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Opening minds:

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Panel discusses education’s role in promoting understanding between United States and Arab world

Illustration of conference speakers Bartlett, Doraid, Mourani, and
Speakers at the conference included (from left) Thomas A. Bartlett, Moez Doraid, Mishka Moujabber Mourani, and Audrey Shabbas. (Illustration by Deirdre Doyle)

Can education help repair the frayed ties between the United States and the Arab world? With a regime toppling in Iraq, a panel of distinguished academics gathered in Harvard Hall last Saturday (April 12) afternoon to speak to the question and offer practical solutions for drawing the United States and the nations of the Middle East closer together through education. The panel, “Education’s Role in Promoting Understanding,” was part of a two-day symposium: “Promoting Understanding between the Arab World and the United States.” The event was organized and sponsored by the Harvard Arab Alumni Association and the Harvard Society of Arab Students. Each member of the panel gave a short address to the mostly Arab and Arab-American audience that filled the lecture hall, followed by a brief question-and-answer session.

Thomas A. Bartlett, interim president of the American University of Cairo, spoke first. He stressed the importance of optimism, even in the face of current events, and asked the audience to look to the future. While it may not have an impact in the next six months or even six years, Bartlett said that education could have a very great impact on relations between the United States and the Arab world in the next generation. That said, he acknowledged the “great barrier” of ignorance and misperception that separates America and the Middle East – a divide, he said, that is often fostered by the images of movies and television rather than “systematic study.”

Bartlett said there was little tradition of teaching about the United States in the Arab world and vice versa. Where opportunities to learn about each other’s culture and society do exist – study abroad, higher education – most citizens’ experience of the other is often fragmented, uneven, and accidental.

U.S. students have opportunities to study in countries like Lebanon and Egypt, but often only as specialists or academics looking at a career in Middle Eastern studies. Arab students come to America, but generally to study engineering, math, and science. When they return, though, they are regarded as experts on America and often advise their governments, a situation Bartlett compared to “a blind person describing an elephant” limb by limb.

“(Arab students) never had any reason or occasion to find out what was the shape of the whole elephant,” he said.

Bartlett said that technical education on all levels should be balanced with liberal education. That way, students from America and the Arab world would have a more comprehensive understanding of each other’s societies.

“[Many Arabs miss] the opportunity to be not only good engineers, but to have real insights as to how their country can work most effectively in influencing and dealing with this behemoth on the other side of the ocean,” he said.

Bartlett also proposed that opportunities for study abroad be expanded, particularly for U.S. students who, he claimed, were at a “teachable moment” given the war on terrorism and Iraq. Finally, he urged his colleagues to think about education more broadly, saying that we should encourage programs that often teach through tourism, such as Elderhostel.

Moez Doraid, program adviser at the Regional Bureau for Arab States of the United Nations Development Program, argued against the notion of a “clash of cultures” espoused in particular by Albert J. Weatherhead University Professor Samuel P. Huntington. Doraid asserted the importance of education in fostering economic prosperity and understanding between people.

“What matters is education,” he said. “Human capital is certainly the dominant factor in progress and development.”

Doraid said that, contrary to popular perceptions, Arab nations have seen “incredible progress” in education. While acknowledging that half of Arab women are still illiterate, he noted that in recent years female literacy rates had tripled and many more girls were going to school.

According to Doraid, education has an important influence on prosperity, knowledge, and values. He stressed the importance of the evolution of the critical spirit in Arab culture in order to avoid “the pitfalls of national pride and narcissism.” This sort of education, he said, helps people to see different civilizations “not as global competitors for global dominance,” but as “movements in (modern civilization).”

Education was crucial, Doraid said, for dispelling stereotypes in which “religiosity is the main determinant of Arab identity.” Furthermore, he claimed there was “no historical reason” why Arab societies themselves had to focus on religion, rather than science or mathematics, particularly given the nature of their historic contributions to all areas of knowledge.

“This single-mindedness… feeds separatism in the non-Western world, helping to make it stronger than it already is,” he said. “The issue is very relevant to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Mishka Moujabber Mourani, senior vice president of International College (IC) in Lebanon, said that there is a tradition of successful U.S.-Arab educational interaction and cited her school’s roots in the 19th century American missionary movement as evidence. Unlike the French, who sought to “Francofy” Lebanon, U.S. missionaries had no imperial ambitions. They taught in Arabic and helped develop a new font, American Arabic, which reinvigorated Arabic printing, and thus Arabic learning and literature.

Mourani talked about the importance of early childhood education, “when values are formed.” She also urged the creation of more American primary and secondary schools in the Arab world – ones that enrolled Arab students in at least the same sorts of numbers as foreign children.

“There can be no understanding without knowledge of the other,” she said.

She urged a revamping of U.S. and Arab curricula and mentioned that American textbooks offer little of use to students of Arab culture. The same is true, she said, of Arab texts. To remedy this, Mourani advocated a renewed focus on teacher training, leadership training, and educational management, saying that the Arab world could learn much from American methods of curriculum creation and review. The scientific and technical education offered in the United States, she said, was also crucial to promoting the prosperity that would lessen the frustrations and resentments held by people living in poverty throughout the Middle East.

With the session winding down, the panel’s final speaker, Audrey Shabbas, offered advice to those wanting to promote understanding through the U.S. public schools. Shabbas, the executive director of Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR), suggested that, rather than focusing awareness efforts on state offices of education, local school boards, and principals, activists go directly to schoolteachers themselves, who are hungry for new teaching materials and curricula. Shabbas said it was most efficient to approach professional associations such as the Middle School Teachers Association, the Association of Catholic Educators, and the Association of Independent Schools. She reported that, happily, educators are more interested than ever in promoting understanding of the Arab world, often to do right by the Arab students in their classrooms.

“Our approach has always been proactive, not reactive,” she said. “Since 1989, we haven’t had to knock on any doors. Teachers are coming to us.”