What's The Point Of A Degree In French?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This from - this is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Quintessential images of university life include students translating Caesar or reading Camus in the original. But as colleges face budget cuts and a more global business world, old assumptions are under challenge.
Earlier this month, the State University of New York at Albany set off a debate after it announced it would no longer offer degrees in the Classics, French, Italian, Russian and theater.
This hour, we focus specifically on language. Should language be a requirement for most four-year students? And if so, which one? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the dreaded question as you settled in for a long plane ride: So what do you do for a living? But first, linguist John McWhorter argues that not everyone needs French in a New York Times opinion piece, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. John, nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Linguist): Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And not everyone needs French, this from a former French major.
Mr. McWHORTER: Yeah, I love French to death, and I was a French major. But as far as I'm concerned, I think that really, if everyone is going to have French, or if everyone's going to have any language, then the idea that it's supposed to be part of your liberal arts education after high school is rather peculiar. And it only seems so natural to us because we've gotten used to the sense that there is this four-year rite of passage that as many as possible are supposed to go through, which really only dates back to the G.I. Bill.
I, frankly, think that schooling for all people should be front-loaded. There should be something along the lines of a 13th grade. And after that, there should be a wide range of things people should do.
But most importantly, if everybody is going to learn French or other languages, then why in the world would we start the process or even think that the heart of the process would be starting when people are 18 or 19 years old, when at that age, our ability to master foreign languages in any real way has already ossified, and the science is in on that.
If we want people to know French, then our idea should be that that is something that we start packing in much earlier, when people are still children.
And as far as what goes on when you're 20 years old, after which, if you're just starting then or even shortly before, you can barely manage to produce an accurate accent, and you have so very much else on your mind. Really, that should just be for the burnishing, really.
So it's not that I don't think that languages are important. I make my living thinking about languages, and I love them to death. But the idea that our focus on them should be when we're basically grownups is a little silly, given that we learn languages best when we are much younger than that.
CONAN: And you also suggest that, indeed, some schools are always going to offer not just languages but the other humanities courses.
Mr. McWHORTER: Oh, of course. I mean, and this probably gets us into a different discussion, but in my ideal world, there is a 13th grade, everybody goes through that. It's a solid education with a good introduction to the liberal arts frame of mind.
And after that, I think that right then, people are old enough to decide whether they want to go to, for example, medical school or business school or art school, or one choice you might make will be to have further training in the humanities. Another choice you might make, and a thoroughly noble one, would be to go to what we used to call vocational school.
So that's my whole model, in which foreign language training is something that everybody gets in 13th grade and under, and hopefully a lot earlier, and then only a few people who really happen to love languages, whereas many people love sports or the arts or doorknobs or whatever, people who really love languages can go on and specialize in them if they want to.
But that will be just one of many options. We are many kinds of people in this world.
CONAN: You studied French, though. Was it useful?
Mr. McWHORTER: No, quite frankly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McWHORTER: The truth is that what I remember is taking French classes and I'm going to get in some trouble here with some people who I esteemed very much. But the way French was taught to me in the '70s and '80s was through methods that really could only do so much, no matter what the teacher did.
And part of the problem was that really, most of us by then were already too old. And so in my life, which is becoming somewhat a long one, I have learned ways to actually get good at a language, which I frankly rarely saw when I was being taught.
And I'm sure that other people have had different kinds of experiences. But the main thing that was clear to me, was that one needed to learn more, for one thing, and two at a time when the mind was more receptive than it is when you're an undergraduate running around at 20 with so much else to do and your brain already sliding down the slippery slope to oblivion, which it actually is by then when it comes to language learning.
CONAN: So if schools, though, were going to whenever they offered it, offer just one language, which one should it be?
Mr. McWHORTER: Well, you know, I'm 45, and so I go far enough back now that in my day, the language that you were exposed to most easily and readily was French. My thought was that that was the main other foreign language.
And I think that's changed since then. Many people now get Spanish as the default. When I ask undergraduates to raise their hand to see whether French or Spanish is the main language I should refer to in a class, nowadays Spanish tends to win out.
And I think that that is definitely a good thing because we certainly have more speakers of Spanish in this country than we have speakers of French, and that business with the French was kind of an overhang from the old days, kind of like our post-G.I. Bill expectations as to how education is supposed to go.
French used to be one of the main international languages. It also had a certain cache. You can imagine "Mad Men's" Betty Draper taking pride in being able to wangle a basic conversation in French.
That was really a different time, and I think Spanish is more useful. I think that it gives us more of a purchase upon speaking to more people here. And then after Spanish, well, obviously there are other languages that are germane.
Mandarin Chinese is clearly very important in terms of wrapping your mind around what languages around the world are like. Ideally, if I could wave a magic wand, everyone would study both Russian and Japanese, radically different languages.
French is nice, and if you're interested in French literature and French culture in particular, I would definitely say that French is the way to go. I enjoyed it. But the idea that that's the main one, at this point in 2010, no, I think it's just what we're used to.
CONAN: We're talking with John McWhorter, author of "Not Everyone Needs French" in the New York Times, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Michael's(ph) on the line from Denver.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Go ahead.
MICHAEL: I am a medical student in Denver, and my dual undergraduate degrees were Spanish and pre-medical, up at University of Colorado at Boulder. And I absolutely found that Spanish was the most useful thing I have ever learned in any of my school years.
But I would agree with your guest, that the best time to learn it is not in your undergraduate because you do have too many things going on. I started back in middle school and then took it all through high school.
CONAN: And why do you say it's been useful to you?
MICHAEL: I find that, you know, just in everyday living, especially in the American West our here in Denver, there are a lot of people that are Spanish-speaking. So I, you know, as simply as, you know, ordering a burrito from the burrito joint in Spanish.
But in medical school, I find that a lot of the Romance languages are Latin-based. So sometimes I'll see a complicated medical term, and it'll trigger some of my Spanish knowledge, and I'll say aha, you know, this reminds me of that one word, and I know the meaning of that word. So I can deduce the meaning of the medical term.
CONAN: My father was a doctor and studied Latin for many years, found it very useful, yes.
CONAN: All right, Michael, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
MICHAEL: You're very welcome. Have a great day.
CONAN: Bye. John McWhorter, there's a practical application for Spanish, but HelenaMarie tweeted us, saying: We should start with proper English. Grammar is foreign to most native speakers.
Mr. McWHORTER: Well, that could be a whole other TALK OF THE NATION show.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McWHORTER: And it depends on what you call grammar. That'll actually be the next book that I'm writing, as a matter of fact.
Mr. McWHORTER: So there is, there's definitely that, and we can talk about composition. But if I had a choice between teaching somebody about dangling participles and having them be able to carry on a conversation in a language other than English, I think I would choose the latter, and so would most of us.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Kimmy(ph), Kimmy's with us from San Francisco.
KIMMY (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIMMY: I was a French teacher at the university level because I was getting my master's in French. And I agree that four semesters of French language does not stay with anyone. And instead of teaching the language and the grammar and teaching them how to say where is my car, when I ever taught anything of the French culture, my students lit up, and they seemed to retain that.
And I propose that we teach more of an exposure to the French culture or another, like the Spanish culture as a mandatory class, certainly not the language because there's no one I knew who spoke or very few people who have taken four semesters of college, any language, that can speak it or retain it.
CONAN: And you taught French in college?
KIMMY: I taught it, yes. My students, in one ear and out the ear. They would memorize the test and then, you know...
CONAN: That was it, never they could order, maybe, from a menu, but that was...
KIMMY: Exactly. But the cultural things seemed to stick, and they seemed to be much more interested in how do the French do this, and how do the French do that. And that was even more exciting to teach.
CONAN: But it's not quite a language.
KIMMY: No, but it still is an exposure to a different life and to a different lifestyle or culture, which I think language offers also, which is one of the beauties of the language.
CONAN: John McWhorter, would you agree?
Mr. McWHORTER: That's really interesting, because many people would say that you can't understand the culture without using the language as a gateway. And certainly, the language is an important gateway.
But in terms of facing the facts, it's true that four semesters of a language really doesn't teach you to even travel that gateway in any meaningful way, and that is true.
In an alternate universe, if we could just blow it all up and start again, I can see it as perfectly plausible that there would be classes in culture where you got a dollop of the language, but nobody was expecting you to be able to talk about where you park your car. And I think that would a valuable educational experience.
CONAN: Well, just let me add this email that we have from Amon(ph) in Sunnyvale: The ability to speak multiple languages is always useful, even if you don't use those languages very often.
In Ireland, there's a growing school sector where children are taught all subjects through the medium of Irish Gaelic. Irish may not be widely spoken on the street, but many these schools are over-subscribed because their students achieve higher test scores in all subjects. It's thought this is because polyglots have better cognitive skill than monoglots. In other words, people with multiple tongues are their brains work better than people with single tongues.
Mr. McWHORTER: They sure do, and in Ireland, they are not throwing Gaelic at you when you're 20. The idea is to make it much earlier, and that is a very interesting situation where many people would tell you they don't fluently speak the language, but they know it as a taught language.
They know it the way, say, Betty Draper would have known French when she was at her best, and there is definitely something to that. But you have to start it earlier than when people are already grown.
CONAN: Kimmy, thanks very much. We're talking about learning French and Spanish and Chinese. Should language be a requirement at most four-year colleges, and if so, which one? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is John McWhorter, who wrote "Not Everyone Needs French" in the New York Times, a linguist and contributor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He joins us from our bureau in New York.
CONAN: When we come back, we'll be talking with Anne McCall, the dean of arts, humanities and social sciences at the University of Denver and a former professor of French. So stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
And we're talking about the study of languages. What's the point of learning French, for example? With colleges and universities facing cutbacks, a number of language programs find themselves on the chopping block.
So should language be a requirement at most four-year schools? If so, which one? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can join the conversation on our website, as well. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is John McWhorter, linguist and author of the piece "Not Everyone Needs French" in the New York Times. There's a link to that at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And joining us now is Anne McCall, dean of arts, humanities and social sciences at the University of Denver. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. ANNE McCALL (Dean, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Denver): Oh, thank you for having me.
CONAN: And are you guys cutting back on language programs?
Ms. McCALL: Absolutely not. We're growing. We have a vibrant study abroad program. About three-quarters of our students choose to study abroad. And more and more students are taking more languages, well beyond what they are required to take by the university.
In addition, in our business school, they actually added a language requirement because they thought that the students needed better qualifications in that area.
Language, I would say, this is one of the areas in which even if you're not principally a language major, many students have it as a secondary major or minor, as that qualification that actually helps them land the job for which they may have a primary qualification, to make that difference.
CONAN: Would it be fair to say that in fact, this is a specialty of your school?
Ms. McCALL: Well, we are very strong in languages, absolutely. But we have an international curriculum throughout. We have the Korbel School of International Studies. We have a Latino certificate in graduate school of social work. We have a Chinese exchange program in business. I could go on. Every single one of our areas has language knowledge as an important component.
CONAN: And would you argue that it is an important component that should be incorporated in every college student's curriculum?
Ms. McCALL: Well, I guess I would agree with John in some of the things that he said, in particularly in particular with the fact that it is unfortunate that many students come to college, come to study at the university, with so little under their belt.
I do see it as an area in which you see the gap between the haves and have-nots in education. We have students who come in from international baccalaureate programs or high-quality AP programs who are already at a level of really good proficiency and ready to go in high-level-thinking classes.
There are too many students entering universities in America or what would be John's 13th year - I don't think there's much difference between a general education first-year requirement and that 13th year but with little knowledge to their credit in language learning.
CONAN: Here's an email we have. This is from Sam(ph) in Tallahassee: I think everyone at college should study some foreign language. It doesn't matter which one. Language classes not only teach the language itself, they also give you a greater understanding of English. It also teaches some information about the culture from which whatever language you're studying comes.
Learning more about another culture, any culture, by participating in it teaches people to be more tolerant of those who are different. And I suspect, Ann McCall, you would agree with that. John, would you agree with that?
Mr. McWHORTER: Of course I do. But I find myself thinking that why don't we have culture classes? Because let's say that you're learning Arabic. And let's say that you do it for two years. You spend an awful lot of time just learning to decode the writing system, and then you get a certain amount of grammar, and Arabic is very different from English, and so frankly, for most people, it's hard.
Now along the way, you're going to learn some things about Arab culture certainly. But goodness, you'd learn so much more if the class were just about culture, and the idea were not to learn the language, and there were other channels that you would follow if you were really interested in learning the language and learning it well. And again, I would say hopefully that would be when you were younger.
CONAN: Anne McCall?
Ms. McCALL: Oh, there'd be a lot to say about this. As somebody who took Arabic for two years, I would say that I value those two years as much as I value the year of Islam that I took in religious studies that was primarily about Arab-speaking countries, Arabic-speaking countries.
I think we're setting up too much of an either-or situation, either you learn it young, or it's not worth anything. I started German as an adult, Spanish as an adult, Arabic as an adult. And certainly my proficiency isn't as high, my fluency isn't as high as in French, but I think I learned a lot that was valuable in the process.
Another thing that I think is a false dichotomy, is the thought that we need to learn a foreign language. That keeps the foreign language, that keeps coming up. And besides the fact that there are so many languages in the world, we are a very diverse society, and I think that there should be choices for people.
And there are many different kinds of interest: cultural, commercial, geopolitical. There are a lot of different reasons to learn these language, and absolutely I agree with John, their cultures, their histories.
CONAN: Let's go next to Brandon, Brandon's calling us from Ogden, Utah.
BRANDON (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for having me on.
BRANDON: I speak Albanian because that's my heritage, and I found that it's rather useless. So I've been learning Spanish, and it seems like the main two languages that Americans need to learn are Japanese, Chinese for business, Arabic because of the wars and Spanish because you can get a job, you know. If one person is in medicine, and the other person is in medicine, they're going to take the Spanish speaker over just the English speaker.
CONAN: I think if you speak Pashto, you can a job at the CIA.
BRANDON: Yeah. But whatever happened to all of us studying Latin? I read novels from the 1800s, and everybody seems to be in Latin class or has a Latin tutor. And I just wondered what happened to that because that's the basis of so many of the languages we speak today.
CONAN: John McWhorter, should we be reading Ovid in the original?
Mr. McWHORTER: If we would like to. That's a choice that might make as a relatively mature person. Latin's a lot of fun. I took a fair amount of Latin when I was in college, come to think of it.
But I think that there's something to be said about learning a language that a significant number of people actually speak and is the vehicle of a living culture.
Now, there are people who teach Latin as a spoken language now, and I think that's very interesting. But if we're talking about the spoken aspect of using a language, then generally, with Latin we're talking about something which is majestic but mute.
So I love Latin because I'm a linguist and because I find Latin wonderful. But I would actually be as interested in somebody trying to tackle, for example, Albanian because at least you can have a conversation with a person who is standing on two feet.
CONAN: Anne McCall, I assume you teach Latin at the University of Denver?
Ms. McCALL: Yes, we do. It is one of our areas that has fewer students. There are students who do the first year, and afterwards, it's mostly independent study.
There are a few universities that have really been able to keep vibrant Latin programs going. Often, those professors have been very clever about weaving their teaching into general education requirements.
And so if they're fantastic teachers on top of it, you know, getting a class on Roman family law or religions is fascinating to students. But they do have to reach out more than other faculties.
CONAN: Well, that, Brandon, thanks very much for the phone call. You were about to say something? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off.
Ms. McCALL: Well, I wanted no, that's okay. I wanted to come back to the question of French, though, because that had come up quite a bit. And certainly, there are fewer French speakers out in the world than Hindi speakers, Urdu and Chinese. But French, I think we are minimizing the importance of French a little bit more than we should, at least at this point in history.
Languages do rise and fall, but, you know, there are 28 countries in the world for which French is an official language. It's a top five economic power. It's our sixth-biggest trading partner.
I there's a wonderful website at Virginia Tech that one my colleagues, Professor Shylock(ph), put together, and he has up on his site that in December 1, 2009, job posting from the State Department, there were 92 jobs that required or preferred French relative to 36 in Spanish and then down from there.
Now, I'm not trying to prefer French to Spanish. I actually don't have an axe to grind in that regard. But I think that we are a little bit quick at dismissing French as pass�. It's more than something that belongs in the period of the G.I. Bill.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: We did get this email from Sadu(ph) in Cincinnati: Many African immigrants like myself studied French their entire educational life and speak the language fluently. However, that knowledge seems irrelevant in America today.
He wrote: Professionally, the only foreign language that seems to count is Spanish. If I had a crystal ball, I would have (speaking foreign language) instead of learning je ne se quoi.
Mr. McWHORTER: You know what, Neal? I want to clarify that part of the reason that I am saying that French may be an issue partly of fashion and I don't want to condemn it as something that only makes sense in 1946 but the idea and I think it's easy to lose a sense of this partly because of the way languages are often taught, and it's not anyone's fault, but the way languages are often taught in this country where, let's face it, we don't usually have an aching need to speak anything but English.
And it's that if you learn a language, and maybe I'm idealizing, maybe I'm fetishizing this, the idea is to be able to have a conversation in it and not just how do I get to the hotel, or my uncle is a lawyer, but my aunt has a spoon.
But you should be able to very casually say something like, you know, we might as well see what it smells like. Very simple sentence. Many people would say those are idioms. I don't call those idioms. I call those human beings speaking casually every day. And if we can't do that, really just relax and talk, then I always feel like something hasn't happened.
And with Spanish and Chinese in this country today, it would be much easier to start, hopefully, when you're about nine years old, and then to go out and actually be able to have those sorts of conversations with people because I'm sure, as we all agree, you don't really learn to speak until you speak and pretty much have to speak. So that's part of what's behind my feeling about French.
CONAN: Okay. Go ahead, Anne.
Dr. McCALL: Well, I think that you idealized language learning to an extent in which if it's not close to perfect, it's not valuable. I think there's a lot to be learned from recognizing other human beings as language-bearing, meaning-seeking beings like ourselves, trying to figure out what on earth is being packed into a language, experiencing that tremendous humbling discomfort of struggling to be understood even when your vocabulary accent and grammar are correct because of so much else that's behind it.
When we say that we don't have a great need in America to know another language, first of all, that's - I wouldn't completely disagree with that, although that depends where you are in the country. But it's also one of our tremendous weaknesses, and certain - in a global society, in the way we are moving now, I think it's one of the features that makes us extremely uncompetitive, that, along with our - the gap in science and math learning. I think it's probably our most dangerous weakness.
Other peoples around the world do so much better than we do in that regard and I think it gives them a tremendous edge. And our students, I think, recognize that, and that's why they're drawn to these languages. It's true. You may not be the perfect speaker, but there's a lot that you can do with what you can pick up as an adult.
CONAN: Now, here's a couple of tweets. This one from @granoa: Mandarin Chinese will be probably the best bet going forward. But Spanish will certainly work too. And this from @JustlikeMercury: Spanish is useful, but I think classes themselves are outdated. Everyone should use the Rosetta Stone-type approach.
That's a computer program that teaches languages. Anne McCall, a lot of people try that.
Dr. McCALL: Well, many of us in language instruction consider that to be not an ideal method. It's true that there is such a difficult access to language learning in many areas, that students do turn to that, and I would rather have them learn that way than not at all. But there are more sophisticated techniques out there.
And I think just tremendously, as a country, we have yet to see that intense dedication to language-learning that will make us excel as we can. I think, as a county, we do well in what we understand and respect and strive for. And we're just weak in this area in America. And that's not a reason to justify it. It's a reason, actually, to change it.
CONAN: We're talking with Anne McCall, dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Denver, also with linguist John McWhorter. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Larry(ph), Larry calling from St. Louis.
LARRY (Caller): Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
LARRY: Yeah. I'm a current student. I'm a veteran. So my main issue with learning the language here is that I'm 28 years old, and, you know, having to go back and try and learn French just to attain my political science degree. And I think that the issue isn't: is it ideal to know a foreign language? It's more so: is it - should be required for graduating with a bachelor's degree?
And I think that if we want to get real about, you know, foreign language education in America, like others have said, it needs to start earlier. We don't - you know, we shouldn't be holding people that are already in college, you know, to these huge, lengthy study hours to be able to gain such a superficial knowledge of something.
CONAN: And this is requirement for your degree?
LARRY: Yes. It's currently required, basically. I have to take 13 credit hours to get my political science degree. And it seems rather arbitrary, as other degrees such as criminal science or engineering, people that are highly likely have to interface with people of other languages, they're not required to take these degree programs, whereas I, a political science major, am.
CONAN: John McWhorter, this is one of your points.
Dr. McWHORTER: Yeah. I think that what we need to keep in mind here is the simple fact of how the brain works. Everything that's being said here is completely valid. But after about the age of 16, the ability to do what we're talking about starts shutting down very rapidly. And I just see it as rather analogous to a policy that people are not allowed to start walking until they're seven or eight when a certain critical period has already been passed. And I know from my own experience, you know, being a tragically dateless and very strange adolescent...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. McWHORTER: ...I remember in the summers doing things like teaching myself German with my favorite method. That is the Assimil Books, folks, by the way. Take the word assimilate. Knock off the last three letters. Go online -Assimil. You can actually learn a language alone.
Anyway, I was doing that and, oh, it just flowed right into my mind. I learned to speak languages fluently and badly so quickly. And the older I get, the harder it gets. I started feeling it start shutting down when I was as young as 19.
And I just - I cry metaphorically at the idea that we think that kids shouldn't be being drilled in this stuff when they're much younger, because I think we would come out more competitive as a country. Many Europeans don't speak English better than we do because they're being given the languages at 19. And so I just want us to be competitive as we're talking about in a way that can happen much more easily if it's a right of passage of people 10 and 11 to being put through their paces in languages, be they French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese or what have you.
CONAN: Larry, you need to remember (foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
Dr. McCALL: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And, Anne McCall, do you agree that it's much more difficult after the age of 19 or so?
Dr. McCALL: I think that, for most people, it is. I mean, as John says, there's science that backs this up. I think that we can learn. Some people will always learn better to speak than others. Other people will learn to read better than others. I just I can't reconcile the idea, though, that because we are poor at teaching languages early on in America, we should give up on it later on.
Now, almost every university that has a language requirement, incidentally, has ways that - perhaps, I shouldn't be publicizing this but that students can get exempted from it. And so, is it Larry who called in?
Dr. McCALL: Perhaps he should inquire to see if he can be classified as somebody who has a difficulty learning a language.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. McCALL: And a lot of times, those students are asked to make up that requirement with culture classes. So that might work out very well.
CONAN: Thanks for the advice, Anne McCall, of the University of Denver where she is dean of arts, humanities and social services social sciences. Excuse me. Thanks very much for your time today.
Dr. McCALL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Also, our thanks to John McWhorter, author and linguist. He wrote "Not Everyone Needs French" for the New York Times. And that's - a link to that at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joined us from our bureau in New York. John, as always, thanks very much.
Dr. McWHORTER: Much fun, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: Up next, a question many therapists always dread: What do you for a living? That's on a plane. This is NPR News.
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