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Area Studies Gone Awry By: Eli Lehrer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On college campuses throughout the country, scores of Area Studies Centers shirk their mission every day. These institutions do almost nothing to carry out their intended purpose of training language and cultural specialists for national security work involving the Middle East, Africa, and other locations. Instead, they create droves of social critics opposed to America’s foreign policy. Given that the FBI has fewer than 40 Arabic specialists and that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad still cries out for more authorities on Iraqi culture, America can’t allow this situation to continue.

Area studies centers came into existence in the wake of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Today, some particularly well known ones that qualify for federal funding exist under umbrellas like Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.  Under Title VI of the 1958’s law’s successor—The Higher Education Act—these centers get federal funding on the basis that they will train area specialists for America’s national security establishment as well as K-12 teachers. In theory, they should do more to advance genuine multicultural education than any other federal program.

It doesn’t work out this way. The Hoover Institution’s Stanley Kurtz, in fact, has done yeoman’s work documenting just how twisted their work has become. The Centers focus on “post-colonial studies” that cater to every trendy academic bias while doing nothing to provide the specialists that America needs. In fact, the major Middle East, Latin America, and African Studies associations launched a sub-rosa boycott of the major scholarship program intended to bring language and cultural specialists into the national security establishment. Students have faced systematic efforts to discourage them from applying for federal scholarships intended for national security professionals. The K-12 teaching programs, if anything, prove even worse: a Saudi funded New-Mexico based institute—Dar Al Islam—provides many curriculum materials on the Middle East. The materials, those who have seen them say, suggest that America has problems in the Middle East because it supports Israel. Other syllabuses that Kurtz has examined include only the most anti-American writers.

Nonetheless, nobody suggests that these centers’ faculty members should face restrictions on their speech. Strongly anti-American voices have a place in the curriculum. If a university—even a state-funded public school—thinks that it can best serve its mission by hiring only people with the most trendy leftist politics to study Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, or any other area, Congress should stay out. But, given that they receive federal funding for the express purpose of improving America’s national defense, the Centers currently prove worse than useless.

Last year, Congress came close to making things better. Senate legislation—which had no visible organized opposition--would have required Area Studies Centers to fulfill their mission or face consequences. The requirements were simple: establishment of a process for students to complain about perceived ideological discrimination, a survey of the national security establishment to find its needs, and a report on how many people come out of the Area Studies Centers to serve the national defense establishment. The legislation, however, became bogged down in unrelated disputes over student grants and loans.

That doesn’t mean that Congress still shouldn’t try again. If the Democrats who now control Congress want to prove they really want to increase our ranks of specialists in Arab and other cultures, they could do a lot simply by asking for better data collection. The other aspects of last years’ plan, which might be more controversial, can wait. In fact, there’s a good argument that the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act already requires the collection of data on the Centers’ performance anyway.

If certain Area Studies Centers fail to turn out enough people who take jobs in the national security establishment, these shirking centers should have their federal funding reassigned elsewhere. Those that do a good job, conversely, should be eligible for increased funding. If this means spending more on Area Studies Centers, that’s fine: America clearly needs more people with a true and deep understanding of the rest of the world. Congress doesn’t have to do much and, in fact, a very simple change in law could likely make a big difference.

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Eli Lehrer is a writer in Arlington, VA.

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