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"The International Institute supports the development of contextual expertise. The International Institute comprises one of the nation's broadest assemblies of interdisciplinary centers and programs organized around area studies. By advancing contextual expertise—expertise in the languages, cultures, histories, and institutions of particular nations and world regions—these centers and programs enhance the capacity of the faculty, students, and staff to engage the world's diverse vernaculars and institutions and the movement of peoples and practices across the world. At the same time, the Institute refines the epistemological foundations and research competencies associated with contextual expertise and its relationship to other kinds of scholarship. The Institute's location within the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts reflects this commitment to contextual expertise and the importance of its linkages with departments in the humanities and social sciences." This is the second of the International Institute's guiding principles. For the others, see <http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/journal/mission.html>.
One of the International Institute‘s guiding principles is support for the development of contextual expertise across the world. Our constituent centers demonstrate this accomplishment in a wide variety of ways. For instance, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, in recognition of John Thierry‘s generous gift of Southeast Asian works of art, archival material and books to the University of Michigan, organized an extraordinary international conference on the creativity and commodification of Southeast Asian art in March. Earlier this year, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program organized a conference that assembled specialists on public health campaigns in the United States, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and Panama. They discussed the ways that international and local geopolitics influenced efforts to eradicate disease across the Americas, and especially in Panama around the Canal. Whether explaining public health initiatives in Western hemisphere geopolitics or the invention of new traditions of Indonesian textiles, the value of area studies expertise is obvious. Interdisciplinary expertise about particular peoples and places across the globe is crucial to understanding the world‘s problems and its treasures.
The U-M‘s commitment to these area studies is evident in the number of centers and programs devoted to sustained studies of and collaborations with particular cultures and regions. These units play a critical role in cultivating this kind of interdisciplinary expertise among students. Thanks to the centers‘ recent success in applying for Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships from the U.S. Department of Education, students from across the university—in anthropology, history, biology, sociology, business, law, music, environmental studies, nursing, political science, public health, Asian Languages and Cultures, Slavic, and MA programs in Middle Eastern and North African Studies, South Asian, and Southeast Asian Studies—have been offered fellowships with full tuition and a stipend to support combining their disciplinary and professional training with language and area studies next year. With support from the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the International Institute and home schools and departments, these students will deepen their understanding of Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Czech, Hindi, Indonesian, Tagalog, Thai, Quechua, Portuguese and Spanish languages and area studies. Other languages are also eligible for funded study, including, for the first time at the U-M, modern Tibetan. And most of these students will learn these languages at Michigan. This linguistic diversity in the ambitions of our students, and in the capacities of their teachers, is one of the great distinctions of the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, these commitments to cultivating individual and institutional capacities for linguistic diversity are difficult to sustain, even when the University and the Federal government work together as they have for the last 40 years.
While most scholarship is substantially more international today that it was only ten years ago, ever increasing curricular requirements outside of language study make investments in language learning difficult. Because English serves as the medium of much scientific collaboration, many U.S. citizens can go global without changing vocabularies much less changing the cultural perspectives embodied in language. As we prepare our students for a globalized world, one of the greatest challenges we face, as human rights expert Susan Waltz said in a lecture for the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, is to recognize the peculiarity of America in the world. At the December 1999 commencement at Florida International University, she said "It is a privilege to live in this country, to know this country in the century of its greatness. But when a country‘s currency as well as its military power dominates any rival, and when its native language serves globally as lingua franca for international politics, commerce, and tourism, that country‘s people are inherently at risk of losing perspective. They are at risk of forgetting, or simply not realizing, that others share their human need for respect and dignity but may not otherwise share the same experiences, values, or assumptions. They are at risk of forgetting that they inhabit the world with others."
Requiring language study beyond English is no assurance of this recognition, of course. Spanish has great appeal, not only because of its importance across this hemisphere, in Spain and in other parts of the former Spanish empire, but also because of its increasingly important "second language" status in many parts of the United States. Enrollments in other languages pale in comparison at Michigan, and at other universities as well.
While no language class enrollment compares to Spanish, not all languages face declining numbers of students. Many of the languages studied by our FLAS students have sustained strong enrollments; some have even seen great increases, especially as the diversity of our student body grows and interest in the language of one‘s heritage develops. German, French and Spanish are now joined by Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Russian and Korean as among the languages whose recognition American diversity demands. It might be expeditious to rely on both tuition returns and political sensitivities to decide which languages need to be taught on site and which languages should be offered through consortia and through an ever improving long distance learning technology. But I think that decisions based on economic and political accounting miss the intellectual challenge linguistic diversity poses for students, teachers and administrators alike. For us to address the question properly, we must address the extension of contextual expertise.
Area studies is certainly one form of contextual expertise, but it is not its only form. To be sure, those who study diaspora populations recognize that meaningful context hardly remains within neatly circumscribed boundaries of the world. Legal scholar Jackie Bhabha‘s March talk for the Program for the Comparative Study of Social Transformations (CSST) and the Center for European Studies (CES) asked how to consider the rights of children who have been arrested as they entered the United States illegally and without their parents. Without knowing the conditions from which that child flees, or has been sent, one can hardly know whether return is in the best interests of the child. Without attending to the immediate needs of that child during incarceration, in a kind of multicultural diaspora surrounded by a total institution, one can hardly assume that a child‘s rights are being recognized. And without knowing the network that allows that illegal entry, one can‘t understand how to address the problem itself. Contextual expertise should travel, beginning and leading all over the world. But in which languages, and in which cultures, should that investment in contextual expertise be? One might presume that such a question could be addressed in the same way that any discipline might decide what‘s important. Scholarly debate and intellectual recognition can help us decide whether rational choice, life sciences, world systems theory or world performance studies should be the object of our commitment. But these decisions take place in networks of intellectual recognition and disavowal that draw upon powerful disciplinary and institutional formations. Contextual expertise in general is not so well articulated with institutional powers.
Of course that varies. American contextual expertise is magnificently privileged in the American academy. Europe has always been central for the world‘s musicology and art history, and Europeans have been exceptionally influential in global social theory. South Asian scholarship has become increasingly important in some parts of anthropology and cultural studies. Latin America inspired a challenge to modernization theory with the idea of dependency. Africa has been vitally important for theoretical work in ethnomusicology. Japan captured the imagination of business experts for decades, while international security studies were once defined by theorizing Soviet behavior. Contextual expertise comes to be valued to the extent that privileged institutions value the problems or treasures of another place, and are willing to invest to learn how to avoid its threat, or to harness its insights.
To be sure, this characterization of the contingent values of particular forms of contextual expertise is too simple, but it is a useful starting point for thinking about the problem of linguistic diversity. We can make the case for particular language study when the problems or treasures of that place can occupy our intellectual imagination and sense of political responsibility. That means, therefore, that we should not only think about the challenge of contextual expertise in studies over there, but also turn it around and apply it here. Two of our guest lecturers this last term invited us to do just that. Craig Calhoun, the new president of the Social Science Research Council, spoke to the Center for Research on Social Organization in February about nationalism. One of the great challenges of nationalism, he argued, was that it was quite impossible to study it while pretending to stand outside of it. The very constitution of our social inquiry, he argued, is deeply embedded in nationalism that thinks, for instance, about comparable units that are themselves defined by a notion of sovereignty embedded in nationalism. If nationalism is ubiquitous how does one engage it? Remarkably enough, another lecturer suggested just such a strategy.
Ashraf Ghani, Principal Social Scientist for the Social Development Program of the World Bank, visited our Ford Foundation Seminar on Area Studies and the Social Sciences, and issued a remarkable challenge. Drawing upon World Bank President James Wolfensohn‘s speeches from the last three years, Ghani spoke of a potential epistemic shift within the Bank. Ghani described the Bank‘s work as being within a national frame of mind. It has country studies, and even its regional imagination looks much like how universities organize the world in area studies. The Bank relies heavily on the tacit knowledge Bank employees acquire about countries and how their systems work for the implementation of Bank programs. But from where does this knowledge come? And through what institutions is it filtered?
Nation states and multinational organizations like the Bank reinforce a system of power and knowledge whose modes of gathering and sharing informal knowledge privilege the well-off. They also privilege the nation as our unit of analysis. What would happen if data gathering techniques shifted? What would happen to Bank programs if the “voices of the poor” were more audible? What would happen if country strategies were no longer top secret, but made public and open to critical scrutiny? What would happen if data gathering and critical analysis focused on those most marginal? The Bank is itself heading in that very direction, but what would universities have to do to be part of that shift?
Amartya Sen‘s Development as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999) clearly poses the intellectual challenge not only for the World Bank, but also for contextual expertise in the universities. He argues that development knowledge and real interventions should not be focused so heavily on affecting GNP per capita, with a presumed linkage to other benefits seen among the most developed societies. Instead, it should focus on expanding substantive freedoms for all, paying special attention to the poor, the condition of women, political freedoms and access to market opportunities, culture and human rights. By focusing on expanding the “human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives” (p. 295), one invites a different kind of research. One must be able to engage the poor directly to know the conditions that prevent them from realizing the lives they deserve, and to learn from them how things might be otherwise. Dr. Ghani suggested, in fact, that a university like Michigan should be the kind of place where new comparative tools, dependent on contextual expertise for appropriate execution and refinement, could be developed.
Here, then, contextual expertise becomes critical not only for work “over there,” but equally important for work here, too. International scholarship tends to be organized through definitions of need that rarely privilege the voices of the poor, or of those whose languages are neither numerous, nor attached to global leaders or to diasporas of influence. To be sure, we must attend to those world regions of great power, and to those places with important ties to the people of our state and country. We should also ask, however, what we might miss by failing to develop our capacity to recognize those whose access to international collaboration is limited by the lack of those very freedoms that should be the object of scholarly collaboration and global public engagement. We might ask how we should distinguish our universities by cultivating a commitment to global diversity on our campus, with an eye toward service to the world. Exploring the relationship between contextual expertise and global public relevance might offer a framework that helps us move beyond enrollments and local pressures, and helps us to define our commitments to diversity with a system of accounting that befits a university of the world.