As Congress focuses on trimming fat and cutting budgets, a few long-standing international education programs might find themselves significantly de-funded — or perhaps non-existent. I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with John McCain on this one — he recently called the proposed cuts to international education “short-sighted.” To say the least.

For me, it’s personal. In 2006-7, I had a Fulbright to Morocco. I didn’t come out of the experience with any ground-breaking research or publish any scholarly articles, but I made some friends, saw a sheep get slaughtered, felt the hunger pangs of the Ramadan fast, went to a country wedding, facilitated a forbidden romance, and ate a lot of great food.

So why should the State Department fund programs with results that are a lot less concrete than nabbing terrorists or building schools? Well, I’d argue that the Fulbright — and its fellow State Department-run outreach programs — do a subtle, sneaky amount of good for the U.S.’s image. I remember haggling over a pair of shoes in the souk and throwing in some of my best colloquial Moroccan Arabic expressions, figuring they’d help me get a better price. The shopkeeper said something I didn’t understand, and I must’ve given him a puzzled look. “Oh,” he said, slightly disappointed. “Most of the Americans around here speak Berber.” (He was referring, of course, to the Peace Corps volunteers, many of whom got training in local languages even more obscure than colloquial Moroccan Arabic.)

The State Department’s educational outreach programs foster the kind of daily exchange between people that provides the foundation for diplomacy. We learn each other’s languages. We start to appreciate each other’s trashy pop music and weird ice cream flavors. We attend each other’s weddings, and recommend books to one another. Our scholars bounce ideas off one another. In an increasingly splintered, factionalized world, we learn about one another. Not to mention that a recent internal audit found that we don’t have nearly enough skilled foreign language speakers in our national security agencies.

 Where do you stand on the issue of funding international education programs?

(Petitions against de-funding can be found here and here.)