Congress is drafting academics for the "war on terror." On October 21 the House of Representatives passed HR 3077, also known as the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003. Now awaiting action in the Senate, the Act would reauthorize five years of funding (so-called "Title VI" monies) for international area studies centers – but the funds come with strings attached.
The bill would require international studies programs in US universities to undergo political monitoring by a committee appointed by Congress. It would also require, among others things, that Title VI centers around the country provide government recruiters with full access to their students, and that the Secretary of Education initiate a study to scrutinize "foreign language heritage communities" in the US in the interest of national security.
In fact, new language in the Act states that the purpose of this law is "to assist the national effort to educate and train citizens to participate in the efforts of homeland security." It's an ominous bill, demanding, in short, that knowledge must serve power.
Since the September 11 attacks, conservatives have been busy aiming their sights on the academy, and HR3077 is the latest shot fired. The first salvo came when the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group whose founders include Lynn Cheney and Joseph Lieberman, issued a report detailing the thought crimes of professors around the country who, according to the group, were insufficiently patriotic. Next came Daniel Pipes's Campus Watch, a nefarious Web site encouraging students to inform on professors who are critical of Israel. (Its "enemies list" approach adds as much to intellectual engagements with the Middle East as China's Cultural Revolution did to culture.)
Currently, David Horowitz of the online magazine FrontPage is behind the push for the Senate to legislate an "Academic Bill of Rights," which would require campuses to adopt political quota systems. Horowitz bases much of his system on research into professors' party affiliations on voter registration rolls, which illustrates an extremely simplistic view of both politics and pedagogy. Complexity, though, was never the right wing's strong suit. Like President Bush, they seem to believe that you're either with them or you're with the bad guys.
None of this should surprise us, since the university is one of the few relatively independent spaces left in a culture that is saturated with simplistic media and infatuated with authority, but it is no less alarming. Because it is now on its way to becoming law, however, HR 3077 is particularly worrisome for the way in which the right wing has mobilized the political machinery of the state to push its own conservative agenda. If passed into law, HR 3077 jeopardizes not only the autonomy of the university but also the safety of our students, the rights of immigrant communities, and our freedom as academics.
What, specifically, are the targets of those promoting HR3077? Scholars in Latin American studies, African studies and many other fields have expressed deep concern about how the Act would affect their work. And, indeed, the entire academy has reason to worry.
But, predictably, how to study the Middle East sits squarely In the middle of the debate. During subcommittee hearings last June, Hoover Institution Fellow Stanley Kurtz testified that "Title VI-funded programs in Middle Eastern Studies (and other area studies) tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy." Kurtz's testimony is thin on evidence, using only one teach-in and a few journalistic pieces to back up his assertion. But his testimony anyway seems less interested in providing proof and more interested in character assassination and the contemporary equivalent of red-baiting.
"The ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle Eastern Studies) is called 'post-colonial theory,'" testified Kurtz. His assumption is highly disputable (if not laughable), but most politicians spend little time reading academic tomes and can be swayed easily. Kurtz identifies his culprit responsible for "post-colonial theory," namely, Edward Said, the nemesis of the pro-Israel right. In fact, the right wing seems altogether set on a goal of turning the late Edward Said into Karl Marx, and post-colonialism (a term, incidentally, that Said hated and rarely used to describe his own work) into a new kind of communism. Are you now or have you ever been a post-colonialist?
That question, though ludicrous, is about to have very serious consequences that seem disturbingly reminiscent of earlier ideological purges. The 1958 National Defense Education Act that first established Title VI funding required, under Title X, a loyalty oath and affidavit, and we are now in the process of returning to the fear-mongering and bullying of the McCarthy era. Under HR 3077, the government will create an "International Higher Education Advisory Board," comprised of seven members. Two of the seven will be drawn directly from national security agencies, and the other five will be political appointees. The Board will be "authorized to study, monitor, apprise, and evaluate a sample of activities supported under this title," and will then issue recommendations to Congress about how closely Title VI monies reflect their politically-determined notions of national security.
No one can reasonably object to bureaucratic oversight - but this monitoring is driven by politics, not fiscal management or academic peer review. If area studies centers don't sufficiently support American foreign policy, their funding could be jeopardized. Ideological policing can have only devastating effects on our independence as scholars and teachers.
HR 3077 takes us precisely in the opposite direction of where we should be heading. The United States needs to hear more from expert professors on the Middle East, not less. But rather than enhancing the free exchange of ideas, this bill threatens to stifle intellectual engagement.
In its report on academic freedom in the wake of September 11,the Association of American University Professors noted that in times of crisis, the government has traditionally limited academic (and civic) freedom through several key strategies: secrecy, surveillance, and suppression. This Act promotes all three.
The Act's requirement that area studies programs open their doors to recruiters for intelligence agencies threatens the safety of graduate students who travel abroad for research, since the intent of research could now be secret and they may all be considered potential spies. The Act's national security focus on "foreign language heritage communities" could draft area studies programs into a surveillance role in immigrant communities. The Act's creation of an Advisory Board to monitor scholars' political thinking menaces speech that is critical of official government policy.
The pressure to silence opposing views is a trend not only in the government but also among the conservative right, particularly when it comes to criticisms of Israel made in the academic community. Kurtz, Pipes, Horowitz, and Martin Kramer, editor of Middle East Quarterly, are all outsiders to the university: none of them holds a regular university appointment. Yet each has attempted, in his own way, to silence scholarly or campus views that are sympathetic to the Palestinians. What else, after all, is Campus Watch? Now, they have recruited lawmakers, more outsiders to the university system, onto their side, and the attack is widening.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration's approach to international studies is similar to its methodology in other affairs. If you don't like what the experts report (the CIA on weapons of mass destruction, for example), get some experts of your own. (Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence agency, the Office of Special Plans, within the Pentagon after he became dissatisfied with the CIA's conclusions.) Wish-fulfillment won't produce results, however. You can order analysts to tell you what you want to hear, but that does not mean that the facts will follow suit. Ultimately, it is criticism, and not fantasy or silence, that is the key to both a better understanding of the world and a more informed foreign policy, but nothing in this Act will help achieve these goals.
Requiring intellectuals to genuflect in front of an Advisory Board may legislate assent to hawkish opinion and foreign policy – but it won't improve national security, nor will it enhance freedom. And that distinction is not purely academic.
HR 3077 passed the House on a voice vote with no recorded opposition; the Senate has not yet acted on the measure. You can convey your opinion to Sen. Clinton at 202-228-0282 (fax) or 202-224-4451 (phone), and to Sen. Schumer at 202-228-3027 (fax) or 202-224-6542 (phone).
Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, edited The Edward Said Reader with Andrew Rubin, and serves on the National Council of the American Studies Association.