The Not-So-Hidden Agenda of Global Studies


Mr. Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of ERNEST GRUENING AND THE AMERICAN DISSENTING TRADITION (1998) and a writer for the History News Service. He is a member of HNN's blog, Cliopatria.

Academic conferences showcase a field’s cutting-edge scholarship, which the professors in attendance can then incorporate into their classes. The agenda at the 2004 Global Studies Association conference speaks volumes at what’s occurring in classes in the faddish field of “Global Studies.”

Participants at this year’s “Global Studies” event heard a paper from Carl Davidson offering “perspective on how progressives can independently intervene in the election to defeat Bush in spite of the poor tactics from the Democratic leadership” in light of the fact that “the U.S. Government, at least over the past 50 years, has been the chief terrorist and sponsor of terrorism in the world.” Ed Green added it was not just Republicans, “Those who closely follow the role of the United States in the larger world are aware in recent times there have been quite a few episodes of torture inflicted by the U.S.” Renate Bridenthal demanded “militant action” to restore open admissions and remedial education at CUNY’s senior colleges, abolition of which reflected “the direct cost to education of the prison-industrial-military complex.” Most of the conference’s 14 other papers—summarizing, again, the latest thinking in the field—reflected similar points of view.

In contemporary higher education, advocates of one-sided curricular initiatives frequently mask their agendas by using code words or phrases. The phrase “Global Studies” represents a perfect example: who, after all, could oppose students learning more about international matters in an increasingly globalized world? It’s clear what sort of instruction students around the country receive in classes based on the themes from the “Global Studies” conference. Academic content is replaced by an openly partisan and ideological message.

One fact making this possible is the fact that there are no reputable graduate programs that award degrees in “Global Studies.” The most fully developed “Global Studies” department, at St. Lawrence University, openly imposes an ideological litmus test for new hires, who must be familiar “with the theoretical debates surrounding area, global, development; ethnic, native, or post-colonial studies,” fields known for their strong ideological bias.

A sense of what a typical “Global Studies” class entails comes in a “capstone” course at California State University-Monterey Bay, which established one of the nation’s first “Global Studies” departments, in 1995.

The course, fantastically, promises students “a smooth transition into postgraduate training in schools with disciplinary focus on politics and economics.” The reading list offers a clearer sense of what this “Global Studies” offering actually accomplishes. Assigned books include:

Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism
Chuck Collins, Economic Apartheid in America
Marian A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson, Feminist Economics Today.

The “intent of this course,” Professor Robina Bhatti states, “is that a better understanding of global political economy will lead to an improvement in the rationality and justice of our everyday life.” Students’ grades are based on the professor’s “measurements” of their progress in achieving this goal.

In other words: students are graded on their fidelity to the political agenda of the professor and the openly biased assigned texts.

Most of the roughly two dozen colleges and universities with “Global Studies” programs have imitated Monterey Bay’s approach: with the exceptions of three (Ripon, Brandeis, and Cal.-Santa Barbara), “Global Studies” departments exclude offerings in politics, diplomacy, the law, business, religion, and intellectuals in the United States and Western Europe. Instead, they focus on courses oriented towards race, class, gender, and cultural studies, often containing obvious biases against the Western heritage or contemporary U.S. foreign policy. Despite the concept’s grand title, “Global Studies” classes rarely explore material before the 20th century. Nor, despite the mantra of training students in “intercultural communication,” do most “Global Studies” programs require language instruction: foreign language courses provide no clear path for indoctrination.

Mission College’s program, for instance, claims to provide students with the tools necessary for “making intelligent decisions as global citizens.” The courses’ goals include making students understand “that all earth’s people face the same global challenges despite the diverse traditions, values and practices they may have” and “core civic values which generate socially responsible behavior at both the local and global level.”

Like most institutions that sponsor “Global Studies” programs, the college refuses to concede that people of good faith define the values that “generate socially responsible behavior at both the local and global level” in very different ways. Instead, “Global Studies” programs assume that there can be only one path to generating “socially responsible behavior at both the local and global level”—the left-wing political agenda championed by “Global Studies” faculty, who are, as the St. Lawrence model indicates, chosen after passing ideological litmus tests.

The national academic organization that has most aggressively promoted the “Global Studies” approach is the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The AAC&U’s most controversial undertaking was the “Arts of Democracy,” a 2003-2004 initiative that looked to “generate new knowledge about Global Studies.”

This “new knowledge” came in one-sided courses such as those at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which organized its “Arts of Democracy” classes around explorations of the “Western veil of ignorance” and the “apartheid” of globalization. Students (along the lines of the Monterey Bay model) were graded in part through journal entries “about involvement in social-advocacy groups.” (Emphasis added.) Ironically, taxpayers paid for the program: the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education awarded AAC&U a grant totaling more than $600,000.

Provost Roberta S. Matthews brought an “Arts of Democracy” course cluster to my own school, Brooklyn College, where Ms. Matthews has called for making the “Arts of Democracy” program the core of a new “Global Studies” department. Such an undertaking, she maintained, will help make Brooklyn undergraduates “global citizens.” To clarify the concept, Ms. Matthews unintentionally revealed the code, asserting that “global”—as opposed, apparently, to American—citizens are those sensitized to “concepts of race, class, and gender.”

Under this definition, “Global Studies” courses don’t have to be “global” at all. They only need to convey what the AAC&U describes as a central tenet of the “New Academy”: recognition of “persistent inequalities and injustices in the United States” and a willingness to meet these problems by subscribing to the AAC&U’s political agenda. Along these lines, Brooklyn’s Dean of Student Life, Milga Morales, argued that a “Global Studies” curriculum would address blatantly prejudicial questions related to the 9/11 attacks—attacks committed, she cryptically noted, by “those referred to as ‘terrorists.’” Such questions included, “Was September 11 contrived?”; “What did the United States government know and when did it know it?”; and “Whose rights would be violated now?”

The globe in “Global Studies” departments contains exclusively negative attitudes toward one country (other than the United States): Israel. This year, St. Lawrence’s “Global Studies” major featured a special seminar on Palestinian activist and theorist Edward Said. The department also has a regular offering entitled, “Why Do ‘They’ Hate ‘Us’?” The instruction situates the 9/11 attacks “in several thematic contexts,” focused on a critique “of US involvement in the Middle East.”

Students in a “Global Studies” course called “Palestinian Identities,” finally, are introduced to Palestinian identification “as a political and cultural community as they continue to struggle to free themselves from Israeli domination.” The course concludes with a forced political activity: “using what we have learned,” Professor John Collins notes, “we organize and produce a public activity of some sort; with the goal of educating the community about the importance of understanding what Edward Said has called ‘the question of Palestine.’”

An objective portrayal of Israeli history, politics, or culture will not be found in a “Global Studies” course. That might be one reason why the Middle East Studies Association—representing a field that has come under increasing attack for its open bias against U.S. and Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East—advocated at its 2003 conference positioning Middle East studies in the context of “Global Studies.” MESA’s apparent rationale: since both “Global Studies” and “Middle East studies” courses are inherently biased against Israel, it makes sense to promote “Global Studies” offerings, since those have received less critical outside scrutiny.

With the increasingly globalized economy and the transnational threat posed by the war on terror, college graduates need to understand more about the international environment in which they live. “Global Studies” departments, however, provide scant, if any, useful knowledge. Instead, students subjected to such courses receive warmed-over ideas from discredited 1960s radicalism. This “discipline” is nothing more than a forum for professors to structure classes around their political beliefs. In fact, a traditional liberal arts education provides students with the best preparation for functioning in the 21st century world. Colleges also already cover such topics as international relations, the global economy, foreign cultures, and intercultural communication in Departments of History, Economics, Political Science, Modern Languages, and Philosophy. Parents, trustees, and state legislators might want to find other uses for the funds that they are currently providing to “Global Studies” institutions.

This article was first published at frontpagemag.com.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Americans are not going to get behind a McCarthyite censoring of "Global Studies", nor -given how obviously ignorant this country is of the rest of the world- can one expect the whole thing to be voluntarily abolished anytime soon. The beast is here to stay, so the question becomes, can we put it to any productive use while we figure out a way to eventually kill it ? Herewith a possibility.

After they have been removed from public office and tried for their crimes, a fitting punishment for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, etc. would be a multi-year sentence of a full course-load of nothing but Global Studies. This would (a) force these shovers of bull to have some shoved down their throats for a change, and (b) generate a counter reaction, possibly even a lawsuit that would invalidate the whole program, and by extension the entire field of Global Studies, as amounting to unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment".

Andrew D. Todd - 8/24/2004

Well, I don't know if that generalization will fly either. My engineering degree is in "engineering science," which at that particular time and place (Cincinnati, 1985), meant the forced-draft use of computers and abstract mathematical methods to a greater degree than was customary in engineering. At that time, the medical school at Cincinnati offered Docter of Science (D. S.) degrees, which were not honorary, but were Ph.D programs in surgery and internal medicine for applicants who already had their M. D.'s and a year or two of residency. Make what you will of it.

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/20/2004

Peter --
Most of us who are concerned with the move toward "Global Studies" as it is playing out are not at the same time unconcerned with world history. Much of my scholarship and teaching is in Africa and i also work on questions of global terrorism in addition to my American work. KC is largely a diplomatic historian. It is about a particular politicized manifestation of this emerging subdiscipline, and not about the idea of studying the world. Indeed, it is precisely because we value teaching about other cultures, other countries and their politics, that we worry about Global Studies.

Russ Reeves - 8/18/2004

"Studies" had the same meaning for departments of religion in the 1960s that "science" did for the academic study of politics in the 1940s, indicating detached scholarly study rather than advocacy (perhaps "religious science" was too much associated with metaphysical New Thought groups to be an option). I prefer the subtitle of my degree (which was once offered by a "School of Religion" that is now a "Department of Religious Studies), "History of Religion."

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/18/2004

Mr. (Dr.?) Schellhammer --
I agree. I think we should be on a quest for truth, knowing full well that we will never fully achieve it, that our biases will come through, that revision is not a dirty word, and that if we are honest and show integrity about that quest, good work, in the classroom and in ouir writing, will emerge.

Richard Schellhammer - 8/18/2004

Progams with an agenda (left, right, whatever) are the inevitable result of historians' abandonment of the notion of truth. If we're not looking for the truth in the past, then the only thing left to do is make it up as we please. If we don't recognize our own biases as, in fact, biases, then we cannot honestly approach the past.

Richard Schellhammer

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/17/2004

Ralph --
I defer to you on "Religious Studies" and acknowledge that my assertion was not really even a thesis so much as an observation -- I am wary of "Studies" departments, and while we're at it, if you have to include the word "Science" in your discipline's title, you probably are not one. Interesting that the titular change in "Religious Studies" was seen as a move away from dogma. I had no idea.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/17/2004

Derek, Your point about "Studies" is an interesting one. Some years ago, I questioned the redesignation of a Religion Department as a "Religious Studies Department." At the time, I asked why not, by extension, change Philosophy to "Philosophical Studies," etc. etc. At the time, however, the intention was to indicate a move in a direction other or opposite to what you now see at work -- "studies" was meant to indicate a distancing from particular beliefs, dogmas or ideologies. If I'm not mistaken, Religious Studies Departments would now be far more common in mainstream liberal arts colleges and universities than would Religion Departments.

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/17/2004

I second David here and especially KC's many points. KC is not talking about liberal professors per se, he is talking about an emerging discipline in which there is no room to deviate from the existing orthodoxy. that there are liberal and conservative professors, in say, history is far less worrisome if they teach in areas that are not by their very nature politicized. in other words, a political historian in the US can, theoretically, be either liberal or conservative -- political history as a subfield does not dictate an ideology. Global Studies as it is emerging quite clearly does.
And at the risk of getting myself in trouble, it does seem to me that the very word "studies' in a discipline or subdiscipline's title is almost always cause for worry. ask yourselves this: Would it be viable for a pro-life conservative to become a PhD candidate in Women's Studies? What about an anti-affirmative action conservative to become a PhD student in African American Studies? Now I am both pro choice and pro-affirmative action, ardently so, in fact, but I think it is, to say the least, highly problematic that there have emerged disciplines that are subject to ideological litmus tests before you walk in the door. And I am at least on the periphery of African American Studies and my scholarly work is more central than that. But it is a worrisome trend in the academy, and if anything, it is growing more, not less, pronounced as time progresses.
I think KC is more worried about intellectual integrity here than he is about ideology. KC is hardly a knee jerk conservative, and in many areas I am not certain he or most reasonable people would call him conservative at all. But he is concerned with quaint ideas like merit and an attempt to seek truth, or at least to seek answers and ideas honestly. Liberals should be as concerned with what is going on in Global Studies as consdervatives, because intellectually it is a dangerous and vacuous trend.

David Lion Salmanson - 8/17/2004

I think you are missing the point of the post. "Global Studies" as described here isn't the type of free inquiry in which students are pushed to refine their thinking, learn no methodological skills, and engage in a debate of ideas. It is a program where sloppy scholarship hides behind a wall of rhetoric that leaves it immune to critique. Some post-colonial studies are excellent, especially much of the Indian sub-continent work. But this work is based on solid research and strong methodologies be it archival research, anthropological fieldwork, sociological studies, economic modeling etc. etc.. It is the willingness of scholars to hold their ideas up to scrutiny that makes a university a place that creates lifelong learners. As KC describes these courses and professors, they just don't get it. Their information loops are as closed as the Nixon (or Bush II) White House with the same conspiracy us vs. them outcomes. Only the enemies list is different.

Michael Green - 8/17/2004

I do not doubt that professors can have agendas. What continues to mystify me is that professors who happen to be liberal or leftist constantly are accused of bringing their views into the classroom. Yet more conservative scholars are the ones who make this claim, and profess not to do the same thing. I wonder why so many of them think others must have an agenda. Could it be that they do? Could it be that they cannot envision that someone of a liberal cast of mind could possibly allow others to disagree with them? Could it be that since they don't want disagreement, they expect others to be like them?