New bill threatens intellectual freedom in area studies

The 1996 Solomon Amendment, which denies federal funding to institutions of higher learning that refuse to allow military recruiters on campus, once seemed to be the gravest attack by the government on academic freedom. Yet it is actually only the beginning of what seems to be a string of attempts by the federal government to dictate what takes place at both public and private universities across the country.

This past month, Congress passed HR 3077, the “International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003.” The bill reauthorizes and extends Title VI programs that ensure that public funds are not used to support or further racial discrimination at educational institutions. Since 1964, area studies programs and the study of underrepresented languages have been supported by Title VI funding.

Yet the bill’s high and just proceedings end there. HR 3077 was first proposed in June, at a Congressional hearing on “International Programs in Higher Education and Questions about Bias.” Portraying academic institutions, particularly area studies programs, as hotbeds for anti-American sentiment, proponents of the bill proposed the creation of an advisory board that has the final word on curricula taught at Title VI institutions, course materials assigned in class, and even the faculty who are hired in institutions that accept Title VI funding.

Using the Solomon Amendment as precedent, the advisory board will also ensure that programs receiving Title VI funding encourage students to enter careers in government, including those related to national-security, by requiring that recruiters from U.S. government agencies be given regular access to students. And just like the unjust and detrimental Solomon Amendment, HR 3077 suppresses the free-speech rights of academic institutions as it threatens to remove Title VI funding from any center that engages in or abets a boycott of national security scholarships.

The basis of our government’s deep-seated paranoia lies in the simple-minded testimony of conservative academic Stanley Kurtz. Testifying in support of HR 3077 and the advisory board, Kurtz stated that “the ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies is called ‘post-colonial theory.’” His erroneous problem with that notion is 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.” The root of anti-Americanism, according to Kurtz, is not our repeated missteps abroad, unilateral occupation, or the continuing deaths of innocent civilians, but rather, post-colonial scholarship. His incredible belief that post-colonial theory is plaguing academic departments with a bias against America and the west leads to his ultimate conclusion that Title VI programs are putting national security at risk as they indoctrinate their students with a hatred of America.

Beyond the plain absurdity of his testimony, the irony of Kurtz’s statements is that he falls victim to the very difficulty that Edward Said, one of the first pioneers of post-colonial theory, repeatedly attempted to explain. In advocating for an advisory board, Kurtz surrenders to the American and Euro-centric ideology that the study of foreign languages and cultures serves no greater purpose than serving American interests. The notion that societies foreign to America can be studied on their own terms, rather than as a tool for U.S. “progress” stands entirely outside of Kurtz’s narrowed viewpoint. Contrary to his claim, the “core premise of post-colonial theory” is not that “the use of languages and services for American power” is an unworthy enterprise. The core premise of post-colonial theory is that the West has imagined and represented the East in a way that is simple-minded, in a way that is orientalist. Orientalism does not concern itself with politics as Kurtz ingenuously understands it. Rather, orientalism engages with the politics of representation. And as bills such as HR 3077 continue to reduce foreign languages and cultures to no more than studies that are “useful,” the U.S. government only perpetuates the orientalism to which Said brought our attention with his landmark text.

The implications of HR 3077′s intense nationalism are frightening. Currently at Yale, the African Studies, European Studies, Latin American and Iberian Studies, Middle East Studies and East Asian Studies Departments all receive significant amounts of funding from Title VI. In the 2003-2004 academic year alone, the value of grants Yale has received from Title VI totals $4.8 million. With the ratification of HR 3077, all of these area studies and language programs are now subject to government oversight. According to the language of the bill, professors whose ideological principles may not support U.S. practices abroad can have their appointments terminated, any part of a course’s curriculum containing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy can be censored, and any course deemed entirely anti-American can be barred from ever being taught.

HR 3077 represents yet another attack by the current administration on our once-prized academic freedoms. The Solomon Amendment, whose consequences Yale is currently struggling with, set a fearsome and powerful precedent for the continued infiltration of the government into both public and private universities such that supposed and illusory academic propaganda can be replaced by another form of indoctrination that is all too real. HR 3077 gives new meaning to the horror of Kurtz’s imagination.



Benita Singh is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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