Inside Higher Ed has an overview of recent developments in the plan to involve the Pentagon in increased funding for 'strategic languages' such as Arabic. At the time the article went to press, the details had not yet been released as to where the Department of Defense would be involved, and where the State Department or Department of Education would take the lead. Still, there's enough there to trigger a lot of the ongoing debates about the appropriateness of a military role in language training.
I recognize the merit of many of the arguments against such a role for the Defense Department in language training. It can distort the priorities of those offering and seeking language instruction in ways which might not fit an institution's curricular or educational mission. While the Defense Department has some outstanding language instruction programs, education really isn't its core mission. And the dangers to graduate students who have received such funding when they go out into the field shouldn't be minimized. Those raising objections to a Defense role in funding language training in the universities should not be dismissed as a bunch of anti-American hysterics.
All that said, I have always been a (qualified) supporter of increased government funding for 'strategic languages' such as Arabic and Chinese, whatever the source. When the Middle East Studies Association's business meeting discussed a statement by the board of directors which "URGES that its members and their institutions not seek or accept program or research funding from NSEA unless the above-stated concerns are fully addressed", I voted with Greg Gause and others to remove any such advisory language and instead leave decision up to individual departments or universities. I just feel that the urgent need for better language training outweighs the concerns over the possible abuse or negative externalities of Defense-funded programs.
Look at the three big objections I mentioned above. First, that it could distort the curriculum. It could, but if departments and institutions make their own choice as to whether to accept the funding then this doesn't seem as serious a problem. I would expect that other factors, such as student demand and the faculty or administration view of the curriculum will have a greater impact on choices about offering these languages - and the availability of government money (Defense or otherwise) would enter into the equation later. My experience at Williams (a rather wealthy liberal arts college) may not be typical, but perhaps it's instructive.
At Williams, I and several of my colleagues had been urging the administration to offer Arabic language instruction almost from the day I got here in 1998. They were sympathetic (Williams already has one of the premiere Chinese language programs in liberal arts colleges, ably overseen as part of the Asian Studies program by my next door neighbor Sam Crane) but raised a number of very legitimate objections, such as whether there would be enough demand to sustain a multi-year program, or would we end up throwing a lot of resources at two or three students a year. After 9/11, student demand for Arabic language instruction skyrocketed, and last year almost a dozen students took Arabic through the "Critical Languages Program" - essentially, teaching yourself through tapes and meeting an instructor once a week. Then, we lucked in to Armando Vargas, a Bolin fellow in Comparative Literature who was exceptionally well qualified to teach Arabic as well. The administration showed responsiveness to faculty and student demands, and some creativity, in finding a way to hire him in a new tenure track line. This year, he has more than 20 students enrolled in an introductory Arabic sequence, with a bunch of students going off in the summer or next year to study Arabic abroad. Moral of the story (besides that Williams did well here): faculty support for Arabic instruction and demonstrated student demand, along with a curricular commitment across the College to international studies, made the difference. Offers of government funding, whatever their source, would have been gravy.
The second objection is whether the Pentagon has any business getting in to education. To me, this is overwhelmingly a question which comes down to the details. I would be opposed to any program at the college level which required military service after graduation - I don't object to ROTC, but taking language courses when there are no other alternatives available on campus should not carry the same kind of commitments. I would also be very much opposed to any role for the Pentagon in overseeing the content of the language instruction, or in the hiring or tenuring of the instructors. If the Pentagon wanted to administer some kind of test at the end of the classes to make sure that students were learning their Chinese or Arabic adequately, that would be fine - it's their money, after all - but that's the only legitimate role I could see for it in the actual instruction part.
Finally, will this stigmatize and even endanger students in the field? Well, frankly, yes it probably will - but I doubt it really makes much difference. When I was a graduate student, I was always asked my source of funding - always. I always answered honestly - Cornell University, the Social Science Research Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and so forth. But I always assumed that some subset of the people I was interviewing thought I was lying and that I was really a spy. There's no way around that. I think that transparency is better than subterfuge, overall, and that open Defense funding for Arabic instruction - with well-defined guidelines - wouldn't be much more dangerous than already existing suspicions.
Bottom line? I think that American students learning languages such as Chinese and Arabic is an unqualified good. Once they have those skills, students will take them wherever their conscience and available paychecks lead - to the military, to the State Department (maybe even to staff those all important public diplomacy television response teams I'm always calling for), to academia, to think tanks, to business, wherever. I would want to see clear guidelines and institutional safeguards to prevent the Pentagon from exercising direct control over the programs, and I would not want students to be forced into signing a de facto ROTC agreement in order to get the language training. But as long as such safeguards could be negotiated, I'm in favor of a Strategic Languages Program.