The application for Title VI government funding that the Middle East Studies Council submitted last fall listed a host of needs that the proposed $366,000 a year in government grant money would cover. Several of the items, like hiring a Turkish language instructor, made an immediate impact on Yale academia. Others, like greater library support for Middle Eastern studies, were less visible.
The needs stipulated in that application and the ones submitted by four other area councils last November—all but one of them successfully—have something in common: For the purposes of Title VI funding, they may soon be evaluated not on their scholarly merit, but in light of the political tendencies of Yale's faculty and curriculum.
The proposed change is not the result of dwindling government resources. When the five-decade old Title VI educational funding program came up for renewal last month, it was lauded and approved by representatives who swooned at the idea of more Americans studying international issues and foreign languages. The author of the new bill, Republican Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), explained why in a press conference: "Since the events of September 11, 2001, international education has taken on a more fundamental and immediate role than ever before."
Heartening, isn't it? Someone noticed that many Americans cannot even name most countries in the Middle East, that we know too little about Islamic history to understand the roots of religious fundamentalism and too few foreign languages to read the signs protesting our government's policies in Arab capitals. Our cultural ignorance in an increasingly global world is indeed woeful and ought to be redressed by urging more students towards international studies and critical evaluation of U.S. policies abroad.
Unfortunately, that's not what Hoekstra was getting at. Instead, HR 3077 ties Title VI funding to an International Education Advisory Board, charged to ensure that international studies programs supported by the funds "are meeting the purposes outlined in the bill"—the improvement of national security and execution of U.S. foreign policy.
It follows that area studies departments whose professors and curricular offerings do not support, for example, the war in Iraq could be in danger of losing Title VI funding. This makes sense if you happen to agree with Daniel Pipes or Stanley Kurtz, conservative academics whose views Hoekstra and his colleagues have apparently taken to heart. According to them, a vast left wing conspiracy has taken hold of international studies departments at universities across America—and the country is in grave danger as a result. In recent columns in the Jerusalem Post, Pipes, who spoke at Yale last week, has denounced Middle East studies departments in the United States for "providing refuge to what might be called intellectual terrorists—scholars known for their extremism, intolerance, and dishonesty," and for their "connections to Islamist terrorism [which are] becoming acceptable and almost routine."
Left alone, in other words, most Middle East departments could be converted to al-Qaeda training camps. Yale is no exception. If the offices of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department is too crowded, the lawn outside the YCIAS offices might make a more suitable place for those seminars in bomb-making.
For NELC majors like me, these contentions seemed laughable until the recent House decision on Title VI. Opposition to U.S. Middle Eastern policy is so widespread among people knowledgeable about the region that professors at Yale would seem biased to me if they were not predominantly anti-war. Either way, the faculty's politics have clearly not affected its academic preeminence: Last June, our Middle East Studies Council earned the designation under Title VI as a National Resource Center.
But if Hoekstra and others succeed in passing the International Studies in Higher Education Act, the process would also be overseen by an advisory board heavy on politics and lean on scholarship. Two of the board's seven members would come from national security agencies. The other five would be chosen by Congress and the administration—a real pack of Middle East aficionados if ever there was one.
Their aim is obvious: to make bastions of liberality and debate like Yale shut up and begin conforming to the party line. It's not the first time this administration has tried to impose government control on social and political expression that used to be unregulated—and it won't be the last.
It is not difficult to figure out with which side the truth lies. If it seems that every expert in the field disagrees with U.S. policy in the Middle East, maybe our government needs to listen to those experts, not cut off their funding in the hopes of weaning new ones who are more pliable. One look at today's headlines is enough to know what the latter strategy has accomplished—and it's nothing to be proud of.
Paige Austin is a sophomore in Davenport College.