Language Push for ROTC Students

In new part of controversial effort, Pentagon selects 4 universities to train future officers in Arabic and other "strategic" languages.
May 11, 2007

As a general rule, language departments -- especially those that emphasize non-Western languages -- just about always welcome more students and more money to support those students. But when the money is coming from the Pentagon and the languages are those spoken in the Middle East, things get complicated.

So ever since the Bush administration started to talk about "critical foreign languages," some educators have been enthusiastic and others have taken more of a wait-and-see attitude, preferring not to be among the first rounds of grants. This week, one of the administration's new programs took shape with a Pentagon announcement that it had picked four universities to share $2 million for a new effort to train students in the Reserve Officers Training Corps in Arabic and other languages seen as crucial to American military and foreign policy.

Those running the new programs say that their efforts are being structured in ways that will have a major positive impact on expanding the knowledge base of future military leaders -- a base that has been widely criticized as lacking with regard to the Middle East. And those running the programs say that they are being set up in ways that in no way compromise academic values.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the funds will support scholarships for on-campus study and foreign travel related to Arabic and Farsi. Currently about 4 ROTC students are taking any courses in those languages, but the university hopes to see that number grow to 28 and also to see the students reach advanced levels of proficiency.

Esther Raizen, chair of Middle Eastern studies at Texas, said the students will gain "serious exposure to both language and culture." For the foreign experience, which will last either a summer or a semester, Arabic students will study in Alexandria, Cairo or Damascus. Currently, it would not be possible for students to study Farsi in Iran, but Raizen said that they would go to Dushande, in Tajikistan.

Raizen acknowledged that having students in a Pentagon-sponsored program study in the Middle East raised safety issues, but said that the university would provide extensive guidance and that the department is well aware of the terrain. "Of course there is risk, but there is risk now when we send students to Beirut or Cairo or Jerusalem," she said.

A key for Texas, Raizen said, was that the ROTC students will study with the regular faculty and with other students, and that the scholarship will only be available to those who are admitted to the university through its normal processes. "We didn't want special classes," she said, adding that Pentagon officials "were very open to our ideas."

As for the issue of the Pentagon tie, Raizen said the program renews a debate that has been around for years. "Our mode of operation is that if the goals of the funding agency and our goals are the same goals, and we have total control over the academic side of the program, and we have the psychological mechanism that allows us to say: 'OK, this is as far as we go and from here our goals are not the same goals and we'll pull out,' then there is no reason why we should not work together."

The educational benefits go both ways, she added. ROTC students gain knowledge of the Middle East and other students learn about the way future military leaders view the world. There is currently "a disconnect" between scholars of the Middle East and those in the military, and a program like this can thus be valuable, she said.

Indiana University at Bloomington is offering scholarships that will give 25 ROTC students -- 10 from Indiana University and 15 from the rest of the country -- a summer of intense study in Arabic, Russian or Pashto. Then the students will receive support for taking the language in the next academic year -- with those at campuses that do not offer Pashto receiving online instruction from Indiana. Students are also eligible to study several other Central Asian languages, such as Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen, Uyghur and Uzbek.

Paul Foster, director of the Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Indiana, said that the program had to be put together quickly this year so there was not time to attract students to some of the less commonly taught languages. But he said he hoped to do so in the future. While the numbers may seem small, Foster said that the number of American speakers of such languages is so small that a program like this can have a real impact. "Enrollments are never going to be large," he said.

Foster said that he was not concerned about the Pentagon as a source of funds. "This is a very long term project and most of these [concerns] are short-term political feelings about the current situation," he said. Foster also noted that ROTC cadets tend to go on, post-military, to significant careers, so the program will produce a cohort of business and political leaders with more understanding of these languages and cultures.

Also receiving grants are the University of Mississippi (for a program in Chinese) and San Diego State University (for Arabic).

John Eisele, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and an associate professor of Arabic at the College of William & Mary, said he had mixed feelings about the new grants."I really wouldn't like to be so directly connected with a Department of Defense program," he said. "Obviously, everybody in the Middle East, or a large majority, mistrust the American government and especially the American military. To be so directly associated with it can create problems for any American."

At the same time, he said that "you don't want the military run by people ignorant of the region."


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