Foreign Studies Poisoned by Politics

Paula R. Newberg is an independent consultant who has taught in foreign-area studies programs.

For two years, Congress has rightly insisted that the United States needs better foreign intelligence. One way to obtain it is to train more experts in foreign languages. But in September, some conservative House members launched an assault on the very programs that produce these professionals. If they win, the capacity of the U.S. to be a responsible world actor would be seriously diminished.

Federal money helps fund international studies at America’s college campuses. This year, the Department of Education will disburse nearly $90 million to support graduate study, language instruction, curriculum development and other programs. Much of that goes to 120 foreign-language and area-studies centers that focus on Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Students learn about not only the politics and sociology of foreign countries but also their literature and languages. Although these centers have endured funding cuts, they still manage to train future diplomats, development experts and scholars who make it possible for American students to learn about the world.

The conservatives have targeted this year’s legislation authorizing funding for international education programs, including study in foreign languages and cultures. In introducing the bill, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) noted, “America’s interests and national security are becoming more and more tied to our knowledge and understanding of the rest of the world.” But five conservatives on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce successfully added an amendment that would establish a politically appointed advisory board to oversee the channeling of funds to foreign area-studies programs. The seven-member board would be picked by the secretary of Education, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem. The legislation passed the House by voice vote, and if the Senate goes along, education for many students could easily become hostage to political ideology.


The root of the problem is not education but U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Various conservative lobbyists and political leaders are trying to ensure that conservative opinion dominates the teaching of international politics, particularly regarding the Middle East. They believe that students should be taught to support U.S. foreign policy and, by extension, that government, as a major funder of these programs, should be able to determine what it is that students are taught.

This is not simply a bad idea. It is utterly impractical, given the polarization of Middle East politics. When the director of the American Jewish Committee, which runs a separate international studies fellowship program, demands that instruction be balanced, it means one thing. A pro-Palestinian group’s program would consider balance something else altogether. And no politically appointed advisory board is likely to bridge these differences any more than the U.S. has reconciled competing visions of Middle East peace.

The controversy has reopened old debates about what should be the guiding assumptions of education. Foreign study programs, an artifact of the Cold War, have supported instruction in languages that might be relevant in a national crisis. Some scholars have used this platform to underscore distinctively, occasionally parochial, American views.

Others, however, have introduced thousands of American students to foreign societies and cultures, pioneered research on world politics and helped to foster our understanding of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “local knowledge” -- just the kind of learning that helps Americans interpret the globe.


Some conservative commentators see things differently. Robert Satloff, policy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, insisted last month in a letter to the education bill’s author, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), that in many federally funded outreach programs, “respectful, sympathetic discussion of U.S. policy is simply not welcome.” Stanley Kurtz, writing last month for the National Review’s online edition, contended that “our government-subsidized area-studies programs have been closed to supporters of American foreign policy.” Fearing loss of desperately needed federal funds, education groups have been restrained in their criticism of the proposed advisory board, chiefly warning about federal intrusion into education.

The debate muddles two issues. Education is about learning skills that help us understand the world. Foreign policy is about exercising power and pursuing the national interest. On occasion, academic disputes mimic policy debates (and vice versa). But foreign-area specialists can also guide policy and even help politicians change course. When U.S. aid to foreign dictators during the Cold War sacrificed human rights to American hegemony, some scholars used research to illuminate these harsh policies. Had the Bush administration paid attention to foreign-area specialists among U.S. diplomats who know Iraqi politics and society -- instead of labeling them as prejudiced Arabists and barring them from working in Baghdad -- the reconstruction effort in Iraq might have been far more effective.

For U.S. diplomacy to succeed, American education must flourish. Neither can survive a political culture of fixed ideas: Knowledge, like policy, is mutable. In a recent essay, Umberto Eco wrote, “The cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia.” President Bush expressed complementary sentiments by noting that “instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.”

Wise words for Congress to follow.