Once the dust settled from the wreckage of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans turned their eyes to academia, searching for answers about the Middle East, Islam and the emerging threat of terrorism.
Like it did during the Cold War, academia poised itself to respond to those needs by changing curricula, recruiting new scholars and rethinking the roles of policy makers and scholars.
University departments, especially Near Eastern Studies (NES), history, politics, religion and the Wilson School, as well as groups such as the Institute for Transregional Studies, underwent dramatic shifts, offering courses and lectures that tailored themselves to the new world order.
But has Princeton done enough?
A 9/11 curriculum
As expected, the demand for classes in Middle East studies has surged since 9/11. The number of students enrolled in NES courses almost doubled by the 2002-03 school year, and enrollment in Arabic classes has tripled in the past five years.
As the importance and popularity of Middle East studies increased, however, the complex challenges associated with educating a generation about the volatile region have become more apparent.
The topic of terrorism, for instance, has a tendency to crowd out other aspects of the Middle East, such as its culture, religion and politics, several professors said.
"It is somewhat sad that a few students have been influenced by popular media and only want to learn about the themes of terrorism," politics professor Amaney Jamal said. "Terrorism is very much the outcome of many factors; some students don't have the patience for understanding this multifaceted approach."
The cultural barriers of American students also create an unconscious tendency to compare, NES professor Michael Reynolds GS '03 said. "A problem many students of international affairs face at Princeton is that their preconceptions about society are too rarely challenged, and they are left unreflectively asking the question, 'why isn't the rest of the world like America?' "
Reynolds, however, noted that students are by and large "quite open-minded and willing to learn," despite the existence of biases about the study of the area. "I suspect this is the case across other campuses, too," he said.
Theory vs. practice
Besides offering background courses to students, Princeton faculty members also conduct research with the potential to influence policy.
"Our academic institutions play a very, very important role in examining and criticizing the arguments and the policies that have been adopted," Wilson School diplomat-in-residence Edmund Hull '71 said. "And there's a great need for that, especially when you have policies that have been counterproductive and unsuccessful."
At the University, departments from history to religion have scrambled to mobilize their reservoirs of academic capacity as the importance of the region surges. Experts remain divided, however, over how much politics should influence their research.
Many NES academics feel that the role of the University is not to support national security, but rather to focus on pure academia, Reynolds said. This is akin to the situation in the wake of the Vietnam War, when scholars in history and the social sciences disdained research that related to statecraft out of the fear that such research would become "knowledge in the service of empire," he said.
Though the gap between scholars and bureaucrats has grown, Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter '80 said she recognizes the importance of theoretical work in formulating government policy. "We need that work to push the boundaries in a way that does filter back and affect the policy practice," she said. "Without the pure scholars we'd just be talking to ourselves."
The academic environment, however, can be hostile to government agendas. In the Wilson School's Princeton Project for National Security, an effort to create an alternative national security strategy for the post-9/11 world, there is not one member who is affiliated directly with the NES department.
NES recently saw the departure of Michael Doran GS '97, a controversial assistant professor of contemporary Middle Eastern studies. Both Doran and NES professor emeritus Bernard Lewis are cited by critics as having ties too close to the U.S. government. Doran now works for the National Security Council, leaving a void in the contemporary field in the NES department. Slaughter said that Doran would otherwise have been involved with the Princeton Project for National Security, which will release its final report later this month.
Though there have been questions about the impartiality of some professors, it remains largely unclear whether professors' political inclinations influence their teaching and research. Jamal said that the politics department attempts to be "academic above all else ... The ideological inclinations don't enter into department discussions, teachings or seminars. We're very committed to putting all viewpoints on the table."
Nevertheless, "the study of the Middle East is inherently a politically charged study," Reynolds said. "The study of the Middle East is so heated right now that it's virtually impossible to speak on contemporary Middle East affairs without being attacked for being politicized."
Demand for expertise
The University has made a series of faculty hires in Middle Eastern studies after 9/11, including Jamal, who is fluent in Arabic and has studied both international relations and Muslim-American culture post 9/11. Other key hires include assistant professors Reynolds and Julie Taylor in the NES department, both young academics who have studied the region closely.
Additionally, the history and religion departments recently hired James McDougall and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, respectively. The Wilson School has recruited former Middle East ambassadors Daniel Kurtzer and Hull, who have valuable connections in Washington and abroad. The school is also looking to add another international relations faculty member this year.
The reasons for the spate of hires is a "sense of urgency, that you simply could not be a top flight institution and not have people who are able to think really hard about global security issues," Slaughter said.
Despite this, both Jamal and Reynolds worry that after 9/11, a crop of experts have appeared around the country who have little cultural immersion in the region. "I'm not saying that you have to have spent years in the region to be able to talk about the issue," Jamal said, "but what we're beginning to see is people professing expertise on a region that they are not truly experts on. I wonder if this adds to our understanding of the region."
In the nation's service?
Despite burgeoning interest in the Middle East, not all who study the region in college prefer to continue working in the area after graduation. With so many other lucrative options for an Ivy League graduate, many students opt not to work in academics or in government service.
Those who abandon Middle Eastern studies after graduation may do so simply because they find it easier to work elsewhere. "The processes for joining the government are often very, very protracted and entail a lot of obstacles," Hull said. "And I think this is discouraging for students ... There are very convenient and very rewarding alternatives in the areas of banking and consulting, and a lot of students take the path of less resistance."
Even for students who do wish to work in the nation's service by becoming Middle East experts, government may not be the best option. In a 2004 Ivy Club newsletter, former CIA inspector general and current Wilson School professor Frederick Hitz '61 wrote that there is a "nationwide calamity facing federal government recruiters in elite colleges," where students "want to be assured that their efforts will make a difference, and they believe that is more likely in a nongovernmental organization like Doctors Without Borders or Care."
Therefore, though more students are studying the Middle East, the government remains in dire need of knowledgeable bureaucrats and policymakers. "The pendulum has swung too far in the nongovernmental sector," Slaughter said. "The government needs top people throughout, and we're seeing the Kennedy generation retire; we are not seeing replacements."
"The government is only as good as the people in it ... it's not going to get any better if all the people who could make it better are choosing not to go in."
"I think that students are too enamored of one-cause politics," Slaughter added. "There's a moral security for working for an NGO because you know it's a good cause and you can go to sleep at night knowing you did well. You don't have to face the tradeoffs that you would face in government."
In the end, for students who do enter the public policy field of either government or NGO service, Reynolds emphasizes that thorough and thoughtful scholarship in Middle Eastern studies "gives students a background to play a role in policymaking. Students need to know to challenge their assumptions, and be willing to pause for a moment and consider alternative points of view and other value systems."
As this generation attempts to serve as so many generations have done before, it must also grapple with an array of problems independent of the event. "The world is too much shaped by 9/11," Slaughter said. "We can be focused on preventing another 9/11 and have avian flu epidemics that can kill millions, or nuclear proliferation."
"The real question is how you honor 9/11 from the national tragedy perspective and give it the weight that is its due while avoiding having it shape our thinking so much that it actually creates additional dangers for us."