guinea, Haiti, Lebanon, Martinique Mauritania, Morocco, New Caledonia, Niger, Syria, Togo, Tunisia, and Vietnam, among other countries and territories. This history places France and its former – but still Francophone – colonies at the center of efforts to communicate and find peace across divides between democratic and other forms of government, between secular and religious politics, and between Christianity and Islam. Another aspect of French history makes French democracy a critical counterpoint to other Western democracies, especially the United States. Both the U.S. and the French Republic got their starts together in the late eighteenth century: the Founding Fathers drew many of their ideas from the French Enlightenment, while the American Revolution set examples for the French Revolution. This shared heritage has resulted in a sometimes tense but always fruitful relationship, in which each nation offers to the other a counter-model of what a democratic society can be and can become.
Last but not least, French is serious fun, although not necessarily the kind of fun suggested by expressions such as “French fries,” “French lover,” or “French kiss,” none of which exist in French. There is an expression, however, which does say something real about the fun of French, while, oddly enough, using English words. When one says that something has la French touch, one refers to its capacity to generate wonder, excitement, satisfaction – in a word, pleasure. What has this capacity? It can be the scent of perfume or the taste of wine, as well as the rhythm of a conversation or the warmth of a friendship. All of these things, and many more, have been cultivated over the centuries in French culture to an extraordinary degree of refinement. Together they constitute what the French call l’art de vivre. The Department of French and Francophone Studies, therefore, offers not only tools by which to observe life, but also an art by which to live and transform it.