The first semester of my Italian class ended on Friday (and my missing group member reappeared! mirabile dictu!). In the grand tradition of intro classes everywhere, it was a bit of a party, spent watching each others' more or less inspired and more or less ridiculous presentations and chomping on homemade sweets.
Two of my classmates are graduating in December and therefore not continuing with us next semester; we congratulated them and wished them luck. Then our instructor started nudging those who aren't graduating but who hadn't signed up for the spring course on why they weren't registered. There were three or four of them, and though their exact reasons for not continuing varied, the gist in all cases was that they didn't need another semester. Most of them had never intended to take the spring course and none seemed to be reconsidering.
Now, I'm not going to beat up on these particular students for their approach to language study, even though it's hard for me to imagine what use a single semester of a foreign language could be to anyone. This is a commuter campus which serves mostly first-generation college students. Some are just doing what they have to do to earn a degree that they hope will improve their and their family's financial and social circumstances. And if they're not planning on working abroad or in international business, it can be hard to imagine a reason for advanced language study. I know these students have enjoyed the class: many of the non-continuers have been vocal in their appreciation for la professoressa. It's just not. . . relevant, you know? And they're trying to get through college efficiently and graduate sooner rather than later, and if they're not required to take another semester, why spend the time and money?
What strikes me, when I hear these explanations, is that they so closely replicate the arguments made by boards of trustees or local and state politicians. Foreign language study--or the arts, the humanities or even the social sciences--are nice for those who have the leisure for them, but our students need JOBS! And PRACTICAL SKILLS! (Note the classism masquerading as concern.) As a result, the messages are conflicting and incoherent: every institution these days claims to be preparing its students to be global citizens, but they're gutting foreign language requirements. If I'm reading the Gen Ed documents for this institution correctly, a student who has taken two years of a single foreign language in high school does not need to study a foreign language in college; all others need one year of college-level instruction. RU's foreign language expectations set a somewhat higher bar, but not by a lot.
So it's no good wondering why students "don't want" to take X or Y. When you structure your curriculum so it devalues something, you shouldn't be surprised when students don't seem to value it. Sure, student have their own passions and are capable of being set afire by this or that subject and changing their entire course of study as a result--but that subject has to exist and be visible on your campus (hardly the case when there are six or eight tenure-line faculty in the entire Modern Languages department and most of a students' peers aren't studying a foreign language). And students need to have a sense of the worth and desirability of a subject or a skill, and that usually comes from somewhere outside of them.
I don't actually think that first-generation college students (or minority college students, or working-class college students, or however you prefer to define the non-elite) are any more focused on the bottom line than supposedly traditional college students. It's just that the bottom line differs by student population: in some populations, it's considered uncool or embarrassingly ignorant not to have some familiarity with foreign cultures--or the fine arts, or whatever. It's not magic and it's not a mystery: whatever life students can envision themselves inhabiting, they'll take the courses they think they need to get there.