The announcement that the College has approved a new concentration in Islamic Civilization and Cultures is a welcome development and one that fits into the greater academic and student interest in the Middle East that has emerged over the last few years at Kenyon. Led by the concentration's director, NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel, the new program will "allow students to study systematically and coherently the global civilization of Islam - its religious traditions, histories and cultures - in all of its diversity," according to the approved proposal.
The new concentration will take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Middle East, and the professors who will be taking part come from the Religious Studies, History, Music, International Studies and Modern Languages Departments. In addition to courses that focus on the Islamicate world in at least two different departments, the concentration also has a language requirement, mandating "at least one year of instruction in an Islamicate language," though the only one Kenyon currently offers is Arabic. Off-campus study, though not required by the new concentration, is highly recommended and encouraged. In years past, Kenyon students interested in the Middle East have studied abroad in Cairo, Morocco, Damascus and Ramallah, and the new concentration should encourage even more interest in study-abroad opportunities in these places and others.
The approval of this new concentration can be seen as part of a pattern of greater interest and involvement in the Middle East at Kenyon. The Middle East Student Association (MESA), a student organization, is now in its second year of activity on campus. By screening movies, holding discussions, bringing in speakers and through its undergraduate journal, the MESA journal, MESA hopes to facilitate and provoke discussion of and interest in the Middle East at Kenyon. In addition, over the last few years, the Arabic program at Kenyon has become both more robust and more popular, thanks in large part to the hard work of Visiting Instructor of Arabic Sadika Ramahi. Having Arabic at Kenyon has allowed more students to study a uniquely beautiful and challenging language, and it has encouraged more students, equipped with the language skills they need, to study abroad in the Middle East. In recognition of the increased interest in the language and the Middle East in general, the administration should make Ramahi full-time (she currently also teaches at Denison University). Since the Modern Language department features multiple professors for most other languages, a full-time Arabic professor seems both feasible and important to continue the growth of Middle Eastern studies at Kenyon.
One also hopes this new concentration will allow a community of students interested in studying the Middle East to form on campus. In addition, the concentration will allow the College to demonstrate to potential students and professors of Arab descent that Kenyon is a place that understands and values their culture. Hopefully, when they look for a liberal-arts college to teach at or send their children to, Kenyon will be the first place that comes to mind.
The study of Middle Eastern politics and culture has traditionally been the province of research universities much larger than Kenyon. Through the approval of this new concentration, the promotion and popularity of Arabic and the activities of MESA, Kenyon is asserting itself as one of the leading liberal arts institutions in this field. The strengths of Kenyon's liberal arts academic approach, such as the encouragement of free debate and the close relationships between students and professors that are nurtured by the College's small size, will also be strengths in the study of the Middle East, a subject often fraught with difficult debates. As a region that is routinely misunderstood in the U.S., the Middle East would benefit greatly from the kind of study that this concentration will encourage.