Too Few Yalies Know Arabic? Don’t Lose Sleep

Niall Ferguson, the historian who goes back and forth between New York University and Jesus College, Oxford, had an essay entitled “The Empire Slinks Back,” in The New York Times Magazine the weekend before last. After describing himself as a “member of the neoimperialist gang,” he questions whether Americans have the staying power to maintain a far-flung empire in places like Iraq. It’s a good question, and I share his doubts. It’s his solution that’s dubious.

Ferguson writes that in the British empire, “colonial government was a matter for Oxbridge-educated, frock-coated mandarins.” He then asks:

How many members of Harvard’s or Yale’s class of 2003 are seriously considering a career in the postwar administration of Iraq? The number is unlikely to be very high. In 1998/99 there were 47,689 undergraduate course registrations at Yale, of which just 335 (less than 1 percent) were for courses in Near Eastern languages and civilizations. There was just one, lone undergraduate senior majoring in the subject (compared with 17 doing film studies). If Samuel Huntington is right and we are witnessing a ”clash of civilizations,” America’s brightest students show remarkably little interest in the civilization of the other side.

Actually, it’s not remarkable at all. Britain’s brightest students, even at the height of empire, didn’t show much interest in other civilizations either. The Oxford historian D.W. Brogan wrote this in 1937: “The history of the Overseas Dominions has for many persons a very faint attraction….there may be full agreement that someone ought to know about them; but the normal attitude is that the someone is always someone else.”

Those mandarins-to-be in Oxford didn’t study the Bhagavad Gita or immerse themelves in Persian and Arabic poetry. They read Aristotle’s Ethics and studied Greek and Latin history, philosophy, and literature (“the Greats”). These were the firm foundations of their own civilization, and this was the education that sustained them as they trudged through jungles and across deserts. Empire is about defending and disseminating your own civilization. If you aren’t fully persuaded of its manifest superiority, you won’t bear up under the rigors of governing hostile peoples in unfriendly places.

Forty years ago, the Oxford orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb (who also spent a few futile years trying to bring Harvard up to speed) complained of how the British government “dismissed any proficiency in Oriental Studies, or even the knowledge of an oriental language, as irrelevant to its interests and useless, or worse than useless, as a qualification for the recruitment of its officers.” Worse than useless? Gibb alluded here to an attitude in the halls of power that rested on no little experience: persons too knowledgeable in their ways and languages might see things rather too readily from their point of view. And knowledge, turned into sympathy, could paralyze.

Since Ferguson chose Yale, here’s an example from Yale of how cultural knowledge can be trotted out to rationalize inaction. If you were a student there over the past two years, you would have heard the following pearls of wisdom from Dimitri Gutas, chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and professor of Arabic. On bombing Osama and the Taliban during Ramadan: “Because there is this resentment there, the bombing during Ramadan will be seen as an additional insult. It will be interpreted as such by the ideologues and seen as such by the moderates, the ones that America should be trying to win over.” On bombing Saddam and his minions in Baghdad, last month: “How would we feel now if Rome was being bombarded and was in imminent danger of being destroyed? Basically this is the kind of resonance that Baghdad has in the Islamic world. It is going to be a huge wound to the soul of over a billion people on this earth.”

So as a member of the elect one percent of Yale students enrolled in a course on the Near East, you would have learned all the historical and religious excuses for not dropping guided munitions, even on the worst of the lot. Why is this better preparation for exercising power than, say, the baseball team?

It is because of professors like these that I’m skeptical about Ferguson’s recommendation. He argues that the only way to pry Americans out of their stay-at-home insularity is to inculcate knowledge of places like the Middle East in the elite universities.

Where, then, is the new imperial elite to come from? Not, I hope, exclusively from the reserve army of unemployed generals with good Pentagon connections. The work needs to begin, and swiftly, to encourage American students at the country’s leading universities to think more seriously about careers overseas—and by overseas I do not mean in London. Are there, for example, enough good scholarships to attract undergraduates and graduates to study Arabic?

This seems to me to be a particularly bad example of how to recruit an imperial elite. At the best universities, students who major in Middle Eastern studies do learn languages, but they also get indoctrinated by a professoriate that is dead-set against the exercise of American power against anyone for any reason. This sort of preparation is more likely to produce a human shield than a proconsul. Middle Eastern studies in America, as presently constituted, are worse than useless to the defense of American interests. The U.S. government’s decision, after 9/11, to double the number of scholarships in Muslim languages will only mean that in the next crisis, there will be even more “experts” urging us to stay home, lest we enrage the “Arab street.”

The United States doesn’t need a lot of new grads to explain “why they hate us.” What it needs are people who are so persuaded of its mission in the world that they are prepared to undergo some hardship and risk to advance it. I happen to think that calling that mission “empire” just gets in the way. But whatever the mission is called, its bearers have to be persuaded that it is the worthiest of causes. That demands cultural self-esteem and self-mastery—the true purpose of an elite education. It doesn’t require a working knowledge of Arabic.