Humanities at the Core of Foreign Policy

By Jamsheed Choksy

The cost of one Predator reconnaissance drone is about $4.5 million to provide surveillance and elimination over a relatively small area for several months. The cost of a college education in the humanities that sharpens understanding of foreign cultures and languages is around $250,000 and it provides perspective, context and communication for a lifetime.

A robust military is essential in adverse circumstances. But even at this moment U.S. troops are trying unsuccessfully to force Afghans and Pakistanis to abjure terrorism and NATO forces have not been able to pound a Libyan dictator into submission.

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Citizens of those nations, like people around the world, ground their actions and reactions in customs, faiths, histories and languages which outsiders must know to mitigate conflict and generate cooperation. So, as I reasoned recently before a U.S. Congressional Caucus, study in the humanities yields deep insights that are not only valuable in themselves but are essential to foreign policy and national security.

Let me provide a few details.

Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, begun in 1958 under the National Defense Education Act and now funded through the Higher Education Act, became a nexus between Washington and academic institutions. At Indiana University, where I teach, students can chose from 82 languages as diverse as Chinese, Persian and Somali. Those students go on to serve in governmental and private organizations as diplomats, intelligence analysts, translators and reconstruction specialists.

Likewise, the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funds research projects that contribute directly and indirectly to understanding foreign challenges. Regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang seek uranium from the African continent for nuclear programs. A field study at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, supported by the NEH in 2009, examined Africa's uranium production. The Arab Spring that has gripped countries from Libya to Yemen is fueled by desires for representative governance, mitigation of corruption and economic opportunities. In 2010, the NEH facilitated a series by America Abroad Media on the Arab world's restless youth.

The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that study of lesser-known peoples and their languages is absolutely necessary to implement interventions. So, with Federal funding, the Indiana Complex Operations Partnership between the National Guard and Indiana University began training Second Lieutenants in Pashto and Dari language programs that involve intercultural role plays. Two-thirds of those officers achieve at least elementary proficiency before serving in the war zone - a humanities skill that enhances effectiveness and safety.

Most Americans would agree that understanding and communicating across societies is critical for sustainable effectiveness on the world stage. Yet, cultures and languages are increasingly given short shrift when policy and budgetary matters are decided. For instance, New York State Regents will no longer test students in foreign languages. In the EU, by comparison, 60 percent of high school students learn two or more foreign languages. Additionally, foreign language and culture programs are chastised for promoting criticisms of American foreign policy and therefore targeted for Federal-level budget cuts.

So, despite their far-reaching relevance, funding for the humanities has increasingly become trivial in actual dollar amounts compared to defense and entitlements. Not really an endowment but an annually funded U.S. agency, the NEH received $167.5 million from a Federal budget of $3.552 trillion in 2010, $154.69 million out of $3.82 trillion in 2011, and may receive only $146.255 million in 2012. FLAS funding through the Department of Education was just $35.4 million in 2010 and faces a 40 percent cut in 2012.

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Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Central Eurasian, Iranian, Indian, Islamic, and International studies, and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.

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