One commentator referred to it as an “international disaster in the making”, and “Washington’s pivot to ignorance”. And a German publication wondered why the United States would “slash its most prestigious global exchange”. A former participant defended the program in question as “too remarkable to be cut” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The discussion is about the Fulbright Program, an enterprise that dates from an alto ether more optimistic, communitarian, and high-minded era, but which today faces cuts from the U.S. government. One of a bevy of programs created after the Second World War, the program is described on the State Department website as the “flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries”.
Today, a whole generation of children in the United States has grown up under a government that believes that it can kill its way out of any problem, and that the blunt instrument of the U.S. military is all that is needed to make the U.S. safe and the world peaceful. Our country increasingly seems committed to creating a global wilderness that it can then call a peace.
The Fulbright program, funded by the U.S. government as well as foreign governments and some private sources, provides for educational exchanges. American students can go abroad on programs of study and research, and academics and professionals can use the program for research and teaching purposes abroad. Foreign students and researchers in turn come to the United States to study.
The program is a prestigious one (I applied at the end of my undergraduate studies without success), and I’ve met many Fulbright scholars over the years who do wonderful work across many fields.
There have been many international efforts over the years to bring people from different nations together in pursuit of common problems, or at least to initiate conversations about those problems. I live at an International House, an institution representative of one such effort.
Many of these efforts focus on the bonds between cultural and economic elites, operating under the assumption that if such people can understand one another, all will be well. That we live in an age dominated by a global plutocracy suggests some obvious faults with such a model.
The Fulbright is a more meritocratic version of this model, and one that focuses on education rather than social networking amongst elites. Participants, who number over 300,000, “do research, provide technical assistance, and serve as English teaching assistants, usually in underserved communities with limited access to native speakers of English”.
I obviously don’t have any idea what the Obama Administration is thinking when it suggests $30 million in cuts to a program which is so obviously beneficial in its transmission and creation of knowledge, its contribution to global dialogue, and its promotion of a more humane side of the U.S. than our jingoistic foreign policy.
One critic of the cuts pointed out not only what a small amount of money (representing a fair-sized chunk of Fulbright’s budget) the cut is to the federal government, and how necessary a dose of internationalism is to a country in which “only about 1% of American college students ever study abroad. Fewer than 20% speak more than one language—a figure that includes immigrants for whom English comes second or third”.
The same critic noted that divestment from the Fulbright will be accompanied by a shift of funding toward more militaristic and client-based programs “whose aim is to identify and cultivate the locals we can do business with in countries that may or may not welcome our outreach, or our handpicked young leaders either”.
Fulbright creates open and unconditional dialogue with no strings attached, away from the supervision of people pushing the nationalist agendas that have wreaked no end of havoc on the world. This dialogue often centres on common aspirations and problems. The replacement model will likely consist of one-way directives from Washington to those prepared to sing from its hymnbook.
Too often our country seems paranoid, close-minded, and incapable of understanding the perspectives of our fellow global citizens. We are not alone, by any means, in possessing these characteristics, but because we remain a powerful country, critical to the functioning of any rational world order, our character and behavior matter a great deal. And so when our paranoia and close-mindedness generates violence, uncertainty, and inequity in the world, no one stands to gain.
The Fulbright program is a small thing, but one that has the potential to go a long way toward putting people in contact with each other. That the Obama administration—confronted by bloat in a war machine that seems incapable of acting in the public or global interest—would decide to cut a program that could not but do good, even if it is a small good, says much about its priorities, and much about why our international order is broken.