Let's suppose that a cruel, tyrannical, and repressive foreign government offered to pay for American teens to study its national language in our schools. Would you take the deal?
Actually, we already have. Starting this fall, American high school students will be able to take an Advanced Placement (AP) course in "Chinese Language and Culture." Developing the course and its exam cost the College Board, which runs the AP Program, about $1.4 million. And half of that sum was picked up by – you guessed it – the People's Republic of China.
That's right. The same regime that has brought us public executions, forced labor camps, and Internet censors will soon be funding a language and culture class in a school near you.
Given what we know about China's rulers, it's fair to ask what's in it for them. And to answer, we might examine the last time a dictatorial foreign government tried to influence our language instruction.
The era was the 1930s, and the nation was Italy. Fascist Italy.
About a decade after he seized power, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini began a broad campaign to promote Italian-language instruction in American schools.
In a special enticement, Mussolini's government awarded medals to US high school students for "excellence in the study of Italian." The top five scholars won free trips to Italy, where they attended state-run summer camps. They wore fascist uniforms, received military training, and learned how to hail the Italian flag. Several students even received audiences with Il Duce ("the leader") himself.
Textbooks sang the praises of Mussolini's government. "Fascism has remade Italy," boasted Andiamo in Italia ("Let's Go Italy"), a text used in New York public schools. "Italy was a disorderly and disorganized country in which all wanted to talk more loudly without listening to the voice of the ruler. Now this voice which commands is well heard by all and order has been restored as if by a miracle." After 1941, when the United States declared war on Italy, such propaganda came to a halt.
Today, thankfully, Italian is enjoying a small renaissance in American schools. Shortly before the Chinese agreed to fund the Advanced Placement course here, the Italian government pledged $300,000 to establish an AP program in its own language. This spring, the first handful of AP students took exams in Italian. But there's a big difference. The current Italian government is a democracy, not a dictatorship. That means Italians are free to criticize its actions.
Not so with the Chinese. The regime, I suspect, will probably follow Mussolini's model and try to use the new AP course to play up China's economic achievements and play down its crimes. But if any Chinese citizens protest, they'll risk prison, or worse.
So it's up to the rest of us to monitor the program. Any school district offering this course should also make its textbooks and lesson plans available in English, so parents and other concerned citizens can read them. What, if anything, will the texts – officially, written by the College Board – say about the Tiananmen Square massacre? About the jailing of Chinese journalists? The abuse of psychiatric patients? We have the right to know.
Of course, American students desperately need to study non-English languages. Everyone who cares about our national future should consider this appalling fact: Less than half of American high school students even take a foreign language. Compare that with almost every other developed nation, where foreign-language study is compulsory. Our problem is especially embarrassing when it comes to Chinese, which is spoken by 1.5 billion people around the globe – and studied by fewer than 50,000 Americans. More than 1 million American students study French, by contrast, while only 70 million people in the world speak it.
So yes, absolutely, more Americans should take Chinese. Our economy, our cultural life, and our national security all demand it.
But we should study the subject on our own terms, making sure that it also reflects our best civic language of freedom, open discussion, and democracy. Now, more than ever before, it's a tongue that we all need to speak.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century," which will be published this fall.