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A "Nuanced" Look at Middle Eastern Studies By: Peter Wood
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, July 01, 2003


I am about to do something I never thought I would:  call for more regulation of higher education.  I’m confronted with a case for which I see no other remedy.

On June 19, the House Subcommittee on Select Education held a hearing on whether Title VI of the Higher Education Act needs any fine-tuning.  Title VI is the little corner of the vast federal budget where you can find the $86.2 million a year that the feds spend on helping academics to study international relations.  It doles out funds for 118 “national resource centers” and, among other things, gives grants to graduate students who want to study languages and cultures in which the United States has some “security” interest—which is just about every language and culture. 

In the wake 9/11, Congress got the idea that maybe we should increase funding to encourage scholars to study the Middle East and other potential hot spots.  The trouble is that “Middle Eastern studies” is a hotbed of ideological disdain for America and American foreign policy.  Not that anyone mistakes “area studies” as the place in the university where one would be likely to find deep historical knowledge or richly informed understanding of the world.  It is a hotbed, for sure, but a hotbed of breezy formulations.  Think of it as the Weber Grill of higher ed, holding a perpetual cookout of charcoal-broiled American interests. 

Congress was inclined to overlook this little foible and send over a few more bags of taxpayer dollars, but about a year ago Stanley Kurtz, writing in National Review Online, seized the issue.  Kurtz was especially distressed by the boycotts that the African Studies Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and Middle East Studies Association had deployed against the program that aims to give graduate students David L. Boren Fellowships under the National Security Education Program (NSEP).  But he was alarmed as well by the unseemly role the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) was playing in other aspects of publicly-funded scholarship. 

Kurtz traces the history of Middle Eastern studies in American universities from its emergence as scholarly specialization in the 1940s to the point in the late 1970s where the field flung away its commitment to objectivity in favor radicalism.  Kurtz, writing in The Weekly Standard, observed:

The way was cleared for [the radicals] to wrest power from the Middle East studies establishment when Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) crystallized a new understanding of the field.  The founding text of postcolonial studies, Orientalism effectively de-legitimated all previous scholarship on the Middle East by branding it as racist.  Said drew no distinction between the most ignorant and bigoted remarks of nineteenth-century colonialists and the most accomplished pronouncements of contemporary Western scholars:  All Western knowledge of the East was intrinsically tainted with imperialism. 

One of Kurtz’s targets is John Esposito, a professor of Islamic Studies at Holy Cross College and past-president of MESA.  In Kurtz’s reading, Esposito adopted and adapted Said’s views to develop a program of Middle East studies that was indifferent to the growing threat of Islamic terrorism.  In Esposito's account, Islamic fundamentalism was to be seen as an indigenous form of democracy.  And it is thanks to Esposito and his like-minded colleagues that Middle East studies singularly failed to keep Osama bin Laden in focus. 

Kurtz also emphasizes the acute shortage in the American government of competent Arabic speakers.  Thanks to that shortage, we were unable to translate enough of the intercepted transmissions before 9/11 to stop the terrorist outrage, and still today we are hampered by the scarcity of Arabic speakers.  The domination of the field by people enamored with Edward Said's or John Esposito’s approach may have something to do with the dearth of students appropriately trained in the Arabic language. 

So much for background.  What has my attention at the moment is what happened at that Committee hearing on June 19.  Kurtz presented his argument about how some Title VI money was being used to fund organizations that actively thwart U.S. policy, as, for instance, in promoting boycotts of National Security scholarship programs.  At one point in his testimony, Kurtz explained:

For at least a decade, the African, Latin American, and Middle East Studies Associations have sponsored a boycott against NSEP.  Since 1981, the directors of Title VI African National Resource Centers have agreed not to apply for, accept, or recommend to students any military or intelligence funding from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSEP, or any other such source.  Shamefully, a mere two months after September 11, Title VI African Studies Center directors voted unanimously to sustain their boycott of military and intelligence-related funding, including the NSEP. 

Kurtz proposed a solution:  add an oversight board. 

I endorse that additional layer of regulation that Kurtz calls for.  But it isn’t an easy step for me. During my sixteen years as an academic administrator at Boston University, I spent a lot of time fighting excessive government regulation.  In fact, I spent a lot of time as well as fighting excessive non-government regulation, because higher education has a surfeit of both.

The government regulation derives mostly from Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which consolidated a scattering of earlier federally funded programs.  HEA comes up for renewal every few years and has evolved into a bureaucratic mammoth.  Parts of it receive a lot of public attention, such as Title IX, added in 1972, which bars sex discrimination in education; and Title IV, which is the basis for federally guaranteed student loans. 

Because the vast majority of colleges and universities have become deeply dependent on the flow of funds from federal programs, they have also become vulnerable to the imposition of federal rules, many of which sprawl far beyond the actual funded programs.  For instance, colleges and universities must collect crime statistics and report them to prospective students; university laboratories fall under strict regulation in their use of chemicals, low-level radioactive substances, and animals; and faculty members have to report annually on possible conflicts of interests.  The Gramm-Leach-Bliley law requires universities to assess security and privacy risks to student data.  Most recently colleges and universities have been asked to track and report foreign nationals studying on their campuses. 

Each of these regulations may seem perfectly reasonable taken on its face.  Certainly they were adopted in the first place because somebody recognized an abuse and saw a need to protect the public interest.  But they add up.  In fact, there are so many regulations and changes in regulations that a regular monthly journal, The Higher Education Law Reporter, is published just to keep track of them. 

And that is to say nothing of state regulation.  Massachusetts, like most other states, piles on additional layers of rules, such as its mandated non-discrimination policies.  And, piling mountains onto mountains, higher education has to comply with the rules of regional accreditation agencies and dozens of specialized accreditors. 

The total cost of this regulatory burden is incalculable.  There are some 3,700 colleges and universities in the United States.  We are spending unknown billions on lawyers, technical specialists, and bureaucrats to ensure that higher education stays on the straight and narrow. I think we could do at least as good a job without the expensive red tape.  With a view like this, what brings me to the brink of calling for more federal regulation?  In a word:  nuance. 

“Nuance” is one of those perfectly good words that has acquired a double life.  Nuance, in the sense of a shade of meaning, has gotten shadier. For example, Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, calls Iraq a "deeply nuanced mess, etched in shades of gray." A “nuanced mess”?  Even as Kristof owns up to the genuine sentiments of his subject, he buries them in a sandstorm of irony.  That is what “nuance” has come to mean among the leftist intelligentsia. 

And the professorial Left that by and large dominates “Middle Eastern studies” has gotten a very bad case of nuance.  Let’s go back to the Committee hearing. 

After Kurtz spoke, two representatives of higher education got their chances to reply and did their best to neutralize Kurtz’s account.  Gilbert W. Merkx, vice president for International Affairs at Duke University, for example, drew a distinction between the area studies associations, which have been open about their boycotts but do not themselves receive Title VI funding, and the various campus centers, which receive Title VI funding but—so said Merkx—do not engage in boycotts.  This is a distinction without a difference, since the exact same people who uphold the association boycotts administer and receive federal funding through the centers.  But, in response, Kurtz went one step further.  He presented a smoking gun memo showing that the directors of the African studies centers had in fact conspired, as center directors, to maintain a boycott.

After Merkx launched his misleading distinction between associations that boycott and centers that keep their hands clean, the next speaker was Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.  Hartle is a former Ted Kennedy staffer and a consummate higher education insider on Capitol Hill.  That Hartle would be tagged to counter Kurtz is a signal that the academic establishment saw a brushfire in the making.  Kurtz was trying to kick over the Weber Grill; Hartle was the guy with the garden hose.

Hartle followed up with still more misdirection, by denying that “colleges and universities” were undermining NSEP.  Kurtz, of course, had never said that colleges and universities were doing any such thing.  Hartle then attempted to dismiss Kurtz’s emphasis on the towering importance of Edward Said in Middle East studies and area studies generally.  Said’s convoluted theory of “Orientalism,” as Kurtz’s pointed out, blames the West for virtually every political, social, and economic ill that afflicts the Middle East.  Hartle responded to this by testifying that Said’s influence peaked a decade ago.  In fact, Said remains immensely popular on campus and his book Orientalism remains a staple of syllabi at hundreds of universities.  Hartle certainly knows that but he was being—how shall we say?—nuanced. 

It is perfectly true that there are dozens of other leftist academics whose writings get a piece of the syllabus in “post-colonial studies” these days.  Edward Said has had to move over to make room for his epigones, such as John Esposito.  If we were being a little less nuanced, we’d say that is evidence of Said’s centrality in the field, not his declining importance. 

When a guy like Terry Hartle turns out to obfuscate to Congress on behalf of higher education, I have to hang my head.  Do we have too much regulation on colleges and universities?  Yes, way too much.  But if we are going to support legitimate scholarly inquiry in the world’s troublesome regions, we need some answer better than, “Cut the funding!”  We need, I have to concede, some additional regulation.

So that’s how I have come round to thinking that maybe, after all, a little more regulation might be a good thing.  I am drawing a distinction.  It’s a matter of nuance.




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