“Consuming the world is not the same as understanding it.” So writes Charles King in, “The Decline of International Studies,” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015 pg.92.) The United States leads in technology and data mining, which includes NSA and private companies like Dataminr (Ibid pg. 93) that can analyze social-media postings to look for patterns that will detect breaking news – literally seeing into the future. But all those raw numbers mean nothing unless other experts can put the information into context. By “experts,” King doesn’t mean computer folks who design algorithms. He refers to scholars with a rich understanding of foreign cultures and languages.
Unfortunately, while the number of scholars majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have soared, those concentrating in foreign studies have declined because of funding cutbacks. (Ibid pg. 94) “Last year, the total number of students enrolled in the National Security Education Program (NEP) for all the ‘critical languages’ – Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu and Yoruba – was under a thousand.” (Ibid pg. 95) Sadly, leaving the CIA to work without cultural and language experts has proved a disaster in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. What King feels the government needs is the in-depth knowledge that flourishes in higher education: “unfettered inquiry, the assessment of scholarship via rigorous peer review, the expectation that the value of discovery lies somewhere other than in its immediate usefulness.” (Ibid pg. 90.)
The author insists there is, “a substantial difference between research that broadly supports the national interest and work that directly enhances national security.’’ (Ibid pg. 96) No one can determine where the next global crisis will emerge, so the best way to be prepared is to foster academic studies that are pursued for their own sake, out of an interest in people and cultures and politics without a pragmatic, short term focus.
Whether he means to or not, King makes a strong case for liberal education rather than one bent on providing job skills. “Democratic societies depend on having a cadre of informed professionals outside government – people in universities, think tanks, museums and research institutes who cultivate expertise protected from the pressures of the state.” (Ibid pg. 98)