Already-strapped institutions of higher learning are facing an ideologically driven effort to limit funding for the study of cultures outside the United States.
For nearly four decades, American universities have benefited from the U.S. Department of Education programs funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title VI provides grants to nurture area and international studies centers and aims to create national resources for teaching foreign language and supporting research and training in international studies and world affairs. But these programs are under threat as neoconservatives seek to place conditions on continued funding.
Title VI reauthorization already has passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate in January. Differences in the bills will be hammered out in conference—a process not open to the public.
"This legislation represents the thin end of the wedge for political interference with the curriculum," says Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University's Middle East Institute. "It is meant to provide a highly partisan, ideological litmus test for academics."
Among the most alarming provisions of the House bill, known as the International Studies in Higher Education Act, are:
- Section 5, which establishes an International Education Advisory Board to advise the government on Title VI programs in relation to homeland security, international education, international affairs and foreign language training.
- Section 8, which requires reporting to Congress foreign language communities of U.S. residents or citizens, particularly those deemed critical to U.S. national security.
Although all area studies are under scrutiny, Middle East studies programs in particular have received the most vituperative critiques from neoconservatives calling for a radical rethinking of Title VI. Given that the United States is now engaged in a "War on Terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan and has undertaken global surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities, this is not surprising.
"If implemented as its proponents intend," Khalidi says, "it would impose the pseudo-sciences of terrorology and the demonization of Islam and Muslims as integral parts of teaching and research about the Middle East, and could have even wider implications."
Yet the neoconservative assault on Title VI is based on logical fallacies, most notably that any critique of U.S. foreign policy constitutes an attack on U.S. national interests, that area scholars are anti-American and that the programs turn young minds toward unpatriotic thoughts and away from national service. The changes also could prove dangerous to researchers in the field, who already face suspicions that they are agents of the state rather than independent scholars.
"This is an apt example of how academic freedom and civil liberaties are eroded in the name of ‘emergency,'" says Jean Comaroff, Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.
"In fact, if current conditions illustrate anything at all, it is the need to counter American parochialism with precisely the sort of knowledge about other languages, cultures and perspectives that Title Vl centers have enabled in the past," Comaroff says. "Now more than ever, the freedom of their investigations should be nurtured, not curtailed."
Laurie King-Irani is an anthropologist at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.