Noam Chomsky published his first book on linguistics in 1957, sparking the rise of generative linguistics and widespread study of linguistics as a discipline. Columbia had a linguistics program that rose with the popularity of the field in the ’60s, but later dropped off before being suspended in 1991. Today, we are left with no formal linguistic department. A program was started in the early 2000s, but a lack of funding and professors has precluded any possibility of the revival of a full department—any student interested in linguistics suffers for it. As a recent news article highlights (“Linguists grapple with lack of a formal major, a blessing and a curse,” April 19), Columbia remains only one of two Ivy League schools that does not offer a linguistics major—the other is Princeton. How can Columbia deprive its student body of a formal major in an established academic field?
Offering a major means more than just allowing people to study a field. Formalizing a major legitimizes a discipline and brings it recognition. Currently, students interested in linguistics can still study linguistics, albeit through a roundabout procedure of declaring an individual major. With a formal major, the University would be able to attract prospective students looking to study linguistics. Columbia might also produce more linguistics majors, as students wouldn’t have to discover the individual track on their own.
More importantly, Columbia would be able to revitalize an important area of academics that is currently dormant. Students presently have to go elsewhere—specifically, New York University—to take classes in rare languages. We understand that hiring experts in these narrow areas might be taxing and inefficient. But as the two most prominent professors within Columbia’s linguistics program—Slavic languages professors Alan Timberlake and Boris Gasparov—will soon retire, Columbia needs to reinforce the core of the program first. To allow a vacuum to exist following their retirement would be criminal to any academic standards this institution retains.
Revitalizing a linguistics program should not be a question of resources. Recently, Columbia College announced the formation of a new major, Medicine, Language, and Society, apparently formed to cater to the premed crowd who really enjoyed Literature Humanities. Although the University already offers a number of courses that will count toward the major, a number of new ones are being specifically created for it. Clearly, resources are being allocated for that new major, just as they were for all of the new majors that have popped up in the last few years. If it had the will, Columbia would have no problem scrounging together the resources to build a program as academically established as linguistics.
The issue goes deeper, though. The role of a university is to make it possible for us to study, not to hinder our academic pursuits. In a field as influential and deep-rooted as linguistics, there is no reason for Columbia not to pave the way to a formal major and eventually a full department. We should not have to worry about making this happen from a financial standpoint—money should exist to serve ideas, not the other way around. From the student perspective, academics should remain an unimpeded pursuit, and it is Columbia’s responsibility to make that happen.