By Madeline H.G. Haas, Junior Editor
and Gabriel M. Scheinmann, Associate Editor
Syro-Palestinian Pottery. The Muslim Mediterranean City. Jewish-Arab Encounters: The Classical Age. The Imperial System: Byzantine Society and Civilization. The Female Body and Islam: Religious Doctrines in Changing Societies. These are the “Middle East Related Courses” recommended to Harvard undergraduates by the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They may all be very good, but they hardly constitute a curriculum that could produce scholars of the contemporary Middle East. Today’s students, who are taking up the study of Arabic in droves, want to understand Sunni-Shia conflict, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the complexities of Middle Eastern societies and governments. They should be offered courses that provide them with the necessary knowledge and insight.
We therefore call on Harvard College to expand the Committee on Middle East Studies into a body that offers degrees to undergraduate students, to hire more Middle East Studies professors, and to provide a wider selection of classes on the modern Middle East. Harvard has the resources and capacity to lead the academic world in tackling the critical problems of our time and should respond to the rising interest of students in a region of vital importance.
Harvard offers dismally few classes on the contemporary Middle East. Only four were offered by the Government, History, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) departments combined this fall. Two of those were taught in the Government Department by a visiting professor from the American University in Cairo. Harvard seldom offers classes concerning modern Israel. Next semester is the exception: two classes on Israel will be offered, again in the Govern-ment Department, this time by a visiting Kennedy School of Govern-ment senior fellow. The History Department seems to believe that Middle Eastern history ended in World War I. It offers only one class concerning Middle Eastern history in the 20th Century.
If the Committee on Middle East Studies (MES) were to expand and become like other area-studies committees, such as the Committee on African Studies or the Committee on South Asian Studies, it would become the go-to place for students who are passionate about study-ing the region. In addition to listing all relevant classes in other de-partments, MES should offer create small, in-depth junior tutorials on the key issues that students want to understand today: Arab politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy and human rights, the role of U.S. foreign policy, and the challenges posed by Non-State actors. MES concentrations should require students to achieve proficiency in one or two commonly spoken regional languages (such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Hebrew).
Harvard should also do more to attract and nurture first-rate pro-fessors of contemporary Middle East Studies. Although the field is excessively politicized, Harvard must make the effort to recruit pro-fessors devoted to balanced research and teaching. Today, the Gov-ernment Department offers most of the relevant courses in the field, but it does not have a single tenured professor in any subject con-nected to the Middle East. It should be commended for consistently attracting visiting professors and fellows of a high caliber, but in future Harvard should aim to become a hub rather than a spoke of Middle Eastern scholarship.
The exponential growth of student enrollment in Arabic language courses since September 11, 2001 forcefully demonstrates rising student interest in the region. While the Institute of Politics and Weatherhead Center have done much to spur debate across campus, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has remained stuck in antiquity. In the midst of a Curricular Review, FAS has a historic opportunity to bring Harvard to the forefront of national scholarship in a field of crucial international importance.