Can Congress Fix Middle Eastern Studies?

An address delivered by Martin Kramer on a panel entitled “Can Congress Fix Middle Eastern Studies?” at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 20, 2003. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

A meeting on Middle Eastern studies is becoming an annual event here at The Washington Institute. I spoke alone on this podium two years ago, when I launched my book, Ivory Towers on Sand. I was joined last year by Professor Lisa Anderson, then-president of the Middle East Studies Association, for a very interesting session. And I’m pleased to be joined this afternoon by Dr. Stanley Kurtz, who’s had such a profound impact on the public debate. I am grateful for the podium, because in the grand scheme of things, the state of Middle Eastern studies isn’t exactly at the top of the priority list at The Washington Institute. And on legislative questions, the Institute has no position and cannot have one by its mandate. So the Institute is basically indulging me as its guest, and I am grateful for that indulgence.

When I launched my book, and later when I stood here with Professor Anderson, I gave my analysis of the state of the field, and my sense of where it was headed. I could say still more today. But over the past six months, the debate about Middle Eastern studies has taken an interesting turn. It has moved from faculty lounges into legislative chambers. By a process that I don’t pretend to fully understand, I saw the call for Title VI reform I made in my book blossom into a full-fledged piece of legislation, the International Studies in Higher Education Act, or H.R. 3077.

We now have before us a detailed piece of legislation, which has already gone rather far, and which is part of the overall reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, of which Title VI is a part. The bill passed in the House of Representatives unanimously last month. Now it’s crossed over to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. All along the way, adjustments were made in the language of the bill, so as to assure bipartisan support.

Title VI: Semi-Entitlement

I’ll come to my take on the bill in a moment. But let me first briefly recap what Title VI does. Title VI is a program of federal subsidies for area studies in higher education. Its vintage is Cold War: back in 1958, the United States embarked on a crash program to beef up foreign area studies in the universities, to meet the Soviet threat.

Since that time, the government has subsidized area studies in universities, with two emphases: First, the maintenance of National Resource Centers for the study of various world areas. These centers funnel their subsidies into public outreach, libraries, conferences, language teaching, and other projects. The second purpose has been graduate fellowships, now called FLAS fellowships, an acronym for Foreign Language and Area Studies. It’s important to remember that most programs in area studies aren’t Title VI stipendiaries. But most of the serious graduate education takes place in Title VI centers. In Middle Eastern studies, probably about 70 percent of Ph.D.s are earned in institutions with Middle East centers.

The program has seen ups and downs over the decades. In the 1980s, it pretty much stabilized as a semi-entitlement, administered with a light hand by the Department of Education. There was no great desire to put more money into it, but no taste for noisy battles with professors to cut it back. The program has been run pretty much by and for those professors: grantees are selected by peer review, and are chosen on the basis of whatever criteria have been defined as excellence by academic fad and fashion. In recent years, when government wanted to meet manpower needs out of academe, it tended to create alternative programs rather than add to Title VI. The prime examples are the National Security Education Program, and its offshoot, the National Flagship Language Initiative.

So it was until 9/11. When the Twin Towers came down and the Pentagon burned, the higher education lobby sensed an opportunity. In the appropriations panic that followed 9/11, the lobby promised that more money for Title VI would pay off in more security for the United States. That persuaded Congress to increase Title VI funding by 26 percent, or $20 million, the largest single-year increase in the program’s history. As a result, the number of National Resource Centers has increased, and the number of graduate students on FLAS fellowships for the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, is being doubled, from 200 to 400.

Peer Purge

Now 9/11, as I haven’t tired of repeating, should have been the occasion for some very deep soul-searching in Middle Eastern studies. On a whole range of subjects, from Islamism to civil society, the academic consensus had gotten it all wrong, or mostly wrong. It was wrong about Islamism moving in an ever-more-benign trajectory, and it was wrong about civil society advancing at the expense of the state.

But it wasn’t just that the academics were wrong. They had also managed to silence people who dissented from the consensus, by a process that can only be described as peer purge. Guidance was provided by Edward Said’s book Orientalism, which set a new standard for scholarship: not proficiency but sympathy. His ideas rode the tide of radical third worldists who came through Ph.D. programs in the 1970s. Once esconced in the field, they proceeded to shut it off—from dissent, from the public, and from Washington. It was a great shake-out, and it left Middle Eastern studies narrow, intolerant, and shuttered.

9/11 rocked this establishment to its core, because sympathy and apology for Islamist rage were its orthodoxies. Islamists should be heeded, they announced, because they really only want what we want: better schools, cleaner streets, more accountability. After 9/11, it became painfully apparent that this underestimated, by a very great margin, the scope of Islamist aspirations. It was a tremendous failing, and one that should have prompted a wrenching debate.

But that debate was nipped in the bud by the 9/11 windfall. Who dared to rethink out loud when the public purse was finally being opened wide? And when that purse did disgorge millions of more dollars, the radical mandarins could say: “You see, we bite their hand, and yet they feed us.”

Reading the Bill

Apparently, they spoke too soon. Our elected representatives do want to put more resources into area studies. But they want to change the terms of the contract, in the hope of getting a better return on investment. That’s the purpose of the International Studies in Higher Education Act, on whose principle features I’d like to dwell.

The bill begins by citing 9/11, and establishing this premise: “Homeland security and effective U.S. engagement abroad depend upon an increased number of Americans who have received [academic] training and are willing to serve their nation.” This and other language in the bill suggests that it isn’t enough for Title VI to mint Ph.D.s for the academic job market. There are other manpower needs, and the bill implies that grantees must help to meet them, if their subsidies are to be justified.

The bill would also establish an independent International Higher Education Advisory Board, to advise the Secretary of Education and Congress on how Title VI might best meet national needs. The board has seven members; two appointed by the speaker of the House, two by the president pro tem of the Senate, and three by the Secretary of Education. Two of the Secretary’s appointees must represent government agencies with national security responsibilities. The board will meet once a year; it’s authorized to monitor those activities supported by Title VI; it can commission research on the program’s impact; and it must hold a public hearing before making a recommendation.

When you think about it, it’s an anomaly that Title VI doesn’t have a board. Every federal program for higher education has one. The sister program of Title VI is the Fulbright program, which sends American academics overseas for teaching and research, and brings foreign academics over here. In budgetary terms, it’s about the same size as Title VI—upwards of $100 million. Fulbright has a 12-member board, all presidential appointees, who meet four times a year. If you were establishing Title VI today, you wouldn’t think to do it without a board.

One of the recurring phrases in the legislation is that programs supported by Title VI should “reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views” on world affairs. This is invoked specifically in regards to outreach (which I’ll mention in a moment), but also other supported programs. This is new language, and it is meant to signal that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used for activities that reflect limited perspectives and a narrow range of views.

Finally, note the language about offering all agencies of government an equal shot with other employers at on-campus recruitment.

Campus Myth, Washington Reality

So much for the bill’s language. Now a word about what it won’t do and what it will do.

First, what it won’t do. It won’t monitor curriculum, because day-to-day teaching isn’t a Title VI-supported activity. And it won’t have any authority to pronounce about curriculum. I turn your attention to this provision: “Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.”

Now most of the campus critics of the bill have had an extremely difficult time reading and understanding this passage, which is remarkable considering the fact that they are all Ph.D.s and make their livings interpreting texts. Despite this, they’ve done exactly what the bill tells the board it can’t do: they’ve construed its provisions as a license to interfere with curriculum. Here is a quote from a political science professor in the Yale Daily News: “People from outside the academic world—people from the intelligence community—telling what can go on in a classroom, that’s where it gets scary.” Here’s a UCLA professor of Arabic literature, quoted in the Daily Bruin: “It’s censorship. We will be subject to review from a committee of nonacademics. They will be judging curriculum on the basis of political expediency.” Here is a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Chicago, in an article in the Chicago Maroon: “Universities will never accept supervision of the content of their courses. If they do so, they will stop being universities.” (Perhaps these professors would have better understood the language of the bill if it had been in Arabic.)

I strongly suspect that this misreading isn’t just an inability to understand a text in plain English. (Although, as you may know, to the post-modern interpreter, any text is open to infinite interpretations. If all our laws were read like some academics read literature, we would live in a state of nature.) I think the misreading is wilful and deliberate, and has to do with their desire to turn Title VI into an unencumbered entitlement. For that purpose, they claim that the board will intrude on their classroom teaching and their syllabi, and infringe on their academic freedom. So let me read that passage one more time: “Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.” No safeguard could be more decisively worded than this one. It trumps every other provision of the bill. The only way to improve upon it in the legislation, would simply be to repeat it twice.

The board also won’t encroach on a university’s internal procedures in hiring and promoting faculty. Remember that Title VI doesn’t pay any faculty salaries, so faculty matters are completely outside the board’s purview.

In a bizarre twist, some critics have said that the provision for “diversity of perspectives and full range of views” will somehow silence critics of U.S. policy, or the Iraq war. I say bizarre, because academics are supposed to be champions of diversity, and a “full range of views” perforce includes every view and excludes none. In fact, no one knows how the board will interpret this in practice, and it may end up just being one of those pious admonitions that crop up in legislative language. But at least it reminds academe of its obligation to keep the marketplace of ideas open.

So what will the bill do?

It will establish a forum in which to renegotiate the contract between elected government and academe in international affairs. The bill envisions a board composed of people with a range of expertise. It’s not hard to imagine one composed of distinguished university administrators, former diplomats, publicly-acclaimed scholars and writers on international affairs, along with representatives of those agencies of government that need foreign expertise to function. The board’s composition has balances inside balances; no interest would go unrepresented, no stakeholder need fear exclusion.

There are three areas of Title VI activity that are definitely in the purview of the board. The first is outreach. All National Resource Centers are required to engage in outreach activities to the general public, which may mean seminars for K-12 teachers, the preparation of K-12 teaching kits, lending of video films, lectures to chuch and civic groups, and so on. The sad fact is that the record of federally-funded, Title VI outreach programs is marred by egregious examples of propagandizing. In some centers, federal funds have become slush to mount heavily one-sided events for the K-12 community, often with the help of off-campus political activists. I exposed some instances of this, most recently at Georgetown—an event for Washington-area K-12 teachers on the day Baghdad fell, addressed by five anti-war speakers. “Outreach” is not university curriculum, it’s an activity done at the behest of government, and it must to be monitored to assure that it provides “diverse perspectives and a full range of views.”

The second area in need of attention is criteria for fellowships. At present, too many government fellowships go to students doing arcane research that conforms to trendy academic fashions. But there is in government a massive shortfall of people competent in the languages of the region, and it’s been much-commented upon. When Congress doubled the number of grad students on its tab, its intention was to bring them into the nation’s service. These fellowships have to be prioritized to areas that link more directly to national needs. Let me quote Mike Castle, chair of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, from his endorsement of H.R. 3077:

Our lack of highly-trained linguistics experts seriously hampers our ability to fight the war on terrorism, and this legislation provides incentive to focus these programs on the reality of the situation our men and women in uniform face overseas.

Third, there is the matter of the selection criteria of the National Resource Centers. Even the existing Title VI language calls for the creation of a “diverse network” of centers. But is the network really diverse? Or does the selection process as now constituted actually produce a uniform network? In one of my more cynical moments, I called Middle East centers the McDonald’s of academe. They flip the same intellectual hamburgers in 17 different markets. Is the nation really served by this system? Wouldn’t it be more in our national interest to have very different centers, with different emphases? For example, one center might marry Middle Eastern studies with public policy, another might offer special programs for mid-career officials, yet another might specialize in issues like Islamism and terrorism. Certainly we still want centers specializing in cinema and gender, but we already have them in spades. Only an advisory board can look at the system as a whole, measure national needs against human resources, and propose a solution.

The Very Least

Thanks to the careful crafting of this legislation, and compromises made at an early stage, the bill has so far enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the House. There’s no reason it shouldn’t enjoy identical support in the Senate. There is opposition among some academics to the International Studies in Higher Education. But I think it’s very shallow, and most evident in the know-nothing corners of political extremism. I can’t resist quoting a University of Michigan professor, who said that “one of the subtexts is they [referring to Dr. Kurtz and myself] don’t like criticism of Ariel Sharon and want to shut it down.” According to this professor, our objective is to force universities into “hiring pro-Likud scholars.” There are plenty of conspiracy buffs even in the ranks of full professors—people who ignore texts but make up subtexts—and they make lots of noise.

But it’s very telling that the Middle East Studies Association, or MESA, which met in annual conference two weeks ago, did not adopt a resolution against the bill, although it was discussed. If you know the history of MESA, you know its propensity for passing resolutions. But they apparently thought it wiser not to get on the wrong side of H.R. 3077, at least publicly.

The American Council on Education also doesn’t oppose the board, although it’s obliged to echo, if faintly, the concerns of the radical fringe. They, too, know that boards are how things are done in such programs. I am not so naive as to believe that there is no behind-the-scenes lobbying on the bill’s language. But whoever is doing it has yet to make a public case of the kind Dr. Kurtz and I have made, and I suspect that is because there is no case that would click with the public.

I conclude. In my book on Middle Eastern studies, I ended my discussion of Title VI reform with this observation: “No amount of tweaking Title VI can cure the more fundamental ailments that afflict the field… it is generational change that will renew and reinvigorate the field. The task will probably be accomplished by people who are under forty.” So I was struck by this fact, provided by Lisa Anderson two weeks ago in her MESA presidential address. “The field of Middle Eastern studies is not reproducing itself…in 1990, a little more than 40 percent of the full members of MESA were over fifty years old; in 2002, it was 60 percent.”

When any human group fails to reproduce itself intellectually, it means that its worldview no longer speaks to young people. I think that’s been happening for some years in Middle Eastern studies. I seriously doubt that the graying radicals will be able to lead or inspire the legions of young people who have been drawn towards the field since 9/11. These young people know that the United States is in the Middle East for the long haul, and many of them want to be a part of it.

The young will push out the old, that’s inevitable. But as it stands now, the U.S. government is complicit in delaying change, having put so many new resources in the hands of a failing old guard. Let’s keep those resources there; let’s add still more; but let’s establish a board of wise men and women, to give this program some much-needed advice. It is, quite literally, the least Congress can do.