Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Call to Curiosity

(Cross-posted on Intel-Dump)

Today we have the pleasure of another guest blogger. Tanya is a college student who is well on her way to being an asset to this country. Read and you’ll agree that “the kids are all right”.

Here's Tanya:

“Cultural understanding” is not a topic which comes up often in the United States. We may talk about the “culture wars” when it comes to our own domestic politics, and we may make references to a “clash of civilizations” when we speak about the Global War on Terror, but it wasn’t until recently that cultural understanding began to enter into public discourse. Now, according to Montgomery McFate, a cultural anthropologist and defense policy fellow at the Office of Naval Research, cultural understanding is a matter of national security.

McFate has written an article entitled, “The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture,” for the latest issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, a magazine published by the National Defense University. She might as well have called it, “Why we should understand the enemy.”

It seems like common sense, really. McFate makes a reference to Sun Tzu’s famous saying, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Considering the centuries between Sun Tzu’s writing and today, you would think that we would have managed to internalize the lesson, but as McFate makes clear in her article, today’s military lacks “the programs, systems, models, personnel, and organizations to deal with either the existing threat or the changing environment.”

I’m not an expert on military matters, but it’s not difficult to see that our lack of investment in cultural education is harming us in Iraq, and is likely to hurt us still more in the future. Everything from differences in body language to a different framework for social connections takes on a new importance when a misunderstanding means that someone gets shot.

We’ve all heard about the lag in translating Arabic language information. I can tell you that the hot language to be studying in college right now is Arabic. Give it three or four years, and we’re going to have a whole slew of International Studies majors with minors in Arabic or Islamic studies. And that’s a very good thing.

But it’s not enough. McFate mentions in her article that the military equivalent of an area studies specialist, the foreign area officer (FAO), has rarely experienced “deep cultural immersion totally outside the military structure, [so] most do not develop real cultural and social expertise.” It’s all very good if we have Arabic speakers who can translate, but translation does not necessarily imply understanding. The kind of immersion that we need in order to achieve understanding, at least in higher education, means that American students should be studying abroad.

And they do. Many colleges are proud of the percentage of their students who venture abroad for a semester or more. The problem is that the top destinations for American students are English-speaking countries (the UK, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand), with Western European countries (France, Italy, and Spain) as second choices. It’s better than nothing, but not by much. The Institute of International Education publishes statistics which show that as of 2003, the Middle East is the last destination of choice for students studying abroad, right behind Canada and significantly behind Africa.

This means that we’re getting Arabic speakers who have never been anywhere in the Arab world. And while you might read about differences in social interaction in a classroom, there’s very little that compares to actually venturing into a marketplace and trying to bargain for your breakfast. Cultural understanding becomes much more imperative when a lack of it means you might not get fed (especially for a college student).

So we need programs to encourage American students to study outside of the Western, English-speaking areas of the world. One such program is the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which blogger Kris Alexander mentioned at one point with a, “Who’s heard of this?” comment. I’m actually involved with NSEP, and it’s a quality program. In exchange for a scholarship to study abroad for a semester or more in a non-traditional destination country (think Egypt, China, Uganda, and Romania), college students are asked to work for the government for one year in the Department of Defense, intelligence community, or Department of Homeland Security. The top destinations for scholarship recipients this year were Egypt and mainland China. The NSEP is an excellent program, a little bit like ROTC for languages, but it’s too small. Before September 11th, it was in danger of getting shut down for lack of funding.

Along the same lines, the National Defense University conducted a study on the feasibility of a Linguist Reserve Corps . The main conclusion reached was that such a program is indeed feasible, and very necessary. But we haven’t got it yet. And what languages are you most likely to study in high school, anyway? Spanish, French, maybe German. You’re probably more likely to study Latin than Arabic. If we’re going to have a Linguist Reserve Corps, we first have to train the linguists.

I attended a conference at Stanford University this past spring called the Forum for American-Chinese Exchange at Stanford (FACES). It brought together twenty students from the United States and twenty from China to speak on issues ranging from politics and economics to karaoke. What struck me most during the week-long conference was the caliber of the students from China. They didn’t just speak enough English to order food in a restaurant. They spoke enough English to stand up and ask top American scholars, lawyers, and businessmen complicated questions about finance, intellectual property law, and human rights. Did you get that kind of vocabulary from your high school French class? Or are you still stuck asking the direction to la Tour Eiffel?

There’s been quite a bit of alarmist language in the news today about China’s rise. The newspapers tend to focus on their military build-up vis-à-vis Taiwan, but occasionally you’ll hear mention of how many engineering and hard-science majors China, and Asia in general, is turning out in comparison to the U.S.. The National Defense University rolled out a paper on this as well. If there’s a real China threat for the U.S., I think it’s going to come from a new generation of highly educated, multi-lingual, motivated Chinese young people who will do the job better than Americans. And that’s not something we can meet or beat by putting more money into missiles.

So what do we need? There’s a certain arrogance in America that says, “I don’t need to learn another language, because everyone else is learning English.” Maybe they are, but don’t believe for a second that it follows that you’ll understand them, or that you’re actually speaking the same language. I think that, as a matter of national security, we need a revival of education in this country. And I don’t mean testing, and I don’t actually mean more money, although programs like NSEP could definitely use it.

We need to teach new languages in our high schools. We need to encourage students to study abroad in countries which don’t speak English. We need to send them where Americans aren’t necessarily welcome. And believe me, a lot of that is going to start with parents considering the possibility. I’ll be studying Mandarin in Beijing next spring on an NSEP scholarship. I know my parents would rather have me home, but all my dad is doing is sending me articles on the avian flu .

Keeping up starts with the realization that, if we believe we’re the center of the world, and that all roads lead to English and western culture, we’re not going to get to be on top for long. Mandarin Chinese is the second most-spoken language on the internet. Does anyone really believe that it’s going to stay second for long? And what language will it be after Mandarin? Let’s get ahead and stop playing catch-up.

We need a call to curiosity.

My Comments: The Closest thing that I got to any kind of exchange program in colllege was Spring Break in Mexico and my month in Korea doing Cadet Troop Leadership Training in ROTC. All my cultural knowledge came from books which is good up until a point--better than nothing but still not good enough.

A good friend of mine was a Middle Eastern Studies major at West Point. He traveled all over the region as a cadet and is a much better officer for it. I think Tanya's right about this issue. If we're going to lead the world, then we ought to get a lot smarter.


At July 12, 2005, Anonymous Bobby said...

Outstanding post, brother. You and Tanya definitely hit it on the mark.

I worked hard to learn just a functional knowledge of Dari and Pashto during my time as an embed with the Afghan Army-- it wasn't that I didn't trust my interpreter (on the contrary, I would trust Abdul Hadi with my life-- and actually did so on more than one occasion). It had everything to do with just wanting to understand where they were coming from.

And it didn't hurt that they were positively thrilled by my visible effort to "meet them halfway."

At July 13, 2005, Anonymous alex said...

Brilliant piece! Does Tanya have her own blog?

At July 13, 2005, Anonymous alex said...

Just came across this- DiversityINC Magazine's current issue is on Cultural Compentancy and the War on Terror.

At July 16, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...

Tanya does not have a blog, but I'm hoping that she continues to contribute to mine.


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