It's 2008. You're bored, you're nostalgic and you start flipping through college catalogs online. But something's a little different. Gone are the classes on Middle Eastern religion, the global context of Islam and gender politics in Iran. Instead, an array of new courses have burst onto the scene — options like Terrorology 101, Decoding Osama and Behind the Veil: What They're Really Hiding — and professors with Arabic-sounding names have mysteriously disappeared from the rosters. Sound farfetched? McCarthyish? A little. But such a scenario may not be far from reality, come February. The International Studies in Higher Education Act passed the House unanimously in October and is up for a vote in the Senate early this year.
The act claims to renew the landmark Title VI, which has provided grants for international studies and world affairs at places like the University of Chicago, Columbia and Harvard since 1965. However, in order to "meet the needs of the post-9/11 era," the new act makes some significant adjustments. Most notably, it mandates the establishment of an International Education Advisory Board. Although the board wouldn't be able to directly control curriculum, its seven members, including two national security representatives, would make recommendations as to how Title VI programs "might better reflect the national needs related to homeland security."
Right-wing pundits argue that tweaking Title VI would simply balance out the international studies curriculum, allowing pro-American policy views their fair share of airtime on campus. The venerable David Horowitz gives proof that the balance is "tipping," pointing out in an interview with Salon that, while in 1979 only three percent of Middle Eastern scholars were non-Western, today 50 percent come from Middle Eastern countries. Horowitz warns that this latest influx of Middle Eastern Middle Eastern scholars may fuel terrorism and "Islamofascism," disregarding the possibility that these might simply be the people who know the most about the Middle East.
Since the bill also requires that Title VI centers train students for government service, students interested in national defense may be given preference for fellowships. After all, as Martin Kramer of the right-wing Middle Eastern Quarterly notes, "Studying gender in eighth-century Cairo is perfectly valid, but I'm not sure it's a taxpayer priority."
The dollar-sign rhetoric drones on in Kramer's weblog. He asserts that the Title VI modifications attempt to correct a situation in which millions of dollars are funneled into international studies programs with no assurance of "return on the taxpayers' investment." Since when has education become a profit-based endeavor? Since when can we determine how much "return" taxpayers get out of any university program? By this logic, art history, classics and English literature majors should be cut off from financial aid immediately. (Bye, guys.)
Yet Kramer's not alone: Pundit Daniel Pipes, who was recently appointed to Bush's U.S. Institute of Peace, also warns that current Title VI-funded programs are letting taxpayers down. He argues that the latest bill should be amended to deny funding to universities that fail to cooperate with the National Security Education Program, a Pentagon initiative which represents our "nation's interests." (Apparently, the entire nation came to an agreement about what its interests were while I was studying abroad.)
However, supporters of the modified Title VI didn't get it all wrong. Of course "national security" would improve if U.S. citizens were informed about issues in the Middle East and able to communicate more effectively with the Arab world. But the route to "security" (which, I assume, means fewer people dying) is not about coercing academics into promoting a more "pro-American" worldview. If we really want to give taxpayers a return on their investments, shouldn't government-funded programs encourage students to ask tough questions and brainstorm the best solutions? Shouldn't we be examining the reasons why these really smart people are challenging government policies?
We need to learn about the Middle East and the rest of the world in an environment where we can question and criticize, fostering communication and understanding for the next generation of world citizens. Otherwise, "security" — which, incidentally, all of us want — will never be achieved.