Title VI: Bring the Languages Back

As I’ve just reported, the National Research Council of the National Academies has commenced its $1.5 million review of Title VI, the federal subsidy program for language and area studies in universities. The first question members of the review committee should ask themselves is this: is Title VI doing the job Congress thinks it’s doing?

Title VI has always been marketed to Congress as a language program, first and foremost. Students on Title VI fellowships, Congress is told, are gaining proficiency in difficult languages, while they study some history, political science, anthropology, and so on. The grand old man of Title VI, Richard Lambert, who did important evaluations of the program, once explained how he sold it:

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.

In the immediate post-9/11 panic, the Title VI lobby again used language “horror stories,” this time about Arabic, to extract a 26-percent increase in funding, the largest single increase in the program’s history.

But it’s part of the deep tradition of academic dissimulation about Title VI to present it as a hard language program, when in practice it’s something entirely different. Lambert admitted the reality:

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.

What was the result of the dominance by area specialists? Kenneth D. Whitehead, a U.S. Department of Education official, directly administered Title VI between 1982 and 1986, and monitored it as assistant secretary for postsecondary education from 1986 to 1989. His criticism of Title VI was unsparing:

We were not getting a good value for our dollar. Many of those who studied “hard” languages (e.g., Arabic, Persian, Chinese) in Title VI-supported programs turned out to be less proficient than they needed to be to work effectively in diplomacy, intelligence, aid-related work, and even international business. It was a common assumption in my day that the graduates of the government-operated Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute were more proficient in “hard” languages than their university-trained colleagues.

I also found academic-area specialists generally to be less interested in the languages of their world areas than in cultural, economic, political, and social questions. They didn’t seem to think that language proficiency would do much to advance their academic careers. This was no secret, and many government servants openly wondered whether Title VI served any national need at all.

The most recent review of Title VI, conducted by the National Foreign Language Center, confirmed this gradual subversion of the program. The Center’s 2000 report on the contribution of Title VI to “national language capacity” acknowledged that “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: “Refocus Title VI/Fulbright-Hays on language.”Of course, the Title VI beneficiaries in academe do have an excellent command of English, which they’ve deployed again and again to cover up the dirty secret of Title VI. (See a prime example, and my demolition of it, here.) So we owe a particular debt to a major university president, who has just given us a perfect explanation of how academe subverted the program.

John V. Lombardi is chancellor and a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In January he participated in a higher education summit at the State Department, devoted to international education. President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the summit, announcing a $114 million National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). Now the NSLI, as Stanley Kurtz has pointed out, bypasses the universities, in favor of K-12 early language instruction and the government’s own language institutes. So why announce it at a higher ed summit? Perhaps it was to provoke academe’s leaders. Do you, the universities, want to be a part of the great language push? Come up with solutions. (And don’t make it Title VI. The administration has asked for a measily one-percent increase in Title VI funding for FY07.)

On his return home, Lombardi wrote an open letter to Rice and Margaret Spellings, secretary of education. There he made this incredibly frank confession:

We in the universities and colleges have much experience in taking tightly focused government programs and diffusing their intent to flow money into activities more central to our interests. If you fund language and area studies, we will leverage the language effort to get more resources for area studies, literature studies and culture studies. These are good things, but they do not address the national need you articulated at the summit, learning language.

Further, we in the colleges and universities are expert at avoiding effective performance measurement. If the nation needs college educated graduates functionally literate in a number of less commonly taught languages, the only way to get this result is to fund programs that will test the graduates. If you want us to graduate students with a command of spoken and written Arabic, Urdu or Mandarin, you need to fund a program that delivers money to institutions that demonstrate the functional literacy of its graduates in these languages through standardized tests. Otherwise, we will train people for you who can read some things in some languages, have traveled and lived in the countries where some of these languages are spoken, but who may or may not have functional usable literacy.

That, in a nutshell, is what went wrong in Title VI. Universities “leverage[d] the language effort to get more resources for area studies, literature studies and culture studies.” And that’s why the United States now has to fund a whole raft of new language programs to do what Title VI should have been doing all along. Unfortunately, at over $90 million a year, Title VI still eats up a large amount of the money that could be used to fund targeted, measurable language programs. The Title VI elephant, with its voracious appetite, has actually become an obstacle in the path of an effective national language policy.

To some extent, the National Research Council has an impossible mission. An evaluation of Title VI will miss the point if it isn’t situated in two contexts: (1) national needs, in government and beyond–needs that are complex and difficult to define; and (2) the array of other programs that have grown up to answer the deficit left by Title VI. But one thing is certain: no honest person thinks Title VI can be left as it is, or simply tweaked. If the National Research Council spends $1.5 million to tell us that things are just fine, it will have been a stupendous waste of the taxpayers’ money.

The pressing question, then, is whether Title VI is reformable. Here Chancellor Lombardi points the way, in his letter to Rice and Spelling:

You must be specific about what you want, specific about how you will know when you get it, and specific about the test you will apply to validate the learning accomplished. This is difficult in cultural studies, but it is not at all hard in language acquisition.

Since it’s easy to measure results in language acquisition and difficult in cultural studies, the conclusion is obvious: language acquisition must be restored to its place of primacy in Title VI. Doing that means imposing a rigorous set of tests and measurements that would blunt the admitted tendency of academe to divert the money to soft areas that academics love, and where performance can’t be measured.

The last assessment of Title VI recommended this refocusing, but didn’t propose a way to do it. The mission of the National Research Council is to figure out just that. And if it can’t envision a practical and effective way to reorient the program, it should have the courage to announce this: after nearly half a century, the time has come to retire Title VI from America’s service.