Area Studies: Coming Back From Nowhere? (The New York Times 3/77)

 Are today’s college students sufficiently literate in world affairs? How does one educate a foreign “area specialist?” Why are more and more countries in the Middle East closing their doors to American scholars — and what can the Government do about it? These are some of the questions to be taken up by a new Presidential Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies.

To be sure, this is not the first time the White House has been interested in this subject, which is peculiar in that it relates so directly to the management of American foreign policy, and is so dependent on Federal direction and support — particularly when, as now, the nation’s interest in foreign affairs seems to be at an ebb.

Twenty one years ago, President Eisenhower was prompted to start a similar inquiry into the state of foreign studies in the wake of the Sputnik launching. The result was that Congress was moved to enact the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which created a new super-discipline, area studies, to provide more and better foreign areas experts.

Does President Carter want to reconnect the pipeline? “At this point it is difficult to tell,” says Dr. Rose Hayden of the American Council on Education’s International Education Project. She points out that the Administration’s international education budget request for 1979 of $20 million is no more than was allotted under President Ford. Dr. Hayden said it was likely that Mr. Carter hopes to use the commission and its findings as a substitute for Sputnik, to create support for increased appropriation next year.

Meanwhile, university officials may have mixed feelings about Washington’s renewed interest in foreign studies, if it proves sincere. For the last time Washington tried to “internationalize” American higher education, the plug didn’t stay in. Witness the checkered history of area studies.

The concept behind area studies — making a student as informed as possible about a foreign culture, by “immersing” him in courses in its language, history and economics, as well as field trips — was not a new one when the Congress suddenly decided to subsidize it in 1958.

But only after the passage of the National Defense Educational Act, Title VI of which specifically mandated funds for the propagation of “language and area studies,” did area studies attain true academic status.

During the interventionist 1950′s and 1960′s, America’s global awareness peaked, as did Washington’s interest in enhanced foreign area competence. New “language and area studies centers,” covering every conceivable cultural grouping, from East, South, and Southeast Asia, to sub-Sahara Africa, and everything in between, began to pop up; starting from 19 in 1959, when $6 million in Federal money was spent, to 106 in 1967, the all-time high for area studies, when these and dozens of other self-sustained area studies centers were fueled with $15.8 million in Federal funds, plus over a quarter of a billion from private sources.

Then in 1968, just as the need for area specialists in Government and business was beginning t be satiated, the Nixon Administration took office, and Title VI money began to decline, dropping form $15 million in 1969 to only $4 million in 1973, when but 50 grants were made.

The bottom fell out of area studies, particularly for those in which Washington was no longer interested, or for which it found alternative resources, such as “think tanks.” In 1972, just before the pullout of American troops from Vietnam went into high gear, no fewer than 16 of the 104 Federal grants were specifically earmarked for campus based Southeast Asia studies centers. By 1977, long after the last American troops had gone home, only 3 of 85 NDEA-supported centers specialized in this field.

Today, by common agreement, only Cornell continues to maintain a major NDEA-supported center in Southeast Asian studies.

More or less the same fate has befallen other once popular types of area studies, such as Latin America studies, African, Russian studies: once the government lost interest in the area in question, so did everyone else.

In some cases, other factors accelerated the decline. One reason student interest in Russian studies has plummeted is that campus New Leftests managed to circulate the idea that Russia was boring. Better try China.

Yet another development that has hurt area studies is the growing reluctance of many governments to allow American area specialists to visit their countries, particularly if they happen to be interested in local politics. Once welcomed as harbingers of American good will, such researchers are now seen as “academic imperialists.” (Ironically, some of these same countries have been investing in Middle Eastern study centers in the United States).

Finally, the interdisciplinary concept of area studies, which classically oriented social scientists have long accused of impurity, has fallen into some disrepute, making some university officials reluctant to use their own funds to hire area specialists. Others have simply grown tired of catering to the needs of the American foreign policy apparatus — particularly when these seem to be so transient.

The result, some observers say, is that the quantity and quality of reliable academic activity on non-Western culture (with the possible exception of the Middle East) is no greater than it was a decade, and perhaps even 20 years ago. University language enrollments alone have dropped by 30 percent since 1968. The great chain of knowledge about foreign affairs, which many Americans presume the government has available, may be missing many links.

A the very least, as the Federal Oversight Committee which monitors American compliance with the Helsinki accords, recently pointed out to Me. Carter, this trend violates the spirit of Helsinki, at which the United States pledged to “encourage the study of foreign language and civilizations.”

At worst, says Dr. Hayden, it threatens the intelligent management of American foreign policy, as Congress may have found in 1975, when it could find only two academies who could offer credible testimony on Angola. “Very often there are only a handful of people, if even that, who know anything about certain areas of the world,” said David Anton of the Social Sciences research Council.

Given the traditionally tropical nature of America’s interest in foreign affairs, is there any way of guaranteeing a consensual level of support for these activities? “There definitely is a need for a full range of competent foreign affairs, specialists within the universities,” said George Kennan, the distinguished diplomat, now on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Studies. “You never know when they will be needed. However, this entails a long-term commitment and mustn’t simply depend on our enthusiasm of the moment. It can’t be done in fits and starts. Indeed, in the end, Sputnik mat have done us more harm than good.”