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Stateside: A Nation Closing In On Itself

Stateside with Rosalea

A Nation Closing In On Itself

While we’re all being entertained by the Democratic presidential nominations, tyre tracks on Mars, and San Francisco’s rebellious mayor, some deeply disturbing legislation is wending its way through the US House of Representatives and the Senate.

HR 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003 creates a seven-member International Education Advisory Board to monitor area studies programs, but there are no educators, scholars, elected representatives or folks from the State Department on that board. It consists solely of members appointed from the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, as well as from the National Security Agency.

Area studies typically take a multifaceted approach to parts of the world that the US has foreign relations with, such as Latin America and the Middle East. Universities often bring visiting scholars from those regions to teach courses and give public talks, such as one I attended recently given by an Israeli geographer who had given expert evidence in a trial in Israel that was trying to stop a settlement being built on contested land.

Essentially, the International Education Advisory Board is a way of forcing area studies to be more “patriotic” by overseeing what’s being taught and refusing federal funding for studies that don’t toe the line. Significantly, the lack of any elected representative on the board takes it out of the realm of politics, where successive administrations might flavour it differently, and puts it entirely in the hands of the military and security agencies/departments. It is also significant that the State Department, which is where foreign relations meets diplomacy, is not represented on the board.

To quote Michael Bellesiles from the History News 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.’ ”

Seems we’ve come full circle, back to learning in the service of might, not in the service of knowledge and mutual understanding.


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