Budget Cuts Loom for "Frivolous" Language Programs

Ashley Thorne

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American!

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that one budget cut up for approval this week is a 40% cut to certain foreign language and international studies programs at universities. Many of these programs, initiated under Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act, were designed to foster the study of strategic foreign languages to aid national security during the Cold War and shortly after 9/11.

One person interviewed by the Chronicle called the cuts “devastating,” and said this would hurt America’s economic competitiveness and national security. The article notes that many administrators running the programs would lose their jobs.

Academia would be better off with fewer administrators, many of whom are the drivers of campuses’ politically correct atmospheres. But would America be better off with fewer strategic foreign language programs, especially when in other countries, all schoolchildren are trained to fluency in English? It seems unclear, and the Chronicle does not specify how efficient or successful these programs are. A few commentators, however, hail the cuts as a good move.

A reader commenting on the Chronicle piece, who identifies himself as “not a Republican,” writes:

I once used to work for a Title VI center and am familiar with many others. In my opinion, much of this money is wasted on frivolous research and activities--including ones in which I was involved. I am a huge supporter of language education in this country, especially the less-commonly taught languages (LCTLs, in the trade). But there are better, more efficient ways to encourage language learning--especially to support our national security interests--than to give it to a bunch of academics. The money would be better spent giving direct incentives to students to study the languages in one or two dedicated facilities (like Monterrey or Middlebury), and then tying the education to national security purposes. I met way too many people who spoke LCTLs who were researching things that had nothing to do with national security or building language capacity for the public (as opposed to private) good.

Mark Tessler is right when he is quoted that "we need places to teach" the LCTLs. But we do not need 6 or 8 university programs in Bengali. We need more people who speak Bengali. Title VI as it is now structured is an inefficient way to achieve the goal.

So, according to this reader, Title VI programs were poor stewards of the federal money and used it on “frivolous research and activities.” Stanley Kurtz, writing at the NRO’s The Corner, agrees:

Academics are already screaming about the “devastating” nature of the cutback, and the alleged damage to our national security, since the programs in question support the teaching of languages of strategic importance to the United States (like Arabic and Pashto). Yet Title VI programs in international studies have largely failed to channel students fluent in strategic foreign languages into defense and intelligence agencies. Title VI subsidized centers have also been subject to unconscionable abuses: scholarly boycotts expressly designed to prevent students from serving in defense or intelligence agencies; manipulation by donations from Middle Eastern countries; deep political bias in congressionally mandated outreach programs; and an almost complete lack of accountability.

We must preserve foreign language study, both for national security and the personal enrichment it brings to those who learn. A bad system that wastes taxpayer dollars, however, is unhelpful. Higher education should take this opportunity to look for ways to improve its language-teaching effectiveness.

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