Save the Fulbrights

Paul Greenberg

4/24/2014 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

With its talent for doing just the wrong thing, or at least avoiding the right one, the U.S. State Department has decided to follow the latest trend in American higher education -- over the nearest cliff. This time it's the prevalent tendency to substitute quantity for quality, to focus on the number of students that can be enrolled in a program rather than what they may learn or how long they stick with it. It's enrollment that counts, not education.

Here's the latest brainstorm out of Foggy Bottom: Increase the number of Fulbright Fellowships awarded every year for international study by cutting the time each scholar spends in a foreign country. That is, hack it to pieces.

The worst part of this news isn't that the budget for this effective and respected international exchange program is to be cut -- by 13 percent -- but how: by shortening the duration of the Fulbright Fellowships so more and more of the recipients will have less and less time to study abroad. The change would seem to sum up today's approach to higher education, which keeps getting lower and lower.

Who says a student might need up to a year to absorb the language and culture of a foreign country, and explain ours to foreigners? Efficiency über alles! This latest idea out of State is the educational equivalent of Speed Reading, which used to be a fad, too. The formerly funny Woody Allen had one of his characters sum up how that wondrous new approach to reading worked (or didn't) by saying, "I've just read 'War and Peace.' It's about Russia."

Why shouldn't the same superficial approach be just as effective when applied to study abroad? Call it the equivalent of one of those hurly-burly trips offered by travel agencies that ought to be called Vacations in a Minute. ("Seven countries in eight days!")

After the State Department is through with the Fulbright program, it should be disimproved beyond recognition. American diplomacy has a long and well-established reputation for presiding over a devastation and calling it success. Just look around at its works from Benghazi to points east -- the usual muddle in the Middle East, Iran's coming Bomb, and an ever Greater Russia. Now the Fulbright Program is to get the same treatment, a mix of indifference and more active forms of malice.

The bureaucrats at State now have opened a new front in their war on quality and coherence in American foreign policy. Doubtless it can count on strong support, or at least slick rationalizations, from our current president. For not since Jimmy Carter has the country had a chief executive so accustomed to presiding over disasters -- and aggravating them.

This latest assault on quality, this time in higher education, may not prove as significant a failure as some of the administration's other Signature Accomplishments, whether in the country's health care or its economy. But this proposed reform of the Fulbright program, the effect of which would be to deform it, is of particular interest here in Arkansas.

Why's that? Because it bears the name of the prominent senator from Arkansas who designed it as a twin of the Marshall Plan. And it was just as effective in its way. It helped stave off communist ideology around the world by offering real education instead, just as the Marshall Plan would make European economies strong enough to resist that era's Tide of the (totalitarian) Future. Both worked well, thanks to the determination of a president like Harry Truman and a strategic thinker like George Kennan at State -- long before he became just another angry old white man.

Back then, even J. William Fulbright was an internationalist. It was only when the freedom of non-Europeans was at stake (like the Vietnamese) that Sen. Fulbright let his racial preferences show, as he did in his stand on civil rights, or rather against them.

In the end, Sen. Fulbright would have no more sympathy for the oppressed here at home than he did for the captive nations of Eastern Europe, whom he always did consider a bother. Much as this president seems to regard Russian aggression in Crimea and the rest of Ukraine as just an impediment to his grand Reset of Russo-American relations. (Reset is the latest term of art for what used to be called Détente in Henry Kissinger's time and, before that, appeasement in Neville Chamberlain's. The euphemisms change, but not the disastrous results.)

Yes, these Fulbright fellowships once produced leading American writers of diverse talent and inclinations (from Steinbeck to Updike) and leading American thinkers and artists (think Milton Friedman and Aaron Copland), but the important thing today is to get more bodies through the revolving door that the program is now to become.

What's so important about investing so much time in studying a foreign language and culture, anyway? Christopher Kelley addressed that question the other day. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine and Moldova who's now an associate professor at the University of Arkansas' law school on its Fayetteville campus. To quote his capsule summation of why the State Department shouldn't be hacking away at the program: "It takes time to learn how to be an ambassador in another country. You can't just parachute in, look around and parachute out."

Can the Fulbrights -- the original, real fellowships -- be saved from the State Department's disimprovements at this late point? Yes, if all of us, in Arkansas and far beyond, speak out in support of what the program used to be, and should remain.