America must invest in knowledge infrastructure to address global challenges

America must invest in knowledge infrastructure to address global challenges
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A new virus in China and an ongoing trade war. An assassination and missiles in the Middle East. Election interference from Russia. Events of the past few weeks remind us: In an age of stark ideological differences on the home front, we need objective, committed, academically knowledgeable and linguistically fluent professionals in diverse fields, ranging from government and public health to aerospace industries and agriculture.

Unfortunately, the academic pathways to such expertise have narrowed, even as the need has grown. The federal government has cut its support. Academic disciplines such as political science and economics now emphasize theoretical and quantitative approaches at the expense of specialized regional knowledge. Many students assume that generalist degrees like global or international studies promise better access to jobs than one focused on a particular region. College administrators similarly prefer broader programs with gentler language requirements, lower administrative overhead and seemingly greater appeal.

The result: Less support for programs focused on the Middle East, East Asia, Africa, Latin America or Eastern Europe. Unless national and campus trends reverse, the dearth of such specialists seems likely to worsen. By failing to renew the pipeline to regional expertise at the national and university level, we place our prosperity and security at risk. We also miss an opportunity to prepare today’s students for essential and well-paying careers in both the public and private sectors. 

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When the U.S. assumed its leading world role after World War II, relatively few academics or policymakers knew much about the world beyond Western Europe. The federal government and institutions like the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie Foundations funded university programs to train experts with the linguistic, political and cultural knowledge to staff agencies like the State and Defense departments. The private sector also benefited from this pool of experts as American banks and businesses began pursuing global markets. Like other forms of infrastructure built during the post-war period, regional and linguistic expertise helped to lay the groundwork for America’s economic expansion and global influence. 

The Cold War fueled further federal investment. The Department of Education launched what it called national resource centers at various universities to promote the training of regional experts. The State Department issued grants for research and language training. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, federal spending on such programs steadily declined and then dropped precipitously. For instance, the Education Department cut its support for university-based resource centers by 40 percent in 2011. The State Department threatened to eliminate all dedicated funds for immersive language training and research in Russian and Eastern European studies in 2013. In a compromise, it agreed to a cut of more than 50 percent. The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad grant faced similar reductions. Last week, the Peace Corps eliminated its program in China.

This is not simply a government problem. Campus trends also fuel the diminution of expertise. Students say that they want “global experiences.” But this can mean a brief leadership conference conducted abroad in English or a short study tour featuring service, cultural enrichment or entrepreneurship.

In 2016-2017, only 16 percent of American undergraduates studied abroad, most for a period of less than eight weeks. The six most popular destinations were in Western Europe, accounting for 45 percent of the total. Twenty percent chose English-speaking countries like Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. Internationalization, much touted in university branding materials, emphasized the recruitment of foreign students (the majority paying full tuition) and solicitation of foreign donors (including foreign governments). 

According to data from the Modern Languages Association, enrollment in foreign language courses, with the exception of Korean and Japanese, has fallen precipitously since 2013. Universities have shut down more than 650 language programs during this same period. Given the state of the world today, these trends should be alarming.

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A broad-based commitment to the cultivation of experts was a hallmark of national strength and a distinguishing feature of American higher education. Shrinking budgets, narrowing horizons, disdain for professionals and a retreat from investment in public infrastructure, including knowledge infrastructure, leave us uncertain and vulnerable to manipulation. 

By contrast, since 2011, China has invested heavily in new “regional and country studies bases” at universities funded by its ministry of education. These new programs follow the former American model in training internationally oriented experts to serve the national interest in a moment of growing strength and global exposure. We can sit around and whine about how the Chinese are eating our lunch. Or we can invest properly in knowledge infrastructure and language teaching like the world leaders that we once knew how to be.

Tobie Meyer-Fong is professor of history and the director of the East Asian studies program at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of "What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China" (Stanford UP 2013).