“I don’t remember any of it.”

When I tell people that I teach French, I often receive some variation on the same response. Folks will say “Oh, I was terrible with languages,” or “My French teacher had a terrible accent!”, and proceed with stories of their classes, often including portraits of comically bad teaching or conveying the complete malaise they felt as a high school student, particularly in language class. More often than not the stories end with the person saying something along the lines of “I don’t remember any of it.”

Each day standing before my class, I aspire to foster their love of French and encourage them to pursue their study of it. Although the task of learning a language is certainly difficult, I watch students begin the year only barely able to understand any word I speak to them and end it able to hold a casual conversation with me in the language. As I see students’ improvement throughout the years, I see the great possibilities that stand before them; they could continue their studies and live abroad, developing fluency and truly discovering all the elements of the language and its culture that have made me love and treasure it. What amazing adventures and what profound understanding these students could have because of their study of French!

But as a teacher of Modern Foreign Language, these conversations with adults recalling their own foreign language education can be a bit deflating. They prompt me to question why we do teach the subjects we teach in high school, when students are not necessarily going to use them directly in their adult lives. I begin to wonder, who in my classes is actually going to speak French in five years? Who in here will ever get to travel to a French speaking country? Am I just wasting everyone’s time? Is this language really worth learning at all? 

In these moments, I often return to what I know to be true of education, particularly classical education. Classical education is for the purpose of developing the minds and hearts of young people to become intelligent, virtuous members of their communities. Their lessons in school should teach them essential elements of each subject and thereby ask them to think and discover new ways of thinking. Students should be humbled by the vast amount they do not know and amazed by the new perspectives they gain. The challenges should be sufficient to prompt them to be courageous and persevere in the face of trials. They should emerge with knowledge, stories, and experiences that have made them better people. A student who graduates from a classical school should have the prudence and determination to know what is good and to pursue it.

The goal is for students to appreciate what is true, good, and beautiful in the subjects they learn, so they can see what is true, good, and beautiful in their lives.

I cannot expect my students all to finish French class and become fluent adults who study it every day for the rest of their lives, in the same way that a Calculus teacher can’t expect their students to continually examine the slopes of curves properly or a Literature teacher can’t expect their students to read Canterbury Tales with perfect comprehension forever. In fact, none of these expectations are really the main goals of education. The goal of students’ education is not perfection, nor is it merely practical skills and good grades. The goal is not even getting an amazing job or getting into the right college. The goal is for students to appreciate what is true, good, and beautiful in the subjects they learn, so they can see what is true, good, and beautiful in their lives.

My goal for students in French class, then, is two fold: to improve in their mastery of the language and to build stronger characters due to their study of it. Or, stated another way, I want them to be the sort of people who might come to me as adults and say, “I don’t remember much French, but it is a beautiful language. I wish I knew more.”