This past week the Trump administration released its full budget proposal for 2018. The timing was ironic, since this proposal, which would eliminate crucial sources of funding for international education, came out while the president was in the middle of his first overseas trip. Doing away with Title VI and Fulbright-Hays funding would cripple our country’s capacity to produce experts on the language, culture, history, etc. of large swaths of the world. Sadly, though, this is a reality which Americans’ sense of entitlement about our country’s “greatness” seems to prevent us from confronting.
What are Title VI and Fulbright-Hays? Both are programs run through the Office of Postsecondary Education in the Department of Education and support learning about countries outside of North America and western Europe. In other words, these are countries which are both less-studied and often more difficult to study. Included in this umbrella are allies, like Japan, strategic rivals, like China, and even those belonging to the so-called “axis of evil,” like Iran.
To speak in this way is, admittedly, awkward for an academic, since I personally don’t judge the merits of studying a particular country on the basis of its strategic importance. Members of congress do, however. And that reality is inseparable from the history and nature of these programs, which the U.S. government initiated during the Cold War to expand our understanding of areas of the world that were both important to national interests but also under-studied. Yes, it is ironic that academia, especially “area studies” (Middle Eastern studies, East Asian studies, etc.), which the public loves to think of as populated with over-the-hill hippies and commies, has benefited from Kissingerian realpolitik. It is in irony of which we graduate students are often reminded.
Title VI funding supports area studies centers at American universities and American-run institutes, like language programs, around the world. It also provides Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships to individual students. I was the recipient of one of these fellowships, which supported my study of Japanese, in 2015-16. However, because there are essentially always PhD students at my university receiving FLAS fellowships, the funding essentially underwrites PhD training in East Asian studies as a whole. It would be practically impossible to separate out those students who are and aren’t beneficiaries.
The Fulbright-Hays Program supports post-secondary training abroad. The program most relevant to me as a graduate student is the Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, which supports PhD students conducting research for dissertations. Unfortunately, this program in particular has already suffered under repeated budget cuts. One of the consequences has been an idiosyncratic application schedule, where the competition is not announced until March, applications are due in April, and notifications are made over the summer. To say that this is inconvenient for students hoping to start research in the Fall would be a gross understatement. The application itself is thorough and students are graded on a hundred-point scale for each part of the application and essay. Students working with specific languages and/or researching certain topics – of special strategic concern – earn bonus points, which can be decisive given the competitive nature of the fellowship.
This funding is indispensable to studying and spreading knowledge about other parts of the world, not just for students who directly receive support but for everyone whose colleagues or teachers win these fellowships. Private foundations offer some support, but there is no reason to believe that they can pick up the slack left by eliminating core government programs like Title VI and DDRA. Especially in the wake of repeated budget cuts (funding for Title VI was reduced from $110.3 million to $65.1 million between 2011 and 2016; Fulbright-Hays went from $15.6 million in 2010 to $7.1 million in 2016), there is no shortage of demand for further funding for area studies, but we have not seen a surge of private interest in picking up the slack. The newest entrant to the field of funding dissertation research on Chinese history and culture is the Chinese government itself, through Hanban, the same institution that operates Confucius institutes and which is affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Hanban now offers Confucius Studies grants to support foreign scholars coming to China for study or research. On the one hand, this is an encouraging development: more funding for research on China is a good thing. On the other hand, combined with a U.S. retreat from supporting scholarship on China, this gives the Chinese government a greater capacity to influence scholarly research and hinder projects on topics that are explicitly sensitive or simply do not accord with the party’s narrow interest in shaping understanding of China’s past and present.
Why are these programs on the chopping block, especially when they represent such a small portion of the federal budget and when we are facing such a complex array of global developments that demand the kinds of expertise these programs cultivate? One possible answer is that many politicians and citizens simply do not care about keeping our country at the forefront of producing experts about other parts of the world. That would at least be a logical line of reasoning, although, of course, there are many possible bipartisan counterarguments to the basic premise that the outcome of producing experts is not worthwhile or even undesirable.
I have a feeling, though, that something else is at play, namely a deep sense of American entitlement. I suspect that the majority of Americans derive some degree of pride or self-satisfaction from thinking that our country possesses a world-class system of post-secondary education that is able to draw many of the world’s best and brightest teachers and students. Even if you think that universities are liberal hellholes, at least their ours. It’s like watching Lebron James at the Olympics: maybe you can’t stand him or don’t even care about basketball, but seeing him in the good ole’ red, white, and blue throwing it down on some country you’ve never heard of…can feel kind of good. And not because it changes the way you think about the world, but because it reaffirms it.
Jingoism aside, the problem is that Americans don’t truly understand the costs (or benefits) of having a world-class university system. In particular, our national mythology that a small government is the best government because it gives free play to the “American spirit” downplays the historically crucial role of government investment in education, whether through the GI Bill, which transformed the landscape of post-secondary education in the wake of World War II, or support for area studies programs, or funding for research on health, science, etc. It would be one thing if there were some kind of vision for how this work will continue and be improved apart from government funding, but there isn’t. Either politicians (and voters) are intentionally starving our educational system of basic resources, or they are taking it for granted.
I am concerned about what this naïveté and sense of entitlement will lead to in the long run. To be clear, I’m not worried for myself – I’ll find a job where I can use my skills and make a difference in the world, in the U.S. or elsewhere. But the U.S. and the world will be substantially worse off if we renege on what has been a long-running and productive commitment to learning about and from other countries. To do so because we took for granted that such work would continue even as we stripped away the conditions that made it possible would be a moral and political tragedy.