[Middle East Studies:] Wasted Money
by Daniel Pipes
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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:
To counter this pattern of bias and alienation, Kurtz proposes three steps for Congress.
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:
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