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Captive Scholarship Serves Nobody Well

by Michael Bellesiles on Jan 4, 2004

Michael Bellesisles

The more the United States gets involved in the world, the more necessary a knowledge of foreign nations becomes. Yet Congress is trying to handicap that endeavor by encouraging scholars to place service to the state above intellectual independence.

Politicians rarely appreciate scholarly diversity and critical judgment. Experts of all kinds have an annoying habit of reaching conclusions contrary to national policy. The House of Representatives, disturbed by a perceived lack of scholarly patriotism, has unanimously passed an act, HR3077, to bring one group of experts, those in international studies, under stricter government control.

This legislation will alter the disbursement of federal funding for international or “area studies” programs. These interdisciplinary programs are devoted to introducing college students to foreign languages and cultures. If approved by the Senate, the new law will create a seven-member International Education Advisory Board to monitor area studies programs to insure that they adequately represent the goals and needs of U.S. foreign policies.

The board will consist of members appointed from the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, as well as from the National Security Agency, to oversee funding, investigate grantee activities and make recommendations on how international studies programs “might better reflect the national needs related to homeland security.” Conspicuous by their absence from the board are educators, scholars, elected representatives or the State Department.

Supporters of HR3077 insist that they aim to introduce “balance” to a field they believe is almost uniformly hostile to government actions. Howard Berman (D-CA) has expressed “great concern” over “the anti-American bias that pervades Title VI-funded Middle East studies programs in particular.” He has charged these programs with promoting “a narrow point of view at odds with our national interest.”

The evidence in support of this cartoon image of professors as elbow-patched revolutionaries tends toward the tautological: since so many academic studies discover that current U.S. foreign policy alienates people worldwide, the authors of such studies are obviously “at odds with our national interest.”

Congress is not offering new funds to international studies, but rather redirecting existing appropriations for use as a carrot to bring experts into line with official policies and use area studies as training programs for government service.

This congressional effort to reverse the course of area studies programs is deeply ironic. The Central Intelligence Agency founded area studies as a field shortly after World War II by funding prominent centers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Columbia. The CIA worked with the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations in setting intellectual agendas for area studies during the 1950s and 1960s.The CIA also used area-studies programs to recruit spies while the FBI employed promising young academics such as Henry Kissinger and William F. Buckley to inform on professors and fellow students. Scholars critical of U.S. Cold War policies lost their jobs, while those who reached “loyal” conclusions found favor from public and private funding agencies.

But the Vietnam War disrupted this supply of supportive scholars. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, area studies scholars worked closely with the government to justify the war in Vietnam. But as many scholars became convinced that government policies damaged national interests, they returned to an earlier judgment that sound scholarship required independence from the government. By the early 1980s, international studies had become sympathetic to the problems of foreign societies, too sympathetic in the view of the current Congress. Especially troubling, as Stanley Kurtz, a critic of area studies, said at the congressional hearings on HR3077, is the refusal of the modern “scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.”

Proponents of HR3077 insist that no one is forced to agree with government policies unless they want government money. Those unwilling to bend scholarship to “national needs” can simply refuse to take federal funds. But careers are made and broken on the ability to gain external funding, and many university administrations tend to take the side of the deepest pockets, which is to say major corporations and the government.

As intelligence gathering during the Vietnam War evidenced, scholars in service to the state usually tell their employers precisely what they want to hear rather than what they need to know. Policies based on wishful thinking have a tendency to backfire. Twenty years of government-funded Cold War scholarship produced shelves of now unread books and a great deal of animosity toward the United States.

Buying scholars never works. The nation’s security definitely benefits from serious research on foreign cultures. Let national security agencies learn from free and open scholarly inquiries. The realities of the post-9/11 world demand that the United States spread its intellectual net widely. HR3077 does not serve that end. Americans need to hear a diversity of views, not echoes of official positions.

Michael Bellesiles is the author of several books, including "Revolutionary Outlaws" and "Arming America," and is a writer for the History News Service.