Middle East studies in the News
An Advisory Board to Be Wary Of
by Robert Scholes
Chronicle of Higher Education
May 14, 2004
A few years after I got back from fighting the Chinese in the Korean War, my sister-in-law was in college, studying Russian, the language of our other great enemy in those days. I thought then, as I think now, that you need to know how a language is used in its own cultural setting in order to master it. So I trekked down to a dingy building in lower Manhattan one day and ordered a subscription to Pravda for the young student of Russian, and she proudly flaunted that paper in the train for the next year, on her way from New Jersey to Bryn Mawr College. I mention that as background for an issue of more general concern: pending legislation that may have a significant impact on international studies at colleges and universities.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
Given the political climate of that era, my gesture was perhaps foolhardy, but, so far as I know, I was not suspected of un-American activity, even though Pravda was a major propaganda vehicle of the Soviet Union. To learn the language of your enemies, you must also study their ideology, because ideology inflects the meanings of crucial words. To study an ideology, however, is not at all the same thing as being drawn into that ideology. In fact, it is the best way of avoiding such a fate.
In today's international climate, our need for language studies is acute. We don't understand our friends very well (even our ancient allies, the French), and our grasp of what our enemies may be saying and thinking is even feebler.
The members of the Modern Language Association, nearly 30,000 of us, are all concerned with language in one way or another, and almost 10,000 of us specialize in languages other than English. For that reason, the association's Executive Council recently wrote to Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, to express our concern about aspects of some legislation being considered by his committee.
Last fall the House unanimously approved a bill, HR 3077, that would provide funds to foreign-language and area-studies centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The bill is expected to be introduced in the full Senate later this spring. Title VI has done a lot of good in this country, and the Modern Language Association applauds reauthorizing it. But we find controversial the addition of a new "advisory board," which would cost at least half a million dollars a year and have broad powers to investigate the faculty members and students involved in such Title VI programs. The legislators included the provision after conservative scholars complained that a number of the programs had an "anti-American bias."
In certain respects, the idea of such a board is neither new nor contentious. A board existed well into the 1980s, as Kenneth D. Whitehead, who served as director of international-education programs in the Education Department during the Reagan administration, observed in the National Review last January. "The old board conducted surveys that effectively monitored the functioning of the Title VI program. It also helped set priorities for language study, and made recommendations on award criteria for grants. I found the board an invaluable tool in helping me to honor Congressional intent. It was a mistake to disband it, and establishing a new one is a necessity," said Mr. Whitehead, who served as ex officio executive director of the board for a number of years.
Mr. Whitehead believes that academic-language instruction is just not as effective as the programs operated directly by the government in the Foreign Service Institute and the Defense Language Institute, and he argues that an advisory board might help the government get better language instruction from colleges and universities. There are three problems with that argument. First, the opinion is unsupported, based only on anecdotal evidence. Second, even if it were true, there is no evidence that a board could help, since the earlier one, by inference, did not solve the problem. And third, it conceals a political agenda behind a concern for efficiency.
The proposed new advisory board would consist of seven members, one each appointed by the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress, and three appointed by the secretary of education, including two drawn from federal agencies that have national-security responsibilities. To many people that sounds, at best, like a recipe for politicization of the academic process, and, at worst, a plan for a witch hunt.
Let me be as clear about this as I can: My colleagues on the Modern Language Association's Executive Council and I are not opposed to accountability. But those with experience in Title VI programs tell us that financial and curricular accountability to the Education Department is already in place, in the form of site visits by representatives of the department and formal reports by the grantees. If accountability is already there, what is the real function of the proposed board?
In the background here, in the highly politicized world of Middle Eastern studies, lurks the ghost of Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor of English well known for his opposition to American foreign policy in the Middle East. Supporters of the advisory board say that its purpose would be to ensure that government-supported activities "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs." That language comes from the brave new world of right-wing ideological correctness, which is replacing the old left-wing political correctness -- and promises to be at least as disastrous intellectually.
By "ideological correctness" I mean proposals to sort faculty members into left and right or liberal and conservative and then establish quotas for balancing the two, on the grounds that faculty members from one side (the left) are indoctrinating students in their views. If that kind of indoctrination worked, the Berlin Wall would still be standing. But it doesn't work, and the one certain result of sorting people by political orientation will be a reduction of academic freedom and a consequent deadening of intellectual inquiry and expression.
A memorandum in support of HR 3077, circulated by the American Jewish Committee, reinforces the concern in some quarters that the advisory board could be used for politicized purposes, charging that faculty members who are anti-American and anti-Israel dominate most centers for Middle Eastern studies. The memorandum makes it very clear that the American Jewish Committee would expect the advisory board to ensure that diverse viewpoints about Israel's role in the Middle East are expressed in classrooms that receive Title VI funds. It is difficult to see how that could be managed without determining the political views of the faculty members and students involved, by means of some sort of surveillance or background checking.
If the issue is really, as Mr. Whitehead suggests, better instruction in a language like Arabic, it is difficult to see how a pro-Israel stance in foreign-language and area-studies programs would improve the situation. If Israel and the United States are regarded with fear, and even hatred, throughout the Arabic world, then hatred and fear will have to be part of instruction in Arabic language and culture.
I am not saying that such hatred and fear should be encouraged. I am saying that they should be studied and understood as aspects of the culture in which that language is used. If part of what we are doing is training people who will infiltrate terrorist groups, they had better be able to talk the talk. And if part of what we are doing is training people who will monitor terrorist communications, they had better be able to understand what they are hearing.
Surely it is not difficult to see how a regime of ideological correctness will have a deadening effect on instruction in those languages that are most crucial in our struggle against terrorism. But the imposition of such a regime appears to be the main function for such a board. The proposed board would have considerable authority, according to the House bill, "to study, monitor, apprise, and evaluate a sample of activities" under the program.
It is also true, however, that the board's authority is limited in certain ways: The board is not authorized "to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction."
Until it actually operates, of course, nobody knows just what such a board will and will not do. It can't directly order a curricular change. But what kind of monitoring, and what kind of sample, are the major questions here. The one word missing in that list of things the board would not direct or control is "faculty." Would bugging a classroom or a faculty office constitute monitoring a sample? Or hacking into a faculty member's computer? You don't need authority to "direct or control" in order to have an awful lot of authority.
We live in a world in which paranoia begins to seem almost like a healthy response to certain possibilities. Many members of the MLA fear that a committee called "advisory" might be advisory in an Orwellian sense. We believe in strong language programs, and we believe that programs supported by the government should answer to government specifications and be accountable for their results. But we are very worried about any government-sponsored litmus test for ideological correctness. And we believe that the goal of better language instruction in crucial areas will not be well served by constructing a climate of fear around those programs.
Robert Scholes is a research professor of modern culture and media at Brown University and the president of the Modern Language Association.
receive the latest by email: subscribe to campus watch's free mailing list