Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies”

Charles King has an outstanding article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Decline of International Studies.” The core of his argument is that cuts to federal funding programs (especially “Title 6” funds for regional studies) have saved the U.S. government little money, but have cost much expertise in International Affairs. He also argues that the government is increasingly supporting only research tied to security issues. He also provides evidence that college students are taking fewer language classes than in the recent past. Perhaps equally significant, he also points out that many scholars of “International Relations” do not themselves have a good command of a foreign language.

In some respects I do think that King’s assessment is too bleak. International Relations, as a discipline within Political Science, has long been heavily quantitative, so it is not surprising that many of its scholars have not stressed language ability as much as humanities scholars, or those with qualitative methodologies. These weak language skills would be rare in International and Global Studies programs. The regional studies centers that have been funded by Title VI programs came out of a Cold War mentality that divided the world into certain major regions (Latin America, Africa) based on security interests. So security has always shaped federal funding, and the Centers themselves are legacies of this. There may be a trend now in academia away from regional studies, so that the loss of funding is one aspect of a broader shift, rather than a key factor that is changing International and Global Studies. The article also conflates International Relations with International and Global Studies, when the fields are related but distinct. All of this to say that I don’t believe that the picture is as bleak as King paints it. At the same time, the issues that King raises are important, particularly the declining interest in language study. It’s difficult to have a truly global perspective if you cannot conduct a conversation outside of your native language.

King makes a particularly important point when he says that major private foundations are not making awards on the same scale as twenty years ago. I am worried most about how that will impact today’s graduate students, for whom a relatively small amount of money may decide whether they can do fieldwork or not. King also describes a striking series of cutbacks in government programs, such as the Boren Fellowships, which may have a broader impact than the loss of funding for regional centers. Such changes are particularly undermining the number of people with deep knowledge of some key languages. King’s discussion of changes to the NSF is a particularly powerful example of how the grant awarding process has become politicized. Overall, this is an important article that everyone in the field should read, especially those people engaged in graduate education.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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