Sad news from Washington’s budget battles:
National Resource Centers, so designated by the Education Department to teach foreign languages and culture at universities around the country, lost 47 percent of their budget for fiscal year 2011 in the last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown in April — a surprise to observers who had not thought the program was especially vulnerable. Since relatively few students opt for Bengali or Burmese over Spanish or French, federal funding was often the factor that made such courses financially feasible. The cut was across-the-board, so every center is facing the loss of half its federal funds.
“Many of these are in security sensitive areas, and this is exactly where we need to put resources instead of cutting,” said Richard Flores, senior associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts. Many students who took the classes now at risk were on their way to careers with the military, the Defense Department or the State Department, he said. “When you’re cutting resources to sensitive areas, it has an impact.”
This piece is worth reading in full, as it gets at one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. foreign policy in future (apart from a refusal to plan strategically!). In the long term, reducing the amount of language education available to college students — especially in languages like Urdu, Russian, and Arabic — will result in less informed decision-making and analysis in national security. Even the pidgin Russian I can speak, and the relatively larger but still small amount I can read without a dictionary or help translating, is an enormous advantage in understanding what happens in Russian-speaking countries. When I was in Afghanistan, being able to hold a very basic, polite, introductory conversation in Dari/Persian gave me an enormous leg-up in developing rapport with Afghans and learning how to start understanding their struggles and concerns. The like four phrases I knew in Pashto? Pure gold.
Developing formal education in these languages — which allow you to read not just their newspapers but also their literature, poetry, and history — is how you develop the institutional familiarity with societies. For a government that must maintain contact with and understand these societies, even somewhat familiar ones like Russia and China, it is inexcusable that they are cutting language. That they’re also cutting language education for Kazakh, Tajik, and Uzbek — all places where there will be something important happening with U.S. foreign policy in the next decade — is inexplicable.
We keep repeating it here, but Central Asia is important! Sadly, that message just doesn’t seem to filter up to the budgeteers in Congress or the White House.