Congress Probes Middle Eastern Studies

Consider this assessment of the influence of Edward Said on Middle Eastern studies:

In a work published in 1978, [Edward Said] argued that Western meddling in the Middle East throughout much of the 20th Century produced the conflict and turbulence that continues to plague that region of the world….This theory reached its apex of popularity more than a decade ago and has been waning ever since. Even a cursory review of the syllabi of the Middle East Centers clearly shows this work only occasionally appears as an assigned reading or on a resource list. Indeed, historians and political scientists rarely find this theory useful.

Hands on hearts, fellow academics: is this assessment even remotely accurate? Has Edward Said’s influence been in a decade-long decline? Is his 1978 book Orientalism only “occasionally” assigned or listed as a resource? Is he “rarely” invoked by scholars in the field?

The claim is absolute nonsense, as anyone who inhabits academe knows. Said is one of only two academics today (the other is Noam Chomsky) who draws an overflow crowd on any campus he visits and who always gets a standing ovation. (It happened again this spring at Berkeley and UCLA.) Just this past fall, on the anniversary of 9/11, American and European scholars of the Middle East, meeting in their first “world congress,” honored Said (and only Said) with their first-ever award for “outstanding contributions to Middle Eastern studies.” And needless to say, you cannot finish an undergraduate education in Middle Eastern studies without being assigned Orientalism several times over.

So who is the fellow making this absurd assertion about Said, and why is he making it?

His name is Terry Hartle, he’s a top lobbyist at the American Council on Education, and he made his claim in testimony last Thursday before the House Subcommittee on Select Education. His purpose: to absolve Middle Eastern studies of the charge that they remain under the spell of academe’s most virulent critic of American power and policy in the Middle East. Why should this interest Congress? Because there are people who are beginning to ask why American taxpayers should subsidize the activities of Edward Said’s acolytes, to the tune of several millions of dollars a year.

Poor Dr. Hartle. The Subcommittee, with very little notice, decided to conduct a hearing on Title VI, the federal program that subsidizes area studies, including Middle Eastern studies, at American universities. Since 9/11, higher education lobbyists like Hartle have been pushing for more Title VI funding, citing the threats emanating from the Middle East. The paradox is that the very Middle East “experts” who have been getting Title VI money for decades have been anything but prescient about changes in the Middle East. Even worse, a lot of them subscribe to Edward Said’s notion that the proper role of American scholars is to agitate against the alleged excesses of American neo-imperialism, both in the classroom and outside of it. The most brazen abusers have done this on the government’s nickle.

So Dr. Hartle was very busy on Thursday, covering up the sins of Middle Eastern studies. His job wasn’t made any easier by Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution, an indefatigable critic of the excesses of Title VI-subsidized centers and scholars. You can view the proceedings yourself, or read about them in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Sun, and the Subcommittee’s press release.

I do feel sorry for all the decent folk in other fields who get Title VI funding and make good use of it. Their colleagues in Middle Eastern studies, whom they’ve never held in particularly high regard anyway, have fouled the nest. A recent study of the membership of MESA shows that the age of members is rising, and that fewer of them have junior positions—all signs that departments have been avoiding the odious task of making new appointments in the field. Now schools of international affairs are faced with the prospect that the reckless antics of Middle East “experts” might undercut their own support in Washington. Thus, Hartle was quick to point out that Middle East centers are only a “small and specific part of the Title VI programs,” and that it is “a fairly small part of Title VI that has generated controversy.” The problem is that the rotten apples in Title VI specialize precisely in that part of the world that’s likely to remain at the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda for years to come.

Title VI comes under the Higher Education Act, which is up for reauthorization, so now is the time to suggest fixes. Stanley Kurtz proposed to the Subcommittee a fair and equitable way to help Middle Eastern studies back to their senses, without gutting Title VI. (And believe me, there are some on Capitol Hill who would gut it in a flash.) The key proposal is establishment of a supervisory board for Title VI, similar to the boards that govern the Fulbright program, the National Security Education Program, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and other federally-supported educational and fellowship programs. Title VI is presently administered with a light hand by the Department of Education bureacracy, and money is disbursed through a peer-review process. All this is way too cozy and convenient for the academics, who have turned what began as a defense program into a semi-entitlement. A supervisory board would reestablish the exchange among academe, government, and society which is the intent of the law.

The academics won’t like another layer of accountability, but they’ll get used to it. In fact, one of them already has: Gilbert Merkx, a Latin Americanist and vice-provost at Duke, who is also co-chairman of the Council of Directors of Title VI National Resource Centers for Foreign Language and Area Studies. He also testified on Thursday, and offered strong support for Title VI. When asked by the chair of the Subcommittee panel for his view of a supervisory board, he said he didn’t favor the idea. But he added this:

If there is to be a review panel, I think it should be composed of the clients of the program, not of political appointees. I would recommend that there be an interagency group which would include representatives of the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and other agencies like Homeland Security, which are the kinds of agencies that hire people with the skills we produce. Those other agencies could work with the Department of Education to see that these programs are producing the manpower required.

Professor Merkx, you’re on. The board (or panel) would need some appointees by the White House and Congress—after all, Title VI mandates “outreach” programs, and that makes the general public a “client” as well. But I’d be perfectly happy to have a board with a majority of members appointed ex officio from the agencies named by Merkx.

I urge the Subcommittee to build on the opening offered by Merkx in his testimony, and to begin to work on draft legislation for the establishment of a Title VI board. If you feel similarly, e-mail the Subcommittee chair, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan), at this address:

You can write him at this address:

Committee on Education and the Workforce
U. S. House of Representatives
2181 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

And you can fax him at this number: (202) 226-0779.