Friday, June 20, 2003

Because I'm kind of stupid, I'm going to wade into a bit of academic politics even though I'm a grad student...

Stanley Kurtz is recommending Congress take funding away from Title VI and regulate the awards process, partly by including "policy makers" and "policy experts.". For those who don't know, Title VI is the program which funds area studies centers at major universities; Kurtz and others on the right claim they undermine American national security by publicly opposing U.S. foreign policy. Former UW Chancellor David Ward has posted a rebuttal of Kurtz's claims, which Kurtz admirably links to. This would be something to pass off as a scary notion of the far right, except the House Subcommittee on Select Education is actually holding hearings to consider it.

Speaking as a junior member of the academic profession, the main concern I have with Kurtz's article is continual use of support for American foreign policy as a barometer of whether area studies are useful. He states his goal is not to drive off those who oppose aspects of U.S. policy, but to bring in supporters for balance. However, most of us in Middle East Studies do not work on American foreign policy, we work on the Middle East. Here is a list of UW-Madison's Middle East faculty. Most teach things like language courses, the environment, literature, and religious studies. Of those who work on more modern policy-oriented questions - which due to a weakness in modern history is mostly the political science department - Tamir Moustafa focuses on internal developments in Egypt. As near as I can tell, only Michael Barnett's work might relate to American foreign policy. Is Kurtz suggesting that the recent search committee to hire a specialist in Qur'anic Studies should have interrogated the candidates to determine their political views? The fact is, for most faculty, any advocacy they do is largely an individual thing, and the amount of funding our program (which is not a Title VI center) receives has nothing to do with it.

Kurtz's article also contains a number of other arguments, many of which are highly questionable. I don't know what's up with the situation he describes on African Studies here at UW; however, I recently received an e-mail saying that all our existing Title VI centers had received funding increases, so if there was a plot to destroy it, it apparently failed before he even wrote this. He is corrent in saying that Edward Said is influential; however, it is blatantly false that: "The core premise of post-colonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power." I took a course in "History and Theory" which included a lot of post-colonial readings, and foreign policy never came up. It is merely a school of thought which seeks to evaluate the impact of colonialism on culture for the purpose of understanding cultural changes during the colonial period and recovering knowledge of pre-colonial cultural forms.

Kurtz singles out New York University as an example of a Title VI center which lacks ideological balance with regard to American foreign policy. He doesn't bother to mention that that is a joint research center with Princeton University, home to Bernard Lewis, a scholar he recommends. Kurtz claims Middle East scholars don't spend enough time discussing Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. When I have looked into those topics, I have found plenty, including work by the likes of Dale Eickelman, John Esposito, and number of scholars who have investigated the Iranian Revolution, and lots more I don't remember offhand because I'm a medievalist.

Kurtz ignores that fact that scholars produce a great deal more that is valuable, ranging from nation-building in Yemen (the subject of a recent talk by Lisa Wedeen) to the current economic situation in Egypt (the subject of a recent talk by Roger Owen). Even if we ignore the ideal of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, a quick look at the process of rebuilding Iraq should tell us that total knowledge of the society and culture of a region is what is truly necessary to serve the national interest, even if the conclusions reached by some of these scholars might indicate the U.S. sometimes makes mistakes.

I'm not experienced enough in the field to know precisely how politicized it is now, but what really scares me about Kurtz's proposals is that they would in the name of national security place it under direct control of governmental bodies, which would almost certainly make objective scholarship more difficult as centers began having to impress interest group lobbyists rather than academic experts. The fact is, most scholars I know - myself included - are not led to this field because of American foreign policy. We are here because we are nerds who are fascinated with the subject and wish to learn about it. That's precisely why such a small percentage of us are experts on topics related to foreign policy - note the disclaimer in the "Who am I?" post on this blog. If Kurtz and his kind have their way, then soon all of us may be judged as much by our political views as by the quality of our scholarship. And that would really destroy the academic freedom on which our education system is built.


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