An Interview with J. David Edwards, Ph.D.

A Legacy of Legislative Achievement and a Master Connector of people to build progress
By Amanda Seewald, M.Ed.

Two years ago, I was offered the unique and exciting opportunity to take my language advocacy and professional board work to another level. FLENJ asked me to attend the Joint National Committee for Languages/ National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS) annual Legislative Day in Washington, DC. As a teacher, business owner, federal scholarship recipient, mother, and multilingual citizen, I relished the chance to be a part of this advocacy process in a more “hands-on” way.

What I didn’t know, was that the people I would meet and the experiences ahead would have a profound effect on me and bring me both back to my roots as a language learner and forward to my new and thrilling role as an active legislative advocate for language learning.

JNCL-NCLIS Legislative Day is a unique and truly eye-opening experience for language educators involved with professional organizations across the country. We have the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and meet with legislators and their staff members to advocate for language education policy. While JNCL-NCLIS works all year to ensure that language policy is clearly on the agendas of pivotal political players, legislative day is truly the best way for our profession to take ownership by seeing firsthand the process of passionately advocating for our states, our schools, and our students to have the education they deserve. JNCL-NCLIS has provided this chance for its members for many years and surrounds it with invaluable meetings, speakers, and training opportunities that empower language educators to pave the way and truly make a hands-on difference in their states.

During my first experience at JNCL-NCLIS Legislative Day I immediately saw just how much can happen in Washington when groups of voices are heard. J. David Edwards, Executive Director of JNCL-NCLIS, had invited Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey to speak to representatives from language associations around the country. His words and actions inspired all of us. My colleague, Ana Lomba, and I had the distinct pleasure of joining Representative Holt for a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear the President of Mexico speak before a joint session of Congress. Words fail to describe the sense of true honor, humility, and awe I felt during and following this experience.

“As a resident of the USA for many years and a relatively new citizen (2007), I marvel at the American democratic system with such a vibrant dialogue between regular folks and the politicians that govern. It is amazing to see the time, energy, and passion that many advocates demonstrate, but it is even more amazing to me that American politicians actually listen and actively engage in the dialogue. The JNCL-NCLIS summit is a phenomenal experience that I will always remember and treasure.” Ana Lomba, Owner, Ana Lomba Early Languages LLC

Inspirational is the perfect word to describe the time I have spent working with JNCL-NCLIS and more specifically soaking up as much knowledge and guidance as possible from Dave’s trove of experience. JNCL-NCLIS has grown to be an incredible organization that fosters multilingualism and gives language educators a platform for advocacy. The backbone of this essential connection to our legislative bodies is J. David Edwards, whose leadership and knowledge are only matched by his uncanny ability to perceive, react, and liaise with people everywhere he goes.

Dave is the real catalyst for the creation and development of the JNCL-NCLIS model we know today. His vision to work in collaboration with educators and legislators to build possibilities and open conversations on the topic of language education for the last 31 years has truly changed our aptitude to build meaningful relationships in our federal government.

“Dave has built his reputation for advocacy and support for the foreign language field “the old fashioned way.” He has EARNED it, not as a hired-gun (of which there are many now), but through collaboration with a field and by building strategic coalitions across key organizations in the field to get the key players in the associations and the leaders of field talking among themselves, identifying, and often times actually AGREEING among themselves about shared national priorities. For any educational or academic field, socialization is important and valuable. For effective advocacy on the Hill and across the executive branch and on the level of the state legislatures, the ability to make common cause is ESSENTIAL.” Dr. Dan Davidson, President, American Councils for International Education

This year, after decades of prolific discussion, advocacy, testimony, mentoring, and connection building, Dave will be leaving his post as the Executive Director of JNCL-NCLIS. In my opinion, the stories he has shared, the pathways he has forged, and the way he has taught educators to engage our voices and educate our legislators are invaluable. Dave, who is a doctor of political science and a true expert on the way government works, has a passion for the field of world language education. He truly treasures each piece of work or policy development.

“I look at FLAP as my 24 year old son and they are starving him right now and they killed him or they’re trying to kill him. They’re starving him right now, is what they’re doing. They’re not giving him a damn thing to eat. And with the reauthorization process, they may actually kill him.” Dr. J.David Edwards, Executive Director, JNCL-NCLIS.

Dave is, for all intents and purposes, the institutional memory of not only JNCL-NCLIS, but of all of the political and legislative progress in language education. He is the repository of knowledge of the challenges and relationships that have helped put our profession on the national stage. Recently Dave has been honored by the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, The National Language Museum, and The Language Flagship Program. His impact on our profession is immeasurable as it has shaped our ability to relate to the political world in Washington, DC in a meaningful and effective way. I have been privileged to learn from him.

“What Dave developed was a commitment to consensus. He accepts that we will almost always disagree on at least some points, but that we can always find common ground. He trusts that those who must compromise on one issue will see their views prevail in another. Dave’s vision of and for JNCL/NCLIS offers a collegial and pragmatic ideal that turns the zero-sum approach on its head: in his vision, none of us can win if any one of us loses.” Becky Kline, Executive Director, Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

I recently sat down with Dave to reflect on the past, present, and future of language education policy and advocacy. In just a few hours, Dave imparted more than I could have imagined. His inspiring vision of a bilingual future comes through in his words, which speak for themselves.

Amanda: What were the biggest organizational challenges back when JNCL first started and how do they compare to challenges you face now?

Dave: The biggest challenge then was there was nothing. That was also the huge advantage. Anything we got was an addition. The only thing we had was what was left, the bones and the dregs and the crumbs from the National Defense Education Act, which Lyndon Johnson had changed in ’64 when he turned it into the Higher Education Act and the elementary and secondary education schooling, at least turned that into essential two different pieces, elementary and secondary, we got nothing for languages. And it was the thinking in the country right then among our people as well, very much among our people, that this was a high school subject; that you did it for four years in high school and that was language training, and then if you were serious about academics, you maybe did it for two years in college.

And that was what language was all about – I as an outsider, I came in seeing an awful lot of this stuff looking at it and thinking, you know it’s unbelievably stupid, except for one thing. It’s probably good education theory. They’re treating language not as a tool; they’re treating language as a learning tool. And that’s six years of learning. And that was probably the time this field most recognized language for its cognitive contribution and its contribution to a discipline, and as a discipline to the learning process. We have since turned it into a tool.

Amanda: How did having nothing work to your advantage and how do you compare that to now?

Dave: Anything I did was plus. Now, we have been the best we’ve ever been. Two years ago, we were on a high we’ve never been close to before. If we had gotten that one piece in the partnership bill (FLEPP) that would actually do articulation from elementary through secondary into the university programs at the Flagship level into the graduate programs, we could literally build a seamless language program K-16 in this country where people would come out as threes and fours.

Amanda: And what didn’t we get there? What is missing?

Dave: We didn’t get the middle. We didn’t get the articulation piece. But that’s minor. What we’re doing now is tearing it all apart. Once FLAP’s gone then we’ve lost the whole K piece, K-12 piece essentially. So we’re now back to higher education only … And that’s what we’re doing now. The difference now is I look at FLAP as my 24-year-old son, which is exactly the age of my son. And they killed him or they’re trying to kill him. They’re starving him right now, is what they’re doing. They’re not giving him a damn thing to eat. And with the reauthorization process, they may actually kill him. And that’s a huge piece.

Amanda: What was the most important legislative accomplishment made during your tenure as Executive Director of JNCL-NCLIS and why?

Dave: The most important one was FLAP. The most significant one was the National Security Education Program. And the difference I think is, that FLAP took the federal government into an area where it was willing to go historically only with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Prior to that, the federal government cared about education only to the degree of the G.I. Bill and Brown vs. Board of Education, which is where the federal government has always cared. It’s always been, on the part of the federal government, questions of equality and access. And that’s what the feds do. The change with Lyndon Johnson was he actually said that access and equality is also a school issue.

Taking languages and creating an elementary program that the federal government ran, not only created opportunities that were not there before, but when the standards were developed, we were talking about quality. And we actually had federal programs that talked about excellence in education and excellence as a federal provision. We sailed through it (the legislative approval process) swimmingly partially because we had some really good people, like June Philips and Christie Brown. And we had some very shrewd political people.

FLAP laid a very important building block that the language community had to have that no one else, except perhaps math needed. That is the need to start it early. And frankly, until FLAP came along, I don’t think a majority, but a significant number of the language community did not think it needed to be done at the elementary and secondary level.

Amanda: Why is NSEP the most significant?

Dave: NSEP is the most significant program because it was truly a program that addressed the major national need. NSEP was born out of Operation Desert Storm. Senator Boren was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He held closed door hearings with Colin Powell and Schwarzkopf. And what came out of all those hearings was a meeting with about three or four of us in education saying, “you know we really need to do a better job with international education”. The guy who called the meeting was Boren’s chief of staff for the Intelligence Committee.

The idea that came up was, let’s try and do some serious stuff at the level where we can do it. That was focused on higher education because the assumption was that in higher education you could do higher-level language skills more quickly and we didn’t have the time to put them through the process. The trick was recognizing the best way to do this is to do it “in country”.

Amanda: What are the missing pieces or what is the one thing that you wish you could have done?

Dave: The single piece I wish I had for the field was – until two years ago when it started falling apart and then last year when Title VI was gutted and FLAP was essentially eliminated in terms of funding – we needed one piece to make the entire federal commitment form a complete thing, and that was HR 1966, it was the FLEPP, Foreign Language Education Partnership Program and it was when we were writing that legislation and I worked very closely with Miriam Kazanjian and the Higher Education Community on that bill, which was a major accomplishment too and we had never cooperated that closely on legislation.

What we were doing was building the pipeline. And we were within a single bill, a single vote of Congress of having a program in the United States at the federal level that started in kindergarten and went the whole way through graduate school.

Amanda: Who are the most essential political or nonpolitical figures whose support have made or facilitated a difference and who are the people you see as the most important to our initiatives going forward?

Dave: Two of them came off the President’s Commission of Foreign Language and International Studies when they were very young, first-term members of the House of Representatives; Paul Simon, and Leon Panetta. Both of them devoted their lives to this issue in a very meaningful fashion.

Leon as chairman of the Budget Committee had a much bigger picture. Leon as “Leon” went on to become Chief of Staff for a President, went on to become head of the CIA, went on to become Secretary of Defense because he’s always had the big picture.

If you talk to me about the other people who are supporters and made a difference, Senator Simon as Senator, Senator Dodd as a Peace Corps member, who actually as chairman of the Latin-America subcommittee conducted meetings in Spanish and was proud of his Spanish. He knew how to cut deals and get things done. Senator Simon, who I loved dearly, was much more the idealistic, this is good for the world, and we all want to do this.

They were a very good combination of things. Add to that, a conservative Republican, Thad Cochran, and you’ve got a very powerful combination there. Because he was a Republican on the Appropriations Committee who championed language.

You know the interesting thing is that as I thought about it, it’s all senators. I can put in Claiborne Pell. I can put in Akaka. I can put in any number of other senators and not many House members. Why? Senators have a much bigger view. They represent an entire state. They are much more likely to have a global view. The Senate is the group that advises and consents. The Senate is much more likely to be able to see the importance of foreign languages than are members of Congress who aren’t Sam Farr representing DLI and Rush Holt who’s brilliant.

If you want to talk about who going forward, Panetta is going forward in a real position of power and I don’t worry about the future of languages too much because they will be protected in the area where they are most important, National Security.

And Holt is the guy going forward. Rush Holt, unquestionably, because he cares about this. He’s smart. It’s on his agenda.

Amanda: You mentioned all the political people, but what about people within the profession?

Dave: One stands out above all others and that’s Dr. James E. Alatis. He came up a second-generation Greek kid from West Virginia. Jim started JNCL. He stood astride this field at the beginning of this field like a colossus. He was the guy who came to Washington to go to work for the Office of Education under the National Defense Education Act doing the less commonly taught languages, supporting us.

He was the first president of JNCL-NCLIS. And part of how Jim was so able to accomplish so much was that he had a foot in every field. And he was a brilliant, absolute brilliant consensus builder. He was the right person at the right time. But he was also a person of tremendous ability. He had that strength that good people have. The Rockefellers and the people who were strong in the past had an uncanny ability to recognize talent and use it. And Jim had a phenomenal ability to recognize talent and use it.

Amanda: If you could share your advice with current and future advocates for how to move forward and see a multi-lingual future for all U.S. students, what would you say?

Dave: That is it’s going to change. It’s going to change very radically and very differently. And 20 years from now we’re going to be sitting somewhere very different than we are now, in terms of languages in the world. Multilingualism, if you read Larry Summer’s article in the New York Times, it’s got everybody all so upset. He said languages aren’t necessary. He’s wrong. He’s wrong. But he had the right assumption. He simply drew the wrong conclusion. The world’s going to keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And global is going to get more and more common.

What does that mean for language? If we keep doing traditional education in this country or if we don’t do traditional education in this country, I think language is still absolutely key to cognitive development and to learning.

I think all of our efforts won’t begin to compare with companies running ads in other languages more and more and more frequently; with parents realizing that they aren’t going to be able to make them all learn English and that they’re going to have to learn a couple words in Spanish and maybe even whole sentences and a whole ability to communicate, but that language is going to become this major polyglot. I think for you, as an advocate there’s no question this is important, and it’s so important that it’s going to happen. Now, what does the advocate want to do with that? Make it happen intelligently.

J. David Edwards holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and his journey to ultimately becoming the JNCL-NCLIS Executive Director is fascinating and filled with fantastic stories of experiences that shaped his way of working in Washington, DC and within the field of language education advocacy. Below are some of Dave’s insightful words as well as links to some additional pieces of these stories as told by Dave:

J. David Edwards

“It (NSEP) was literally, why I went into this business … thinking that if people could communicate, you can save lives.”

“It was Panetta who really latched onto it and there was a woman named Cindy Cisneros on this staff. And she was an absolute godsend. If you find the right staff person, it just makes all the difference…”

Learning a foreign language can be beneficial to young people as they make their way through school and join the workforce. Our national security and international commerce profit as more Americans become proficient in languages beyond English. I commend groups like the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies, led by leaders like David Edwards, that diligently promote foreign language education.” Senator Thad Cochran, Mississippi

“Dave Edwards is a walking encyclopedia of how Washington has managed – at times, mismanaged – education policy for decades. He isn’t merely “old school”; he built the old school. I feel lucky to have been introduced to him recently as he is the quintessential throwback, an unparalleled storyteller who has been my tour guide through a different era in lawmaking, politics and the sausage-like process of crafting legislation.” Jim Geraghty, Contributing Editor, National Review

“The language profession owes you a debt of gratitude. While you claim not to be “one of us” you are indeed “one of us” as you have been able to represent us so expertly over these many years.” Dave McAlpine and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

“When we were looking for an Executive Director, and Dave Edwards’ name came up for discussion, everyone was quite convinced that Dave would be the right man for the job. The one concern we all had was that he was a political scientist, not a language professional. But Dave put all of these doubts to rest through pure performance and his unifying mentality, and he soon developed a passion for the importance of the language professions.” Dr. James E. Alatis, Dean Emeritus, School of Languages and Linguistics, Georgetown University