Language and cultural studies contribute to national security, really

By Patrick Duddy

Guest columnist

As the Trump administration promotes its recommendations for upgrading the U.S. military, it is essential that Congress and the executive branch not sacrifice other programs which contribute to our national security.

For example, language and culture programs administered by the Department of Education, known as Title VI centers, are among the most important, cost effective and vulnerable in the current political environment.

Many in Congress will challenge the president’s draft spending plan which calls for sharp cuts for the Department of State generally and our nation’s foreign assistance budget in particular -- and should. A serious debate on these matters is required -- but will there be a vigorous defense for language and cultural study as a component of our national commitment to readiness? Lawmakers and the public need to understand that the study of foreign languages and cultures is a critical component in our national commitment to global leadership – military, commercial and diplomatic.

Language programs and national resource centers like those funded through Title VI of the Higher Education Act have long enjoyed bipartisan support. They were created to provide the nation with a pool of language qualified professionals so the U.S. could better understand regions, languages and cultures that otherwise wouldn’t be studied.

As a country we have learned repeatedly that such a pool is necessary – for business as well as for the foreign affairs community. In today’s globalized economy, American business is present everywhere. Security threats, as we have repeatedly been reminded in recent years, can arise anywhere. American foreign affairs and military professionals need to be able to deal effectively with whatever region of the world is generating the latest and most acute challenges. American business needs to be able to engage whenever and wherever opportunities present themselves. These language programs are specifically intended to make sure we as a nation can do that.

At Duke we have three Title VI centers, two of which operate in collaboration with University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (UNC). UNC has four more. These seven North Carolina programs focus on such world areas as Africa, Asia, Europe, including Russia, Latin America and the Middle East. More than 35 less commonly taught languages are available through these seven Title VI centers.

Competitive Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grants also allow undergraduate and graduate students to deepen their knowledge and improve their language skills by traveling to the regions they study. Hundreds of students in North Carolina are enrolled in Title VI-supported academic programs. Outreach programs made possible by Title VI contribute to teacher training for secondary school and junior college faculty throughout the state. Bottom line: The impact of Title VI is felt well beyond the campuses of Duke and UNC.

While Title VI funding makes these programs possible, it does not cover all costs. Indeed, Title VI permits no more than 8 percent of the grant to be spent for overhead. The rest of the associated overhead costs are borne by the host universities. Title VI is an extraordinarily good deal for the public. Indeed, arguably in no other arena of national security interest is government able to cost share so effectively.

That said, the federal contribution is critical and if Title VI were cut significantly many of the programs of study these grants support would disappear. We should not let that happen. Not only do the programs as they exist represent the culmination of years of effort, but should they be dissolved or reduced, the capacity we now have would take years to regenerate. This would not be in our national interest.

There is a very solid argument to be made that after 16 years of near continuous conflict, much needs to be done for the Department of Defense. Cannibalizing other programs that contribute to our national security, however, is not the way to go. We can’t “Make America Great Again” by reducing our ability to interact effectively with the rest of the world.

A former career diplomat, Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010. He is now the director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.