LESS than a year after the Soviet Union launched a
satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, America answered with a
counterstrike. It was a piece of legislation, the National Defense
Education Act, which aimed at harnessing brain power rather than weaponry
for the cold war.
Mostly, the statute poured federal money into stimulating the study of
mathematics and science, disciplines most relevant to the arms race, but a
portion provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of
strategic languages, especially Russian.
Over more than three decades, as the support for language study was written
into other federal laws, a steady stream of 30,000 or more American
university students took Russian courses each year.
They became not only the translators, cryptologists and intelligence agents
required for what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously called the "long twilight
struggle" between Communism and the West but also the scholars, diplomats
and sundry Sovietologists who in many ways enacted the policy of détente
and assisted in the peaceful resolution of the cold war.
Now, nearly three years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda
and amid a turbulent occupation of Iraq, Congress and the Bush
administration have failed to endorse and endow a similar cohort of
civilian experts in the languages of the Muslim world.
While the administration has given priority to training more linguists
within the military and the national-security apparatus, legislation
modeled on the National Defense Education Act and offered repeatedly over
several years by Congressional Democrats has not even made it out committee.
Meanwhile, of more than 1.8 million graduates of American colleges and
universities in 2003, exactly 22 took degrees in Arabic, according to
Department of Education statistics..