Studying the modern Middle East is so hot right now. That's why the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department needs to cast off its proud tradition of classical scholarship in Middle Eastern languages and cultures and instead focus on the politics of the contemporary Middle East—despite the fact that the department's history and methodology make it ill-equipped to deal with that field appropriately.
That, in essence, is the view advanced in a recent Herald news story on the demands to reshape NELC ("The mirage of modern Middle East study at Yale," Nov. 12). The article failed to present a single person's view challenging the contention that NELC's program of study should be dramatically re-oriented toward the modern world. But, in fact, there are several reasons why the University's habit of adding modern Middle East scholars to the history and political science departments, rather than to NELC, is indeed admirable.
The quest to modernize NELC appears driven by relevance-obsessed students who are eager to study the here-and-now without acquiring basic historical knowledge, and by professors who seek to boost enrollments by allowing the headlines to dictate their curriculum. Elisabeth Bosley, ES '06, presented the student gripe: "The ancient civilization requirement of the NELC major is kind of ridiculous because what I'm interested in is modern Middle Eastern conflicts." This argument against NELC's one-term ancient civilization requirement is ridiculous, since it relies on the dubious assumption that the region's past bears absolutely no relevance to its historical development and current reality.
Senior Arabic lector Bassam Frangieh explains, "With wars, destruction, everywhere, every day, this is a new reality. It ought to change the nature of courses offered at Yale and everywhere else." Following this apocalyptic view of the present, dramatic curricular changes are in order; presumably, NELC needs to act immediately and begin offering classes on these wars and destruction. And if NELC did start offering courses on, say, United States policy in Iraq, there is no question that it would be catering to popular student interest, and that the department's enrollments would increase.
But would these curricular changes actually benefit students in the long run, or would they instead lead to a relaxation of academic methods and to classes that constitute little more than instruction in "appropriate" political sentiment about the foreign policy debates du jour? Would the perspective and insight gained by studying events in the broader context of time—as in history—or in the broader context of political structures and trends—as in political science—be lost? One place we might look for answers to these questions is Columbia University's embattled Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department, which NELC DUS Hala Nassar holds up as the model for her "future vision" for Yale's department.
Columbia's MEALAC has become a flashpoint for constant, bitter recriminations about political bias and balance in the classroom, particularly around the always controversial topics of Israel and Iraq. Many students feel their professors use their classrooms to advance specific political agendas. The professors, for their part, believe that such critiques are an attempt to silence their views and limit their academic freedom. In this type of politically charged environment, learning suffers.
This is hardly a situation we ought to strive to duplicate here. Orienting the NELC department around hot, current-events issues in the absence of a rigorous framework guiding its academic methodology will almost inevitably lead it toward polarization along the partisan battlelines of contemporary politics, to the detriment of the higher ideals of scholarship.
There is a better way for Yale to increase its offerings on the modern Middle East and at the same time prevent the problems that have developed in Middle East Studies programs at other universities: by expanding the treatment of the Middle East in the history and political science departments. These disciplines, with their universal methodologies useful for analyzing politics and policy in different areas of the world and across different time periods, can give students a coherent approach for understanding the contemporary Middle East. And if the Middle East craze passes, those analytical tools still might prove useful.
A "modernized" NELC, on the other hand, lacking such a coherent scholarly approach, risks deforming itself into an interdisciplinary mishmash of different courses united as much by political ideology as by methodology. As someone who is writing his senior essay on contemporary Middle Eastern politics, I certainly welcome new courses and faculty in that area. But the University will better serve those of us interested in the politics and history of different regions of the world by adding new faculty and courses in those disciplines that are best suited to teach politics and history—not by compartmentalizing scholarship based on geographic or cultural affinities.
Josh Goodman is a senior in Pierson College and a senior staff member of the Herald.