Scholarly interest hasn’t been the driving force behind the growth of language and culture studies. The opportunities available today in many foreign language programs stem directly from the “know the enemy” mentality of yesterday.

Whenever a threat from abroad captured the attention of the nation — Pearl Harbor, the Space Race, the Sept. 11 attacks and the United States’ growing economic debt to China — area studies programs at the University benefited in federal funding and increased student interest. There was a need to understand the enemy and to have scholars trained about the history and culture of the area so the government would have a pool of experts to call upon.

“Anything that winds up on the front page of the newspapers receives attention,” said Douglas Northrop, director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

“(Russian) wouldn’t have received the same attention if it didn’t have political meaning.”

In the last century, this trend has resulted in increased federal funds and student interest for the Center of Japanese Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. These programs qualify as National Resource Centers, which are eligible to receive federal funding under the National Defense Education Act.

Response to Pearl Harbor

The Japanese language is the first instance when American interests led to increased federal funding and more opportunities for students at the University.

Ann Arbor seems like the last place that would harbor military secrets. But in 1943, Major General George Strong sent a telegram to the University warning them that “it is the desire of the war department that no repeat no publicity of any kind be given the army language school at the University of Michigan.”

A few months before, the army had approached the University about establishing a language school to teach soldiers Japanese.

“There was a need to understand the enemy,” said Ken Ito, director of the Center for Japanese studies.

In a preliminary account of the Army Japanese Language School, then-director Joseph Yamagiwa wrote that “the trainees may be fitted first for combat intelligence, then for military government work in Japan and in other areas where the Japanese language is.”

While based on campus, the school was technically a unit of the army in the Division for Emergency Training. Seven classes graduated, the last in December 1945.

Ann Arbor wasn’t the only college town to harbor a clandestine army school during this time — both the University of Colorado and the University of California at Berkley trained soldiers in Japanese as well. But the University of Michigan was unique in that it took the program established during the war and used it to create the Center for Japanese Studies.

“Not to this extent would the center have developed without the war,” Ito said.

During the Space Race

And then, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

Russian language courses were offered at the University beginning in 1945, at the beginning of the Cold War. But the surprise of Sputnik and the anxiety surrounding the Soviet power was enough to push the government to act.

“It was a shock to the United States that the Soviets surpassed us,” said Ernest McCarus, a professor emeritus in the Near Eastern Studies Department.

Shortly afterwards, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which granted more loans to colleges in an effort to keep students competitive in fields like math, science and language.

In response, the University formed four new area studies centers: the Center for Chinese Studies, the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and the Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

According to a report released in 1991, the area studies centers at the University were created because interested faculty members persuaded the University to ask for funding.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s — after the launch of Sputnik — NDEA funding for Area Studies shot up from about $23,000,000 to about $93,000,000.

Without Sputnik and the Cold War, though, that funding wouldn’t have begun on such a large scale.

During the Cold War, no one really knew what to believe about the Soviet Union. And as soon as Sputnik was launched, there was a fear that it would surpass the U.S. in technology and weaponry. At the same time, there were still those sympathetic with the communist theory, despite the Red Scare and McCarthyism.

Northrop said students studying Russia and the surrounding areas tended to be either sympathetic or condemning of the communist plight.

“Politics in the field tended to be very polarized,” he said. “Efforts to stigmatize people on one side or the other certainly did take place.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks

In the early 2000s, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies attracted little interest. Near Eastern Studies Prof. Gottfried Hagen said there was a short period in the early 2000s when the CMENAS program lost federal funding.

“Title VI is a renewable grant every three years,” he said. “In one of those grant cycles, we just didn’t come out at the top.”

But now that the Middle East has become an area interest, chances are that won’t happen again.

In 2001, Title VI funding shot up again, shortly after Sept. 11.Hagen said federal support has been easier to maintain since 9/11.

“9/11 was a crucial event for CMENAS in the sense that all of a sudden it created an enormous public awareness that the Mid East is a crucial region, and there’s an enormous need for expertise both in the public and political reason,” Hagen said. “Since then, for instance, federal support for the area studies and especially language studies, more particular for Arabic, has not been questioned anymore.”

The center was first interested in the area stretching from Morocco to Iran and Iraq, McCarus said. But as areas like Pakistan became more newsworthy the Center expanded its area of study.

“Usually when there’s a crisis in some part of the world, those languages increase,” McCarus said. “For example, when the U.S. opened diplomatic relations with China, there was a lot of Ping Pong.”

Growing debt to China

In light of China’s rise to economic prominence, the Center for Chinese Studies has seen an increase in student and campus interest. Unlike some of its fellow area studies centers, CCS only offers graduate degrees, leaving the undergraduate education up to the Asian Languages and Cultures department.

Political Science Prof. Mary Gallagher, Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, said the Center is in charge of much of the campus outreach on China such as weekly documentary film viewings, lecturer talks on campus and support to other departments that choose to offer classes pertaining to China.

Gallagher said Chinese has become more relevant as China’s economic importance has increased.

“It used to be you went into the Foreign Service,” she said. “Nowadays, there are plenty of places who will hire you.”

Business School senior Jack Dart studied Chinese for two semesters last year because of the China theme semester and the Beijing Olympics.

He said that the attitude of most non-Asian students taking the language is to better understand China for business relations.

“They hear it’s going to become a superpower,” he said. “They’re trying to get a leg up in terms of going into International Relations.”

The Ross School of Business offers a study abroad program to China, which fills up quickly each year. It also hosts an Asia Business Conference each year, with panelists who work with companies in Asia.

Business school junior Sarah Horvitz said a lot of students in the business school are looking to work abroad because the economy here is not at its most stable.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.