Middle East studies needs focus, funds

From accounting to Zulu, selections in the University’s online coursebook cover a wide range of academic interests. But students looking for a structured program teaching the modern Middle East currently remain sorely disappointed.

As an institution couched in more than 300 years of history — and bureaucracy — Yale has not always been able to keep up with the academic interests of students, but we admire the University’s tendency to try. That said, study of the contemporary Middle East is hardly a new interest or a passing fad, and it is long past time to seriously acknowledge the subject’s importance formally and financially.

We thank the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for finally proposing a new, more modern track for the NELC major. The University has demonstrated and pursued interest in similar programs dealing with other regions, and there is no reason why Yale should still lack a centralized academic authority on the Mideast.

Frankly, we are astonished by the “gentleman’s agreement” that has allegedly governed Yale’s NELC department to varying degrees since the 1960s. We have few complaints against the available courses and programs dealing with the ancient and classical Middle East, but the University apparently consciously decided a coherent modern Middle East program was a luxury better left to Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. This was — and remains — a disservice to Yale students.

While NELC offers a bevy of classes on languages from throughout the region, the department sponsors few options, outside of virtually independent directed readings, for the study of Mideast culture. This semester, “Introduction to Modern Israeli Literature” was about the best to be found in the course index. While the department’s history courses have plenty to say about Muhammed, the crusaders and the Mongols, they shed little light on the Balfour Declaration, OPEC or al Qaida.

This is not to say such issues are not taught here. But NELC majors interested in studying aspects of the Middle East beyond languages currently have a much harder time meeting requirements than students with a similar interest in, say, Chinese or Italian. “The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict” is not cross-listed under NELC. Neither is “Islam Today: Jihad and Fundamentalism,” or even “Introduction to Middle East Politics.”

Current leaders of the NELC department have stated a desire to administer the proposed program themselves. While we believe this seems logical in most respects, we are concerned by the lack of departmental accommodation for related coursework. Department leaders have stressed a willingness to accept such classes for major credit, but as with the modern program itself, this policy remains informal.

This lack of formal structure must be corrected across the board if the University is to become a leader in what we consider one of today’s most important fields of study. More professors, more interdisciplinary cross-listing and specialized freshman seminars can all help the University press forward, but it is perhaps most critical simply that Yale recognize the importance of the modern Middle East within a liberal arts education. To continue avoiding that reality is hardly gentlemanly.

Comments