As we approach the anniversary, I will do you the favor of not sharing my memories of 9/11 with you. I am sure that half a dozen people you saw at work this week have had almost exactly the same thing to say: that it was a dark and scary day ten years ago, that it was a clear blue sky in the east (just like today), that their lives took a turn in some critical way. Mine actually did take a dramatic, although not unpredictable, turn for the worse a year or so after 9/11, but the terrorists were local and not international. At the many memorial services and on the television specials, we will hear repeatedly that “everything” changed.
But how has it changed? One of the things that has struck me is that the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world is pretty much what Phyllis Schlafly outlined in her 1964 self-published blockbuster, A Choice Not An Echo. Part of this has occurred through cuts to the education budget in the past decade (something Phyllis for which has also been a leading advocate) that have drastically cut the teaching of languages other than English. For example, despite panicked acknowledgments that the vast majority of Americans knew nothing about Islam prior to 9/11 and that much of our diplomatic corps did not speak the languages in the countries to which they were assigned:
- How many of you out there can say honestly that your college or university takes Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies, or the study of non-European languages that are not Mandarin or Japanese any more seriously than it did on 9/11? (Go here to buy greeting cards from the Middle Eastern Studies Association if you answered this question in the affirmative.)
- In fact, how many of you can say that your college or university has not slashed its budget for the study of every language in the last decade? Go here for the most recent report from the Modern Language Association that shows declines of almost 40% in foreign language jobs since 1976 (question to readers: what languages are excluded from the MLA as being not modern? Does anyone ever talk about changing the name of this professional organization?) Last spring, the education press was projecting a 40% cut in federal Title VI funds allocated to the teaching of language at the secondary and collegiate level. And if this isn’t bad enough, let’s also note that according to the WaPo, before the really ugly stuff started, the Obama administration had also agreed to “massive cuts” in the State Department’s educational exchange programs.
- Meanwhile, in the actual deal that was cut, a program called “The Teaching of Traditional American History” received $46 million more than the administration’s request – which was $73 million. So the outcome of the Obama administration’s commitment to a 21st century workforce seems to be — more U.S. history, less actual connection to the rest of the globe, and particularly those parts of the globe where the United States has teeth-clenching levels of economic and political commitment. No dice — only an education suitable to spending your life right here in River City will do –unless you are interested in the military or working for a private military contractor, in which case we will hook you right up.
- The Department of Education has a web page up insisting on the critical role Title VI plays in national security and the “unprecedented need for globally competent citizens and professionals.” But go here for an interesting tool (no I am not referring to the Invisible Man, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) that allows you an interactive view of how this “unprecedented need” is representing in the actually existing federal budget. Look for any category that might contain funds for the teaching of foreign language, or for non-military programs that might encourage citizens of the United States who only speak English to interact with the rest of the world or with non-English speaking citizens of or visitors to the United States. National defense takes up 19.2% of the budget (don’t you want to know what is in that sub-category called “other National Defense?”) Education shares a wee category with “job training” down in the lower right quadrant, making up a pathetic 2.77% of the budget. International affairs is even smaller, at %1.65.
- Last fall, an article in the Grey Lady fired a warning shot over the bow: thousands of secondary schools have given up teaching foreign languages altogether. In my opinion, this will allow all of higher ed to cut its own commitments to language further, citing “low demand” from students and the impossibility of bringing a learner to an advanced level in the two years prior to declaring a major. But what language was up by 4%? Chinese. Why? In an ironic reversal of a nineteenth century American colonization process driven by missionary schools, I am happy to report that the Chinese government is paying the salaries of Chinese language teachers in schools in the United States.
Like George W. Bush ten years ago, the leading Republican candidates (who, incredibly, are even more right wing than Bush was — would you have predicted that in 2001?) also have virtually no foreign policy agenda. You would think their platforms were written by Phyllis Schlafly, except that A Choice, Not An Echo had a detailed argument about why everything foreign and non-nuclear was bringing the United States down. To underline our post-9/11 retreat from the world, most of these (with the exception of Jon Huntsman, who hasn’t got a prayer of being nominated because he’s too experienced and intelligent, and “Mitten” Romney whose intelligence and experience is overshadowed by his inexplicably repugnant qualities as a candidate) are what Barry Goldwater, the uber-conservative presidential hopeful who Schlafly helped catapult to stardom with her book and who now looks like a centrist, called “me too” candidates. On their websites, foreign policy is euphemistically called “national security,” which I guess is because policy is for wonkish, Eastern radicals like me. However, I would like to point out that the two are actually quite different. Go here for Rick Perry; here for Michele Bachmann (who is tired of having a president who “babies radical Islamists,” something I guess he has to do because so few people in the diplomatic corps and the military understand what Islamists are really saying); Ron Paul,who plans to stop waging war abroad and bloating the military budget, while simultaneously securing the border and hunting down terrorists wherever they live; and Romney who plans to pursue an oxymoronic “foreign policy” of “American strength” based on a strong domestic economy.
So as we mourn the people who died on 9/11 today, take a minute to mourn the political ideas that died that day too, in both parties. And go to your university administration and ask them how they are promoting “global engagement” on their campus — and the vast majority of 4-year campuses will insist that they do — while cutting foreign languages and remaining silent about the federal educational priorities that are giving us Fortress Amerika.