With the focus of American international affairs on the Middle East and Central Asia, it is increasingly important for college students to study the cultures and politics of these areas. The UI established an Arabic-language program with the aid of federal grant money two years ago.
Currently, only beginning and intermediate Arabic is offered, a course sequence spanning four semesters. No course offerings exist in other critical Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages, such as Farsi, Kazakh, and Pashto, and very little is offered in areas of cultural and political studies of the region. Federal funds for these programs are becoming less available, and while the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has made the right decision in choosing to continue to fund the Arabic program without the federal grant, an Arabic major/minor program should be established, and course offerings should increase.
Iowa was the last Big Ten institution to offer Arabic-language courses, and the choices here still lag behind those at competing institutions. The University of Michigan and Ohio State University are home to two of the most highly regarded programs for the study of Middle Eastern languages and culture. The University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign similarly offers extensive coursework in Arabic and Farsi, as well as in the Middle Eastern languages of antiquity. A large number of premier Midwestern institutions, from Michigan and Ohio State to Notre Dame, allow students to major in Arabic studies. Even schools with less-extensive programs, such as Northwestern, allow for the inclusion of Arabic language study in a general Middle Eastern studies major or minor.
By contrast, any credit earned by a UI student in Arabic classes can only be applied to the general International Studies major or minor. The International Programs covers courses as disparate as Caribbean Studies and Global Media. While the opportunity does exist for students in the major to declare emphasis areas, such as Middle East and Muslim World Studies, the number of course offerings in these areas must be bolstered.
The study of these languages and cultures is incredibly relevant in today's society, with the United States becoming increasingly involved in the intricate geopolitical situation of the Middle East and Central Asia. As borders shift and regimes change, both new allies and enemies emerge. Just as the Cold War necessitated programs teaching Russian in American universities, now a new set of cultural barriers must be broken down to foster ties with an increasingly important part of the world.
If the UI has any hopes of building a reputation nationwide, it must keep its course offerings relevant in today's society. As other schools in the region have taken the initiative in providing coursework in this vital area, the UI must build on the experiences of these pioneer programs in designing courses for the study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures in the coming years.