Scholars, spies, and global studies

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No one doubts that globalization is one of the most important trends of our day. Nor does anyone question that it affects what we study, how we teach, and whom we seek to reach. Beyond that, however, there is little consensus.

As American universities expand their global footprint with branch campuses in Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere, many faculty are concerned about oppressive governance, human-rights violations, and lack of academic freedom abroad. Meanwhile administrators grapple with how these new ventures—and globalization in general—will change teaching and research in the United States. As higher education seeks new audiences, will it be able to maintain the significance and character of the liberal arts, which have played such a crucial role in the educational mission of the American university?

Similarly educators increasingly agree that all undergraduates ought to pursue some study abroad. But should it involve language study and full cultural immersion? Or short-term travel and networking through internships and other kinds of programs?

The lack of clarity is especially troubling in my own field of area studies, where a growing number of scholars have abandoned older practices in favor of new forms of global study.

But what does “global” really mean?

At a time when the relationship between the United States and the world is changing rapidly, we can no longer afford not to answer that question. We can no longer accept having fewer regional specialists than we once did in the social and policy sciences—not to mention in the humanities and global languages. It is time for us to engage directly the challenges we face introducing students to the complexities and overweening importance of global affairs.

It took a world war to propel Americans to make a serious commitment to global study. At the dawn of the World War II, the United States was the only allied great power without a formal and central institution to collect global “intelligence,” and universities were notoriously deficient in studying parts of the world outside Europe and North America. When Franklin D. Roosevelt recruited William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan in 1941 to be his first coordinator of information, Donovan established the Research and Analysis Branch in Washington, D.C., and started hiring top academics. The fledgling office was reborn as a key unit of the Office of Strategic Services, itself established a few months after Pearl Harbor. As the United States joined the Allied war effort, Donovan hired several senior, and a great many younger, academics, principally from the Ivy League, to coordinate the collection, sorting, and analysis of material relevant to the war.

Although academics were initially recruited by discipline (like history, anthropology, geography, economics, politics), Donovan’s “dean” of the OSS, the Harvard historian William L. Langer, soon recognized the need for area-specific interdisciplinary teams. That represented a major departure, as interdisciplinary research was still largely undeveloped in universities in the years before the war. Langer established divisions for Europe, Africa, the Soviet Union, Asia, and Latin America, while recruiting academics to advise him about the role of European empires; meanwhile, the OSS began posting agents around the world in offices from Algiers to Aden and Kandy to Kunming.

Scholars have debated the effects of the knowledge the OSS acquired on the actual conduct of the war, not to mention the political character and academic value of the work. Only a few, however, have recognized the agency’s most enduring influence—on the nature and conduct of research and teaching in the postwar university, most of all on the new field of area studies.

“The first great center of area studies in the United States was not located in any university, but in Washington,” McGeorge Bundy, onetime dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and then president of the Ford Foundation, observed in 1964. The OSS, he said, was “a remarkable institution, half cops-and-robbers and half faculty meeting.”

OSS alums played the major role in establishing regional centers in major universities after the war. Their wartime reports were frequently the basis for monographs that would establish reputations, secure jobs, and become the springboard for further professional success. John K. Fairbank returned to Harvard from his time in China to set up the largest postwar program in East Asian studies. W. Norman Brown, head of the India desk, went on to found the first department of South Asian studies in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania, hiring many of the academics who had worked with him in Washington. Geroid T. Robinson went from his role as head of the Russia desk to become the first head of the Russian Institute at Columbia University.

The new field carried on Langer’s vision of useful knowledge. It was interdisciplinary, uniting the humanities and the social sciences, and strategic, committed to a new relationship between the United States and the developing world. Coming out of World War II, area studies assumed that American global interests had little in common with those of previous European empires; that modernization was an inexorable process that would lead to political and economic development along with mutual understanding, shared interests, and commercial exchange with the United States.

Area-studies specialists would turn those assumptions into “development studies” and “modernization theory,” which supplemented government efforts to promote Westernization (and Western influence) abroad. And American universities would build the infrastructure to provide training in regional languages, cultures, politics, and histories to create a new cadre of intellectuals and academics prepared to guide American attitudes toward a new world order.

The cold war provided further justification—and funds—for the field. To meet the growing Soviet threat, the government and foundations poured money into new programs, institutes, and schools of international affairs—even as many area-studies academics, including former OSS operatives, found themselves turned on by Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communism crusade and an aggressively partisan CIA and FBI.

With the end of the cold war, however, numerous scholars declared area studies either dead or an impediment to disciplinary development. Methodology took pride of place over immersion in regions, languages, and cultures, marginalizing the humanities. Budget cuts in universities further diluted them. The social sciences became increasingly focused on either issues at home or broadly comparative analysis. And the idea of the “global”—stemming from the identification of the importance of a new world economic system and marketplace—replaced the notion of a world made up of discrete areas.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, rekindled concerns about how ill prepared the United States was to meet worldwide threats, propelling financial support for Arabic language-and-regional study (while also precipitating new political conflict over the nature of Middle Eastern studies). The tide of globalization, however, was too strong to turn back. Ironically, much of the support for area studies over the past two decades has come from immigrant and international groups, which have endowed programs and chairs with the goal of celebrating the achievements of those groups and normalizing their position in American society.

None of this is to argue for a return to area studies as it was. It is instead to learn from its history. Throughout the rise and fall of area studies, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued eloquently for the importance of local knowledge. He reminded us that village fieldwork was not so much the study of villages as it was study in villages. In so doing, he made clear to a broad audience—social scientists and humanists alike—that the view from the village was different, not just from the view from the metropolis, but from the view from other villages or towns or cities as well. In one of his works, the 1968 Islam Observed, he famously noted that Muslims in Morocco and Indonesia all bowed toward the same place when they prayed, but did so from opposite directions. Geertz had global interests, to be sure, but he was the first to say that his theoretical understanding of thinkers as various as Weber and Durkheim or Dewey and Saussure was fundamentally changed by having read them through his experiences of ethnographic particularity.

Today’s increasingly interconnected world—with its global flows of processes, goods and markets, desires and pleasures, ideas and movements, information and media—seems to transcend the particular. But as Geertz argued, we should be cautious about assuming that abstract social theories are never affected by where they are read. We must study not just the connectedness of things, but the things that connect, what happens when they connect, and what connection looks like from specific places and to specific people. For all their limitations, both our OSS predecessors and the practitioners of cold-war area studies understood that.

They also understood that knowledge of the history, culture, and language of other regions was important. Many of the global controversies swirling around us today—involving academic and political freedom, women’s rights, environmental regulation, freedom of speech, religion, the press—must be read through the lenses of fundamental human values and enduring cultural realities. For that, the questions, critical thought, and scholarly attention to context provided by the humanities are still crucial.

Paul Ricoeur broadened philosophical humanism with an anthropological twist when he wrote that the route to understanding the self is through the detour of the other. The point now is to recognize the essential distinctiveness—of ourselves and others. That distinctiveness can only be appreciated in global frames and with insistent humanist attention. Far from wishing to rekindle the culture wars or return to identity politics, I mean here to insist on a radically new way of identifying the core values and aims of humanist education that puts traditional questions on a global stage, along with the studies of social and policy scientists.

Nor do I wish to return to the strategic focus of early area studies, which not only politicized research, but also determined its place in the university. In the rush to area studies, research and teaching may have become too sequestered in graduate institutes and separate departments to genuinely infuse the core disciplines—and general education. We know from the basic sciences that the goals of applied science are often best met by research in areas that initially have little in the way of utility to recommend them. Now, without a world war or a cold war, we have the luxury to move to the global in a more deliberative, engaged, disciplined, and intellectually serious (and less directly politicized) way than when area studies began.

Our future depends on understanding the new demands of globalization. As we realize that we still need local knowledge, that moral values and perspectives are important, and that we—and our students—need not limit ourselves to orthodoxies, we should learn from the period when many of our scholars were spies. This time, the knowledge we seek is neither covert nor short term. It is fundamental to the core commitments and activities of the university in our global future.

Nicholas B. Dirks is a professor of history and anthropology at Columbia University, where he is also executive vice president for the arts and sciences and dean of the faculty.

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