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Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks delivered the University Lecture on Monday night.

For some spies, training started with an anthropology degree. Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, in the semiannual University Lecture, explored the tricky role academics played in Cold War espionage. Dirks, an anthropology professor and former department chair, discussed the formation of the Office of Strategic Services in the 1940s, which organized spy missions for the United States Armed Forces, and how a number of professors played influential roles in providing an understanding of other cultures. The OSS sought out professors who were experts on various parts of the world to assist policy makers. "Modernization was an inexorable process that would lead to political and economic development, along with mutual understanding," Dirks said. "U.S. universities had to provide training for cultures, politics, and history." The Cold War, Dirks said, showed many universities the importance of area studies—the fall of the Berlin Wall and, later, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 led to newfound interest in the disciplines. "Much of the support for area studies over the past two decades has come from immigrants and international communities who understand the importance of supporting curricular commitments to specific regions and nations," Dirks said. "In the face of globalization, area studies hardly seems suited for the task at hand," he said. "We must study not just the connectedness of things, but things that connect—what happens when they connect, and the specific places that inhabit the world that we still live in." Anthropology professor E. Valentine Daniel said that Dirks' lecture raised important questions about what it means to be "worldly" or "global." "It was interesting that scholarship didn't sell its soul," he said. Even though many academics wanted to stay at universities, he said, many did participate in espionage. "Cultures became much more important," he said. "There were cultural anthropologists who were spies." Both University President Lee Bollinger and Provost John Coatsworth, in introducing Dirks, stressed the importance of figuring out the role of globalization in academia. "It's a wonderful occasion to have Nick Dirks because he is steeped in this world of area studies," Bollinger said. "We're now living in this era in a way that is highly connected—we're all trying to figure out, at universities, what does globalization mean." Coatsworth explained that area studies became important at other institutions because World War II exposed the need to improve the understanding of different cultures, a conversation that has continued at Columbia for decades. "It is worth noting that the trajectory of area studies in the United States during and after World War II is significant," he said. "It is up to us to keep that debate going and that we have the tools to make the debate seem as necessary and indeed as urgent as possible," Dirks said. "One way or the other, we should be able to learn from the time many of our scholars were spies, without having to become spies all over again." jeremy.budd@columbiaspectator.com

Nicholas Dirks University Lecture
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