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What Americans don’t know about other countries does hurt us


U.S. government officials have long recognized that what Americans don’t know about foreign languages, cultures, and histories, has — and will — hurt us. And so, for over 60 years, Congress has supported efforts to increase Americans’ knowledge of other countries.

Nonetheless, funding for such efforts, which has never been adequate, has declined precipitously in recent years, putting the country’s national security and economic competitiveness at risk. It will take a major public-private effort to fill the void.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to institutions of higher education to support the interdisciplinary study of foreign languages and the regions in which they are spoken. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 spurred Congress to provide its own funding for area studies through Title VI of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 (renamed the Higher Education Act in 1965). Title VI was supplemented by the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, which supported overseas study.

Prior to the passage of Title VI, “few of the languages spoken by more than three-fourths of the world’s population were being offered in the United States … Hindi, for example, was being studied by only 23 students.” The NDEA initially funded 19 centers (the number grew to 127 in 2010), now known as National Resource Centers (NRCs), for the study of foreign languages and regions. It also created fellowships for foreign language study, later known as Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships.

The centers “subsidize instruction in less-commonly taught languages,” “provide seed money for faculty positions, develop new courses on international subjects, and organize hundreds of conferences and workshops each year.” Although originally established “to ensure trained manpower … to meet the national defense needs of the United States,” the programs’ goals have expanded to include improved understanding of other societies, global cooperation, and enhanced economic competitiveness.

For decades, these programs have attracted bipartisan support. However, Title VI funding peaked in 2010 at $110 million. In fact, “as a share of [Education Department] postsecondary discretionary spending, the peak was in FY1996 when Title VI accounted for 0.69 percent of such spending.”

Since 2010, funding has declined; in 2020, only $68 million “was appropriated for Title VI, less than 0.25 percent” of Education Department discretionary spending. In 2022, only $25.5 million was spread across 98 national resource centers (for an average of $260,000 per center, a fraction of what it takes to mount a robust program), with another $32 million devoted to 112 FLAS fellowships.

When the Cold War ended, large foundations shifted their priorities from area studies to global causes such as human rights and democracy promotion. Without Title VI funding, many less commonly taught languages would probably not be taught at all in this country. That said, current support is woefully inadequate. When the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, “the entire U.S. government could call on no more than two or three speakers of Pushto (the dominant language in Afghanistan).” When the United States intervened in Iraq, the lack of “basic cultural literacy” seriously “hampered our ability to collect intelligence on the growing insurgency there.”

Just 20 percent of American K-12 students study a foreign language. Only about 7 percent study foreign languages in college and the number who do is declining. Of those, 95 percent study a European language; less than 1 percent study “a language that the Department of Defense views as critical for national security.” In 2013, for example, only 64 American college students were studying Bengali; 200,000 were studying French. Over 300 million Chinese students are studying English, while only 200,000 American students are studying Chinese.

Many colleges and universities no longer require foreign language study. Most offer a wide range of study abroad options, many of which do not require foreign language proficiency. And between 2013-16, American colleges and universities discontinued more than 600 foreign language programs. Without Title VI support, these numbers would be even more dismal.

To be sure, area studies has critics. Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, some scholars attacked what they perceived as area studies’ endorsement of Cold War policies, connection to colonialism, and acceptance of American “exceptionalism.” Some claimed “the very association of academic research with government priorities inevitably pollutes the scholarly enterprise.”

But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, heightened economic and military competition with China, nuclear brinksmanship by North Korea, and the continued threat of international terrorism, there should be no disagreement about the need for enhanced government support of instruction in foreign languages and the study of other countries’ history, politics, and culture.

Both the State Department and the Defense Department have thousands of language-designated positions, many of which they cannot fill. As a result, the United States has paid a significant price in its diplomacy, intelligence gathering, military operations, and nation building efforts. By one estimate, a quarter of U.S. employers are losing business because of a lack of foreign language proficiency, which also impedes “the nation’s competitiveness in scientific and technological innovation.”

It’s time for the Department of Education, colleges and universities, foundations, and major corporations to collaborate to provide the resources for a 21st century area studies renaissance. Title VI provides the template. The prospect of continued global leadership by the United States rests on bi-partisan support for far more extensive use of it.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

Tags Area studies cultural literacy economic competitiveness foreign language foreign language education foreign study Higher education in the United States National Defense Education Act National security Study abroad in the United States Title VI

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