The U.S. Congress broke with a 45-year tradition last week: It permitted a dissident to critique the federal funding for the study of foreign language and cultures - to suggest that the program often serves the very opposite of academia's goals or the nation's interests.
The topic impinges on core questions of how Americans see the outside world and themselves. It also has major implications for U.S. policy.
Federal funding of international studies (known in govermentese as "Title VI fellowships") is relatively new, going back to 1959, when Cold War tensions prompted a sense of American vulnerability. The goal was to supply knowledgeable specialists to government, business, industry and education. (Full disclosure: I received a Title VI fellowship in the mid '70s.)
The $86.2 million a year spent on Title VI programs makes up just 0.005 percent of the federal budget, but it funds 118 "national resource centers" and provides an endorsement of them that encourages other donors. Universities quickly came to depend on this subsidy of their graduate students and area studies centers.
That's why last Thursday's hearing of the House Subcommittee on Select Education on "International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias" was so potentially significant: It challenges that funding.
The event showcased Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, who explained the problems at Title VI centers. Himself an anthropologist of South Asia, Kurtz since 9/11 has developed a systematic critique of Middle East studies.
His testimony argued that this field is dominated by an approach called post-colonial theory. Developed primarily by Edward Said of Columbia University, it holds, in Kurtz's words, that "it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power." The predominance of post-colonial theory had two major consequences:
- Exclusion of pro-American voices: Kurtz gave several examples, such as the website of New York University's Middle East center: Every one of its commentaries on 9/11 and the Iraq war that takes a political stand, he found, "sharply criticizes American policy."
- "Condemnation of scholars who cooperate with the American government": For example, the Middle East Studies Association boycotted the National Security Education Program (NSEP), a Pentagon-funded effort to develop a cadre of professionals to help the U.S. government "make sound decisions" on national security issues. In other words, Title VI funding at times reduces the expertise available to the government.
To counter this pattern of bias and alienation, Kurtz proposes three steps for Congress.
- Create a supervisory board, made up of executive branch representatives and other appointees, to manage Title VI spending, as is now the case with other federally funded educational programs.
- Amend the Higher Education Act to deny Title VI funding to any university or center that boycotts the NSEP.
- Reduce allocations for Title VI to register displeasure with the bias of area studies. Start by rescinding the $20 million added to Title VI after 9/11 and direct it instead to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., to train students intending careers in the defense and intelligence agencies.
Confronted by this powerful critique, the education establishment's lobbyist at the hearing, Terry Hartle, was reduced to posturing about the supposed patriotism of his constituents. He also dismissed Kurtz's case as anecdotal and claimed historians and political scientists "rarely find" post-colonial theory useful. The fellow even pretended (and this falsehood must have rankled) that Edward Said's work "reached its apex of popularity more than a decade ago and has been waning ever since."
Hardly! A search engine of syllabi finds Said to be one of the very most-taught authors in the field. He is, as Martin Kramer points out, "one of only two academics today (the other is Noam Chomsky) who draws an overflow crowd on any campus he visits and who always gets a standing ovation."
Hartle is wrong and Kurtz is right. Indeed, Kurtz understates the problem, for anti-Americanism among Middle East specialists has other sources besides post-colonial theory, such as fury at strong U.S.-Israel relations or sympathy for the Iranian regime.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) chairs the House Subcommittee on Select Education. Taxpayers have no better way to challenge the failure of Middle East studies than by writing him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Apr. 14, 2011 update:Eight years later, Kurtz declares victory, in "Congressional GOP Gets One Right." Excerpts:
The federal budget plan up for approval by Congress this week slices international studies programs funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act by 40 percent. ... the lesson taught by this cut is a large one.
Academics are already screaming about the "devastating" nature of the cutback, and the alleged damage to our national security, since the programs in question support the teaching of languages of strategic importance to the United States (like Arabic and Pashto). Yet Title VI programs in international studies have largely failed to channel students fluent in strategic foreign languages into defense and intelligence agencies. ...
No doubt the sheer scale of our fiscal crisis is going to force some cuts in well-functioning programs with worthy goals. Federally subsidized Title VI programs in international studies, however, are a parade example of government spending gone wrong. ... Title VI has been a dysfunctional morass for years. ...You can certainly make a good conservative case for zeroing out Title VI altogether. Ordinarily, we don't funnel federal subsidies directly to academic programs. The exception in this case is justified on national security grounds.