Title VI: Turn on the Defogger

H.R. 3077 would create an advisory board for Title VI, the federal subsidies program for area studies (including Middle Eastern studies) in our universities. Part of the strategy of the bill’s opponents has been defensive, to claim that Title VI is humming along just fine. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? This is the line taken by Steven Heydemann in an article in last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune. Cut away the innuendo against conservatives (and personal invective against me), and you get down to this core argument: “Contrary to [critics’] claims, Title VI has a history of exceptional achievement and success. The program is doing exactly what it was created for and what Congress has asked of it and is an incredible bargain for the government to boot.”

Exceptional achievement and success? Incredible bargain? Now Heydemann, it must be remembered, spent many years as an academic salesman, working for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). After the Kuwait war, he engineered a special federal grant program for Middle Eastern studies under the rubric of “national security.” Sen. Richard Lugar (R.-Indiana) bought in, and for some years the program extracted taxpayer dollars for fad research. After the program squandered a good share of booty, Congress shut it down. I told the story in my book, Ivory Towers on Sand.

Now Heydemann is back, this time selling us the 46-year-old Title VI program as doing “exactly what it was created for.” Why, it runs just fine. Kick the tires, have a peek under the hood (a quick one). But since Heydemann already sold Congress one clunker, I suggest it take his arguments for a test drive. I did, and they broke down.

Here’s a detailed check on three of them: the program is making a real dent in the nation’s foreign languages deficit; it’s doing a helluva job improving the state of Arabic instruction in this country; and it’s sending droves of recruits into the federal government and military.

Language Focus. Heydemann: “The argument that Title VI has lost its core focus on language training is a distortion. More than half of Title VI’s funding to Middle East centers is targeted at student fellowships, and these can be used for only one purpose: language study.”

Truth: Title VI has lost its focus on languages, and no one but Heydemann thinks otherwise. Students on Title VI fellowships have to take a language, but they’re not language fellowships. In fact, they’re called Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships. The grand old man of Title VI, Richard Lambert, who did important evaluations of the program, wrote this (in 1991):

Over the years, although students have been required to take language courses as a condition for holding fellowships, the area studies portion of Title VI became dominant, in part, perhaps, because the majority of the national resource center chairs were held by area, not language, specialists.

With splendid candor, Lambert wrote that, all the same,

language competencies were always in the forefront of our public presentations. When we marched up the hill and testified [before Congress], we always argued that without Title VI the nation would not have enough speakers of, say, Cambodian, or later, Farsi, to meet our national need, and we had a catalog of horror stories on what that incapacity had done to damage our national interests.

That was for “public presentations.” But the truth has been altogether different, and it’s laid out in the National Foreign Language Center’s report (2000) on the contribution of Title VI to “national language capacity.” According to the report (p. 132), “over the years, the original focus on language has been replaced with a much broader mandate for area and international studies.” Result: “functional linguistic competence in the graduates of the nation’s colleges and universities has tended to diminish.” First recommendation (p. xii): “Refocus Title VI/Fulbright-Hays on language.”

So it is not a distortion to say that Title VI has lost its core focus on language training. Heydemann doesn’t seem to know what everyone else in the Title VI community knows. Or maybe he knows, and just doesn’t want the public and Congress to know. That’s part of the deep tradition of academic dissimulation about Title VI: presenting what has become a soft area studies program as a hard language program.

Arabic and Title VI. Heydemann credits Title VI with the growth in Arabic enrollments:

Largely because of [Title VI] funding, the number of students enrolled in Arabic language courses has grown tremendously in recent decades. In 1960, only 540 students in the whole country were taking Arabic. By 1990, that number had jumped to more than 3,400. Today, according to the Modern Language Association, more than 10,000 students are studying Arabic nationwide. For the moment, Arabic instruction is faring well in the U.S., and Title VI deserves much of the credit.

Truth: The rise, over thirty years, from 540 to 3,400 was a crawl, not a “jump.” And Osama and Saddam, not Title VI funding, deserve the credit for the now-burgeoning enrollments in Arabic. Title VI isn’t taking the lead in meeting the new demand, either: even before 9/11, fully two-thirds of grads (class of 2000) who took Arabic did so outside of institutions with Title VI-funded Middle East centers.

Title VI isn’t needed to stimulate demand for Arabic. It’s needed to direct heightened interest in Arabic toward meeting national needs. Students value Arabic, and government values Arabic. So where’s the bottleneck? It’s the Middle East professors who devalue it, favoring other trendier (and often more politicized) pursuits. They are endangering Arabic instruction.

Proof? The Middle East Studies Association did a survey of their student members in 2001, and this is what they found:

The proportion of MESA members who specialize in language and literature has declined noticeably [since 1990], with a change in student specialization in literature from 9.3% [of all student members] in 1990 to 6.8% in 2001. In the combined areas of language/linguistics, student interest fell from 4.7% in 1990 to 1.6% in 2002. This fact does not indicate that fewer students are studying Middle Eastern languages, central to preparation in all Middle East studies fields. It does, however, sound an alarm regarding the number of people being trained to develop new pedagogical methods and to teach the languages so essential to area studies.

The survey then explains how the priorities of Middle Eastern studies discourage specialization in language and linguistics:

Language faculty positions are often impermanent and non-tenure eligible; this does little to inspire student interest. Students reasonably choose to pursue courses of study that will lead to more clearly valued and rewarded positions in the academy.

So it’s not true that “Arabic instruction is faring well in the U.S.” It’s endangered, precisely because of the shift of Middle Eastern studies away from languages and toward more “valued and rewarded” activities like post-Orientalist theorizing, which is much more likely to get you an academic job.

The MESA survey explained what had to be done:

If sufficient numbers of students are to study languages, literature, and language pedagogy, language faculty members must be given the recognition, compensation, and permanent place in the academy that their field of study deserves. In the case of Middle Eastern and other less commonly taught languages, this shift will require the creation of new, tenure-track language positions, and the financial support to make them possible.

There’s no evidence that this retooling is underway. The academy, when it rattles the cup in Washington, says “languages first, second, and third.” But back on campus, when it comes time to divvy up tenure, it’s “languages last.” Title VI should be creating incentives that cut against this grain. But without the consistent pressure applied by an alert Congress, it can’t and won’t.

Title VI and U.S. Personnel. Finally, there is the question of whether Title VI graduates go into government service. Heydemann here holds up Middle East centers as a sterling example:

Data from the Department of Education show that more graduates of Middle East centers go into some form of government service than those who study any other world region except East Asia. They accept public sector jobs at more than twice the rate of those who specialize in Europe, almost twice the rate of Africa specialists and a third more than those with degrees from Latin America centers…. Graduates of Middle East centers—including those from centers singled out as anti-American—have served at the highest levels of the American military, in intelligence agencies, as congressional staffers, ambassadors and as staff to the National Security Council.

Heydemann was working from these statistics (this is an Excel spreadsheet), and you can take a cursory look yourself. If you go to the bottom line, you’ll immediately discover this: an astonishingly low rate of job placement in the federal government and the U.S. military for grads who’ve taken foreign languages in Title VI centers.

The data relate to graduates of the class of 2000 who studied languages in departments with Title VI centers. Here’s the breakdown of total post-degree placement for all degree levels (number of grads: 43,615), by percentage:

31.8 Unknown
27.9 Private Sector (for profit)
14.9 Graduate Study
5.3  Higher Education
4.6  Private Sector (not for profit)
4.4  Unemployed (or out of job market)
3.6  Elementary/Secondary Education
2.7  International Organizations (in U.S. and abroad)
2.3  Federal Government
1.4  State/Local Government
0.9  U.S. Military
0.3  Foreign Government

The figures shocked even me, a hardened critic of Title VI. The program contributes about 10 percent to the overall costs of area studies in the university programs it supports, mostly for student fellowships and language teachers. The federal government and military, combined, are getting only 3.2 percent of grads coming out of these programs. Heydemann, with his saleman’s hyperbole, calls Title VI “one of our country’s fairest public-private partnerships.” I don’t see anything fair about that breakdown at all.

In fact, the agencies in government that really need personnel have been so frustrated by Title VI that they’ve tried to create alternatives. The most significant have been the National Security Education Program and the new National Flagship Language Initiative, both offering scholarships in return for national service. The Title VI community has been fervently hostile to both programs, and the Middle East Studies Association has standing resolutions against them. Why? They might actually succeed, and then Congress might ask: why do we need Title VI at all?

As for Heydemann’s favorable comparison of Middle East placements, compared to other world areas: the absolute number of grads going into government is so low as to render any comparison meaningless. The total for the entire program is only 1,007 placements in the federal government (2.3 percent of total); the differences among world areas can be measured in the tens. Indeed, Heydemann’s comparison, far from shedding light on anything, is a diversion from the big story: the bottom line of total percentages. So too is his argument that you can find the occasional grad of a Title VI-supported program in this or that government agency. Why rely on anecdotes when we have some data? (Unless, of course, you’re trying to make Heydemann’s sale.)

Fix Title VI. Heydemann writes confidently that Title VI does “exactly what it was created for.” When Title VI was created, in 1958, Dick Clark was hosting American Bandstand and Elvis Presley got his G.I. haircut. The world has changed a great deal, and so has the American role in it. Title VI, like everything else government does, needs to be recreated on a continuous basis, to assure that it’s meeting an ever-changing national need.

There are lots of people in academe who’ve grown fat on Title VI. At the same time, the ranks of government have grown thin wherever there’s a need for language and cultural skills to deal with global challenges and threats. Last fall, the Congress-appointed advisory group on public diplomacy, led by Amb. Edward Djerejian, found only 54 Arabic-speakers in the entire State Department—less than three for each Arab country. The report calls for 300 fluent Arabic speakers within two years and another 300 by 2008. That’s the changing need. Is Title VI going to make any contribution to it? If so, how?

At present, Title VI is shrouded in self-serving obfuscation by a highly articulate academic elite. Heydemann’s piece is a textbook case. In fact, I have no qualms in pronouncing it the most dishonest thing yet published in the debate over Title VI. There’s only one way to cut through this fog: an advisory board. That board is needed for two purposes: first, to get to the bottom of what Title VI is really achieving; and second, to tune the mission of Title VI to national need, year-in and year-out.

The critics of H.R. 3077 say they’re deeply worried about the “diversity” provision and “monitoring.” But there’s no such thing as a Title VI professor, and the teaching by area studies faculty isn’t even a Title VI activity. I think what they really fear is that a board might well refocus the program altogether, in a way that prioritizes intensive language study leading to national service. How distasteful to them.