Is it OK to look critically at government funding policies?

Mark Montgomery wrote a very well thought-out piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education as posted on the ACTFL SmartBrief May 10, 2011
The media take on it would be: professor attacks bloated, useless academic programs! Well, sort of. He started off by saying the model for funding Title VI programs was based on a post-WW II model, prior to IT as it works today. He then goes on to give examples of how the system of funding works.
Basically, the money goes to support highly academic pursuits with a narrow focus. Far from decrying the need for such studies, Montgomery urges support for such but not the way it is done now. Now, grant specialists and previously Title VI funded programs get the money; as he says, the list is small and stable. Upstarts cannot break into the magic circle very easily and a kind of sameness marks the sort of programs funded.
Moreover, programs of limited practical value get funding. To his credit, he cites his own: a good asset to any curriculum are the volumes sitting, dusty, on his shelf. The problem? There was no market for them; no one was asking for them.
The reason I’m blogging on this is b/c I have all my life people ooh and aah over anything with an academic sounding title. If you are seeking funding to teach Pygmies how to make necklaces rooted in their traditional culture for sale to tourists, you get oohs and aahs from people who have no idea what the market is, whether the Pygmies want to make necklaces, and even whether necklaces actually are a part of their culture. But it sounds good.
Who would deny a program claiming to promote the learning of English among migrant workers? Yet if the program is so restricted that it winds up costing $8000 to enroll each student or no one ever learns English b/c they’re, well, migrants. They don’t stick around long enough to learn much.
Yet if anyone suggests that any of these programs be cut, it’s like you wanted Latin to be abolished from our schools or Burmese (Myanmarese?) courses to be cut. You’re made out to be some sort of backwater Bubba who just doesn’t appreciate the value of Latin or Burmese. The question is, if a professor is getting money to create a course for elementary school students in Burmese, is anyone ever going to use it? And no one is talking about getting rid of anything, just funding it in an appropriate way so it doesn’t take funding away from more vital programs.
Montgomery is not going free-market on us, saying if Latin can’t survive on its own, tough. He’s saying that esoteric subjects like Pygmy culture, critical languages like Burmese, and traditional and valued disciplines like Classical studies should be funded appropriately, from appropriate sources and that government programs should not go on unexamined for decades. I think he’s asking for sunset laws or sunset funding or something like that. Just question it.
And that’s what gets people like him in trouble: questioning the sacred cows. Montgomery strengthens his case by offering suggestions for how to get people to, for example, learn LCTL (less commonly taught languages). I’m happy to say he used one I came up with some years ago. We had some fun on a listserv when the Bush administration came up with a program similar in almost every way to what I had suggested and a person both a listserv member and a member of the Interagency Linguistic Roundtable, a governmental group consisting of agencies like the Foreign Service Institute, said he had put my idea out to the ILR. Could it be……?
The truth to tell, what I suggested is common sense; anyone could have come up with it: you give a hefty educational discount to anyone willing to study a LCTL (the program said “critical languages” and the ILR member said that was the only substantial difference from my suggestion). My idea was to get them to do a four-year program in a LCTL, then be given a summer trip to the country, then be given brush-up work once a year just as if he were in the National Guard. In that way, we would have a bank of reasonably fluent speakers of a great number of languages instead of the tired old German-French-Spanish crowd that often regards Portuguese as exotic.
Where else will our country get bilinguals in languages like Uzbek, Urdu, Macedonian, etc. who don’t have ties to the loyalties and politics of the country? That’s what prompted my suggestion: the need after 9/11 for speakers of Dari, Pashtun, Farsi, Uzbek, Urdu, etc., for obvious reasons.
You might question how many people would be willing to study such a language but the article by Montgomery pointed out that Chinese…. CHINESE!….. had only 289 bachelor degrees conferred in 2007-8! A program like the Bush administration put into place (maybe the only decent thing it did besides aid to AIDS) or that Montgomery suggests would probably do better at least for Chinese and for languages like Uzbek, 289 would be a bonanza! (BTW, there’s a hilarious bit in Elif Batuman’s The Possessed where someone tries to get her to go to Uzbekistan b/c she is of Turkish parentage and speaks Turkish and Uzbek is a Turkic language; she didn’t buy it at first but soon realized she could understand it)
Meanwhile, we will keep walking by classrooms where the boards are filled with verb conjugations and students will proudly say, “I took X for 4 years but can’t speak a word of it.”

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