On Oct. 21, the House of Representatives declared incontrovertibly that, "The events and aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have underscored the need for the nation to strengthen and enhance American knowledge of international relations, world regions and foreign languages." Or to put it in the vernacular, the nation should know more about this vast, inscrutable planet where, amid billions of human beings who have the nerve not to be American, thousands seem to think that they can bring paradise nearer by slaughtering large numbers of Americans.
The House went on to pass -- by unanimous vote -- the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003 (H. R. 3077), authorizing the secretary of education to spend more money to promote "foreign language fluency and knowledge of world regions" and to "foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives," among other good works. The House particularly wanted to support "instructors of the less commonly taught languages." Even though the number of students studying Arabic in American universities has roughly doubled since 1998, it still totals 10,596 less than 1 percent of all those enrolled in foreign language courses. So such a provision would seem, well, a no-brainer.
Here's where the plot thickens. The same bill authorizes the creation of an advisory board to gather information on international programs that accept federal funds -- so-called Title VI area studies -- and to ensure that funded activities "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs." Of the seven members of this board, three would be appointed by the education secretary, two of these three representing "[f]ederal agencies that have national security responsibilities." Two more would be recommended by the majority and minority leaders of the U. S. Senate, and the remaining two by the majority and minority leaders of the House. So two of the seven members would be appointed by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), respectively -- the latter of whom declared during the 1998 impeachment debate that what was at stake in Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was "relativism versus absolute truth."
Some academics say that the advisory board's surveillance and advice will amount to meddling and taint the recipients of Title VI funds, never mind that the bill explicitly forbids the board "to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction." But politicians, even the most liberal, say there's no reason for alarm. Talk to the two groups and you feel you are talking to delegates from two different nations. Their concerns are not only diametrically opposed; they do not meet. Take this as a metaphor for the radical disjunction between the world of government and the world of the academy. [See Chris Mooney, "Good Company," tap, Nov. 18, 2002.] What we are dealing with is not so much a culture war as cultures passing in the night.
To Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, H. R. 3077 is the product of "very adroit maneuvering," oddly launched with a hearing held in June, when most academics would be on vacation. Anderson herself was invited to testify only the day before the hearing began, as she was on her way out of the country. The hearing featured the testimony of Hoover Institution research fellow and National Review Online contributing editor Stanley Kurtz, who denounced what he called "the ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle Eastern Studies) ... 'post-colonial theory,'" whose "core premise ... is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power." In an article for the National Review Online, Kurtz later maintained that these subsidized programs "have a one-sided bias against American foreign policy and discourage students from serving their country in a national-security capacity." Kurtz further claimed that Title VI recipients boycott government programs that support foreign-language study for students who do military and intelligence work after graduation.
Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education (ACE) responded that charges like Kurtz's represent "a triumph of ideology over analysis." According to Hartle, Kurtz's and others' "criticisms of the Middle-East Centers are based on a small number of anecdotes, and the retelling of these anecdotes often leaves out important information." ACE maintains that Title VI is holding its own for national service: 1,007 of 2001's Title VI graduates work for the federal government, with an additional 389 working for the U.S. military and 616 for state and local government.
Anderson, a renowned political scientist who just served a term as president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), says she doesn't oppose holding the academic recipients of federal funds accountable. "The idea of accountability," she says, "is completely unexceptionable." The question is: Why an advisory council composed of political appointees? Why not turn supervision over to an august body like the National Research Council? Why not represent nongovernmental organizations or educational institutions themselves, all of which have a stake in the work of international-studies research? Contained in the advisory council's mandate to gather information is, Anderson says, a large "potential for abuse."
But to Jerrold Nadler, the liberal Manhattan congressman whose district no longer includes Columbia but does include the site of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, "There's nothing wrong with setting up a board to advise Congress ... .You don't have to be pro-Likud [Party], or pro-[Ariel] Sharon, or pro-war in Iraq to agree. That doesn't describe me. But if it is true that the Middle East Studies Association sponsors no papers on terrorism" -- a charge leveled by critics -- "never mind the point of view; something is wrong. Maybe there's a bias, maybe there isn't. I've heard plenty of allegations. But people who are studying the Middle East ought to be studying terrorism. If they're not, it's a problem." As for the advisory board, "It could be perfectly benign or it could be distorted into a witch-hunt. If there's a witch-hunt, we've got to fight it. But we have a legitimate right to take a look at [Title VI programs]."
To Neil Abercrombie, an equally liberal congressman from Hawaii and a fervent Howard Dean supporter, "The legislation itself is actually pretty good. I'm for getting the extra money." Abercrombie can, he says, look beyond the fact that "the reasons are subterfuge and scheming and intrigue. The motivation behind the bill may be nefarious but the purpose of the advisory board is motherhood and apple pie."
I posed Anderson's question to Abercrombie: Why a board chosen by politicians? Why not give that oversight authority to an independent body? "I don't disagree with that," he said. But the deep problem, he explained, is with who holds political power: "If you want good things to happen, get the people in who'll do the right thing. We're not in charge. We don't have the votes. You get to 218 [House votes], you get to tell everybody what to do. You've got to elect a president who'll do the right thing."
To ask a question that would be considered hopelessly old-fashioned in certain quadrants of the academy: What are the facts of the matter? Martin Kramer, author of the book Ivory Towers on Sand, wherein he proposed legislation similar to H. R. 3077, says that the field of Middle East studies is contaminated by fancy rationales for America- and Israel-bashing. As one proof of its uselessness, evasiveness and worse, Kramer offered to Salon's Michelle Goldberg the charge that MESA's 2002 convention included no papers on the topic of terrorism. I checked: It's true, and the same was true at its 2003 convention.
In reply, Anderson takes the offensive: "If you look at the [academic] work on terrorism over the last 25 years, that stuff is awful. It's low-quality stuff that doesn't hold up" -- like "creationism" injected into high school. You don't need elaborate theories to explain the low quality, she adds. Research on terrorists, like research on the underground economy, is patently dangerous. "I have qualms about sending students to work on smuggling, too," she says.
Congressional movers and shakers seem to have been swept up in a minor moral panic. In October, Anderson says, "several members of the House [Committee on Education and the Workforce] told me they hadn't even had time to read the legislation. But since there's more money in it, I wouldn't have expected anyone to oppose it."
In her presidential address to MESA, Anderson chastised her colleagues for clamming up about Middle Eastern oppression for fear of "jeopardizing access to visas and research authorizations." "There has been much to criticize for a long time in both the policy and the scholarship within and on the Middle East," she said, "although we [American Middle East scholars] have been far too shy in acknowledging it." She painted "a deeply troubling picture of research interrupted and education suspended ... . Our counterparts and colleagues work in dreadful circumstances and we, the American scholars of the Middle East, have known about it for years. Unfortunately, we have too often chosen not to advertise it."
But when it comes to government supervision of scholarship, Anderson told MESA, "We, who have seen precisely that impulse distort and debilitate scholarship, research and education in the Middle East, know that this will tarnish our image around the world and do serious harm to the enterprise of higher education in the United States."
"I'm worried about being lulled to sleep," she told me. "This bill has the potential to erode rights, just as we're seeing in the civil-liberties area. At some point, sooner rather than later, you have to blow the whistle."