Since September 11, student interest in Arabic and other near eastern languages has increased dramatically. At the same time the federal government has grown more concerned with the curriculum and education that universities are providing through their Middle Eastern studies centers.
On October 21, Congress proposed the International Studies in Higher Education Act. If passed, it will allow the government to monitor and evaluate whether supporters of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, are adequately represented among university professors.
The bill was written as a response to the growing fear that students in higher education are becoming indoctrinated with what are believed to be the anti-American political ideologies of their professors.
Many critics claim that the Middle Eastern studies departments of American universities promote leftist pro-Arab ideologies among students and neglect to fully explore delicate subjects, such as fundamentalist Islam and terrorism.
Noha Forster, professor of first and second-year Arabic classes, believes that academics are professional enough not to push their personal ideological views on their students.
“Most academics are also activists, and you have to expect that they will have a life outside of the classroom,” Forster said. “My role is to make sure that every student feels comfortable expressing his or her ideas.”
Forster said that the proposed bill allows the government to unnecessarily intrude on the academic world. She added that students are not as susceptible to ideological manipulation as some people fear.
“Students have the ability and intelligence to counter others’ ideas,” he said. “They’re not puppets. American students, especially, are notorious for being outspoken.”
Forster said that such opposition to liberal ideologies would be completely inorganic and that he fears that tampering with open debate will cloud the intellectual atmosphere at most academic institutions.
Should the International Studies in Higher Education Act become a law, universities that house international studies centers will be forced to decide whether to retain sovereignty over their programs at the price of government funding or release some control over the curriculum to receive federal aid.
Farouk Mustafa, professor of third-year Arabic and Readings in Modern Arabic Literature, said that academic institutions will not accept government money if the bill becomes law.
“Universities will never accept supervision of the content of their courses” Farouk said. “If they do so, they will stop being universities.”
Currently Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Modern Hebrew receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education through the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Chicago.
The influx of students interested in Middle Eastern languages in recent years has made this issue particularly pointed. According to Rusty Rook, Assistant Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, enrollment in first-year Arabic roughly tripled to 83 students since September 11. Increased interest forced the Center for Middle Eastern Studies to open an additional section of first-year Arabic.
The University has also hired additional instructors for Arabic and now offers four sections, up from just one in the 2000-2001 academic year. Second-year Arabic classes experienced an increase in enrollment and now provides two sections to accommodate 37 students.
This spike in interest partly results from students realizing the government’s increasing need to hire those who can speak and translate Arabic. Hiba Dia, a second year in the College, said that students should speak three languages now: French, Spanish, and Arabic. “It’s much easier to get a job with the CIA [or another branch of] the government these days if you know Arabic,” Dia said.
According to Mustafa, government agencies such as the CIA and FBI have come to the University every quarter with the intention of recruiting students in Middle Eastern studies.
In response to this demand, the University’s Master’s Program in Middle Eastern Studies is designed to prepare students for careers in government or business, and the department has made an effort to teach the more negatively perceived aspects of the Middle East. Over the past five or six years, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations has offered courses focused on fundamentalist Islam such as Religion and Politics of the Contemporary Middle East and Islam from the Muslim World to the USA.