Learning The Language
Title VI is in need of reform.


The U.S. Senate is about to consider H.R. 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act–a bill to reform the system of federal subsidies to academic programs of “area studies,” including Middle East studies. (The shorthand term for these subsidies is “Title VI.”) The legislation has been criticized by some academics, since it would establish a new advisory board for the program. As the federal official who administered and supervised Title VI from 1982 through 1989, I know the program inside and out–and I know that it needs an advisory board.

Over 20 years ago, I joined the Reagan administration as the Department of Education’s director of international education programs. I administered Title VI from 1982 through 1986. I had overall supervisory responsibility for the program between 1986 and 1989, as deputy assistant secretary for higher-education programs, and then as assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

I came to the department of education from the foreign service, where I had been an Arabic-language and Middle East-area specialist. I didn’t learn my Arabic in a university; I acquired the basics at the Foreign Service Institute, and I refined my skills in the U.S. embassies in Lebanon and Libya. For a time, I headed the Arabic service of the Voice of America. As it happens, I know something about learning foreign languages (I am also fluent in French and Italian), and I know exactly what it takes to achieve proficiency. I also know something about using languages to gain entry to other societies and cultures.

When I came to the department of education in 1982, I immediately understood the basic problem afflicting Title VI: The true purpose of the program had gotten lost. Remember that Title VI originated in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, passed at the height of the Cold War. At that time, developing American expertise in foreign- language and area studies was deemed vital to our national defense. But in later years, and especially after Title VI was rolled over into the Higher Education Act of 1965, academic beneficiaries managed to turn the program into a virtual entitlement.

As a result, we were not getting a good value for our dollar. Many of those who studied “hard” languages (e.g., Arabic, Persian, Chinese) in Title VI-supported programs turned out to be less proficient than they needed to be to work effectively in diplomacy, intelligence, aid-related work, and even international business. It was a common assumption in my day that the graduates of the government-operated Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute were more proficient in “hard” languages than their university-trained colleagues.

I also found academic-area specialists generally to be less interested in the languages of their world areas than in cultural, economic, political, and social questions. They didn’t seem to think that language proficiency would do much to advance their academic careers. This was no secret, and many government servants openly wondered whether Title VI served any national need at all.

I believed then–and I believe now–that it is necessary to master the language of a foreign culture in order to be a qualified foreign-language and area specialist in the full sense of the word. I also thought–and still think–that university-based language and area-studies programs have a place in meeting the country’s needs. But it was also clear to me–and it is clear to me today–that without a steady hand on the keel, Title VI will continue to come up short.

One of the most important tools at my disposal was a board. No, the idea of a Title VI board isn’t new, and long ago there was such a board. I know: I was its ex officio executive director for years. The old board conducted surveys that effectively monitored the functioning of the Title VI program. It also helped set priorities for language study, and made recommendations on award criteria for grants. I found the board an invaluable tool in helping me to honor congressional intent. It was a mistake to disband it, and establishing a new one is a necessity.

Why? Making sure that the Title VI subsidies fulfill their intended purpose takes effort. The plain fact is that we are still woefully short of the kind of language and area expertise that we need in diplomacy, defense, and intelligence. Title VI subsidies have successfully encouraged America’s universities to establish programs in the study of many languages that might not otherwise have been taught. But we are still not producing enough of the language-proficient foreign-area specialists that the nation requires. The basic justification for Title VI remains unchanged: the production of foreign-language and area specialists, trained, competent, and willing to help serve the defense and security needs of the United States. This need not be the only purpose of the university centers and programs supported by Title VI. Nevertheless, it remains one of the main and indispensable purposes of the program.

My board was useful in keeping this purpose front and center against the constant pressure from academics to exploit the program to meet only their own needs. Academics are competent in many areas. Determining national needs is not one of them. This is the proper role of government, and if Title VI is to meet national needs, and enjoy continued congressional support, it needs the ballast provided by outside advice and expertise. After all, Title VI is a contract, not an entitlement. Government has a duty, in expending resources, to assure that national needs are being met, before subsidizing other activities. And right now those needs are not being met, putting all of us in peril.

For any new board to be effective, it must be made up of appointees who know something about our nation’s requirements. Those people should be identified and appointed by Congress and the administration, which together are responsible for funding and administering Title VI. The new legislation, H.R. 3077, provides for a board appointed by the secretary of education, and by the leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress. Two of the education secretary’s appointees are to come from federal departments with national-security responsibilities, broadly defined. To my mind, that is a perfect formula, which will assure that every important stakeholder has a voice.

Some in the academy have suggested that the board should be made up of representatives from universities, or from various other academic bodies. That would defeat the board’s fundamental purpose, which must be to keep the program in line with the intent of Congress. The alternative proposals for a board now floating around academe would all effectively mandate the academic beneficiaries of Title VI to monitor and advise themselves. I know from past experience that such a board would be worse than useless. You cannot set national priorities by peer review. The vast majority of academics have neither the knowledge of nor, apparently, any great concern about the needs of government. The Department of Education doesn’t need more advice from academics; it needs more advice from other government departments and experts with international experience. Only they can tell whether Title VI is pulling its weight.

The dangerous shortage of language-fluent recruits to our defense and intelligence agencies has set off alarm bells. In every branch of government, every program that is meant to address this need is being subjected to renewed scrutiny. Title VI should not be an exception, and it is due for reform. As the federal official who administered and supervised Title VI for almost a decade, I know I would have welcomed legislation like HR 3077. I strongly urge the Senate to pass the bill.

Kenneth D. Whitehead served as director of international education programs in the department of education between 1982 and 1986, where he administered the Title VI program. He continued to have overall supervisory responsibility for Title VI as deputy assistant secretary for higher-education programs and then as assistant secretary for postsecondary education (1986-1989).


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