The U.S. Department of Education recently ordered two prominent American universities -- Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- to realign their federally funded Middle East studies programming to focus more clearly on needs for national security and expertise. The department's letter criticized the programs for a lack of focus on the region's religious minorities. It also said that administrators gave insufficient attention to contemporary geopolitical challenges in favor of cultural programs -- like a concert series and research papers on early modern Ottoman intellectual history and the Islamic mystical tradition -- describing the latter as having unclear relevance to students' preparation for work in areas of national need.
The Education Department is overlooking two key points: first, specialized cultural, historical and contextual knowledge is vital to national security, and, second, university and disciplinary structures work against the creation of such knowledge.
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