Hamilton should incorporate a Middle Eastern Studies major into its curriculum

by Scott Milne '14 and Joshua Yates '14

 Imagine for a moment that Hamilton is a bustling city.  Skyscrapers called the Chinese and History departments dominate the skyline, and a diverse citizenry representing our various cultural departments frequent thriving shops run by the Economics department.  Clean, wide highways shoot out from the city’s borders like the sun’s rays, allowing successful passage into just about any region of the world.  The road to China is number one in the country, paved with gold, a road to behold.  But the road leading to the Middle East is a ghastly sight; unpaved and narrow, many citizens are deterred from pursuing this back alley. 

This seems like a strange metaphor, but it is appropriate.  The course catalog is certainly an impressive collection of educational offerings. But there is an utter lack of courses that focus on the Middle East. One must sift through multiple departments for relevant classes (that may or may not be offered during the course of a year) with a collective scope that can best be described as limited.  While multiple professors teach Chinese language from first-term through advanced levels, for example, Hamilton boasts only a single instructor of Arabic. Through this neglect, current students receive a limited education about the area, and prospective students interested in the Middle East will look elsewhere. 

The Middle East is an incredibly rich and fascinating region that should be studied for its own sake, but it is also incredibly relevant to the current world climate.  As Mirreille Koukjian, professor of Arabic, pointed out in an e-mail, the Middle East is the site of multiple U.S. wars,  contains much of the world’s oil supply and is the birthplace of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.Not to mention, the Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the most complicated and heartbreaking quarrels in the world today.  We have now merely scratched the surface of the political, economic, cultural and social importance of the Middle East. All of these are consequential issues in contemporary American life, areas where educated Hamilton alumni could affect change.  And this is the region Hamilton chooses to ignore in its curriculum?

But our criticism must be constructive to make a worthwhile change.  Professor of History Shoshana Keller, relayed that she supports a heavier focus on the Middle East, but remained realistic. “To build a serious program we would need permanent, tenure-track faculty in several key fields: language study (Arabic and perhaps Persian or Turkish as well); religion; political science, history and ideally anthropology or economics,” she wrote in an e-mail.

She also suggested the creation of some kind of Islamic World Studies program. This program would be a great addition to Hamilton’s curriculum, since Islam has an incredibly storied history and continues to influence and explain the actions and policies of many countries in the Middle East. One cannot fully understand the Middle East without understanding Islam.  But if Hamilton decides to travel a more traditional route, it should look to its peer institutions.  NESCAC schools, such as Williams, Middlebury and Wesleyan, have Middle Eastern Studies programs.  It is clear that this type of curriculum is well within reach of a small liberal arts institution.

Change is obviously not an overnight process, but Hamilton should begin courting accomplished professors who can teach these classes.  In the meantime, many would appreciate the creation of a Middle Eastern Studies minor at Hamilton.  This could simply be an aggregate of existing classes related to the Middle East, but a minor organized and endorsed by the College would be a great first step towards a greater program.
Ultimately, we want Hamilton to understand that its students want this addition.  Not only do we sincerely want the chance to expand our knowledge and understanding of the Middle East, but also to reach out intelligently to an area that has been largely hostile to America for too long.  We want to improve that metaphorical road between our two worlds.  As idealist as it sounds, knowledge is power, and right now, Hamilton’s connection to the Middle East is weak.  But it can be strong with some simple changes to our curriculum.