Area Studies

Developing area studies programs at colleges and universities remains one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF) lasting contributions to higher education. These interdisciplinary programs combined language training, geography, anthropology, history, economics and political science in a comprehensive approach to the study of world cultures. The RF had long been instrumental in fostering the growth of academic departments in the humanities and social sciences. In the wake of World War II, however, it attempted to integrate existing departments in new ways. Carnegie Corporation (CC), the Ford Foundation (FF), and the U.S. government would also significantly support area studies, but the initial exploratory conversations began at the RF before the war had even ended. The first move was an exploratory conference convened by the RF in 1944, which brought together RF officers, representatives from CC, university scholars, and “area men” with experience in wartime military training programs.

A selection of some of the rare publications dealing with the Russian Revolutionary Movement, purchased by Columbia University from funds granted by the Rockefeller Foundation, New York (N.Y.), 1948

A selection of some of the rare publications dealing with the Russian Revolutionary
Movement, purchased by Columbia University from funds granted by the Rockefeller
Foundation, New York (N.Y.), 1948

“The Shrunken and Interdependent World”[1]

Area studies programs were designed to make university education more relevant to a changed world, and consequently strived to bridge pure scholarship and practical instruction. Schools that adopted area studies programs sought to increase undergraduate awareness of foreign cultures and to encourage academic research that would deepen international understanding. At the same time, their graduate programs aimed to produce Ph.D.s to meet the government’s increasing demand for policy analysts, diplomats, and civil servants. As Charles B. Fahs, assistant director of the RF Humanities Division, explained, “[W]ith the United States catapulted into world leadership, it has been necessary to pursue simultaneously the dual objectives of cultural enrichment and the strengthening of national capacities for sound foreign policy.”[2]

“A reexamination of Rockefeller Foundation program in area studies” by Charles B. Fahs, 1954

“A reexamination of Rockefeller Foundation program in area studies” by Charles B. Fahs,
1954

The idea for area studies grew out of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which had used U.S. land-grant universities to train specialists quickly for the war effort. RF funding had supported the development of language programs by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) that proved readily adaptable to military training. Similarly, the Foundation’s funding to the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) had enabled the wartime Ethnogeographic Board to assemble research portfolios on countries of engagement. As these programs wound down, the RF became interested in mobilizing these connections to support peacetime inquiry.

A student working with some of the publications dealing with the Russian revolutionary movement, purchased by Columbia University from funds granted by the Rockefeller Foundation, New York (N.Y.), 1948

A student working with some of the publications dealing with the Russian revolutionary
movement, purchased by Columbia University from funds granted by the Rockefeller
Foundation, New York (N.Y.), 1948

Beginning with Columbia University’s Russian Institute in 1946, the Foundation steadily underwrote the founding of programs in Eastern European, Asian, African and Latin American studies at major U.S. universities throughout the 1940s and 1950s. These programs offered a model for understanding cultures once marginal to U.S. scholarship that emerged as centers of global concern. At the same time, the RF also supported American studies programs in the U.S. and abroad, as well as international relations programs, all geared to respond to the transformations of postwar geopolitics. While the FF would eventually take area studies to a larger scale in the 1960s, the initial programs were a coordinated effort by the RF and CC to work with and reconfigure the strongest existing university centers.

Restructuring Research Concerns

RF success in establishing area studies programs built on its earlier encouragement of the social sciences as definable, rigorous, methodologically sound fields (enacted largely through the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM) in the 1920s), which had come to fruition by the 1940s. The effects of the war, however, did shift the RF’s earlier priorities away from “pure,” disinterested academic scholarship toward an overt consideration of international relations. As RF President Chester Barnard quipped in 1950, “[O]rthodox disciplines are, I think, at present pretty defective bases for the analysis of concrete situations.”[3] Barnard’s administration (1948-1952) marked a new era within the RF of direct engagement with the requirements of an increasingly interconnected, volatile, global politics.

Between 1946 and 1954 the RF spent over $8 million on area studies. In addition to Columbia, signal U.S. programs included Slavic studies at Stanford University, Far Eastern studies at the University of Washington, Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and American regional studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Internationally, key programs included Latin American studies at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, and Far Eastern studies at Leyden University and Stockholm University. As the field matured, a second generation of programs included Far Eastern, Near Eastern, and Russian studies at Harvard University; Slavic studies at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia; Chinese studies at Tokyo University; and Latin American studies at the University of Bordeaux. In addition, the RF funded undergraduate programs at Occidental College and Colgate University, and the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii.

Making Use of Experience

Within the Foundation, area studies provided an opportunity for the Humanities and Social Sciences Divisions to work together in an integrated fashion, fulfilling an ideal that RF officers had sought since the 1928 reorganization but which had long proved difficult to enact. In developing area studies, the two divisions pooled their extensive networks of faculty and university administrators, seeking the most competent persons available, with expertise not only in a given discipline but also in a particular region, which was then an uncommon combination. This standard became especially important to prevent area studies from substituting a shallow survey for serious academic rigor.

Officers and prominent scholars alike worried that the new approach might mistake a hodgepodge of facts for the deep expertise of the academic fields. Joseph H. Willits, director of the RF Division of Social Sciences, stressed research, already the RF’s priority, as a guarantee against superficiality, explaining that “without research, teaching will tend to emphasize spot information and travelogue reporting which does create interest at the elementary level, but which does not lead to disciplined thinking or mastery of other cultures equivalent to the familiarity we have of our own.”[4]

Memo from Joseph H. Willits to David H. Stevens regarding area studies, 1944

Memo from Joseph H. Willits to David H. Stevens regarding area studies, 1944

The Foundation’s emphasis on research fostered countless outstanding contributions to scholarship and foreign policy, much of which remains influential across a variety of disciplines today: George F. Kennan’s writings on the Soviet Union, produced at Columbia; anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work on Indonesia, produced at Harvard; and Karl Wittfogel’s work in Chinese translation, produced at the University of Washington.

Despite worry over superficiality and the resistance of established disciplines to the competition posed by these new programs, area studies persisted and prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s, and by and large these programs and centers remain intact today. In many ways area studies foreshadowed and encouraged the widespread adoption of interdisciplinary approaches that became commonplace in universities in the 1960s through the 1980s.