About the time students from the Middle East were beginning to study in and about America, Americans were also beginning to study about and in the Middle East. Today, some 30 years after emerging as an accepted academic discipline, Middle East studies are suddenly and widely, popular at American colleges and universities. Courses in Arabic and other Middle East subjects - once tailored for diplomats and missionaries - now draw students who plan careers in banking, business, law, public health, education and urban studies. More surprisingly, perhaps, university "outreach" programs are developing and providing courses on the Middle East for both high school and adult-education programs.
Some American universities, certainly, have included Middle East courses in their curricula for years. Harvard introduced Arabic - as an adjunct to Biblical studies - in 1754 and Yale has offered Arabic since 1841. But as late as the 1930's only a dozen or so universities offered courses in Arabic - and at the graduate level only. More extensive scholarship in the field was limited to a handful of Orientalists who pored over classical Islamic texts or traveled abroad to dig up the ruins of ancient civilizations. In fact, neither Arabic literature nor Islamic culture was accepted as an academic discipline until 1947 when the late Philip K Hitti finally persuaded Princeton to establish its Department of Near Eastern Studies.
Hitti (See Aramco World, July-August 1971) had been pushing for formal recognition of Middle East studies since 1927 and had, in 1935, pioneered summer institutes in Arabic and Islamic studies. But today's proliferation of Middle East studies is more the result of key historic events: World War II, the post-war expansion of American international interests and responsibilities, the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik and, in 1973, the beginning of the energy crisis. Those events, together with developments related to them, slowly persuaded foundations, universities and governments to back programs of instruction in Middle Eastern languages - especially Arabic - and in Islamic culture and history.
The first development - World War II - created a demand for experts in areas of the world previously of no interest to the U. S. - areas such as the Middle East. To meet that demand the U.S. Army recruited and funded a few men like Hitti to set up crash programs in Arabic. Next came the post-war growth in America's international interests - which brought a measure of support from foundations and corporations such as Aramco. Then, a turning point, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957.
That achievement, a cold war coup that alarmed the United States, triggered a reappraisal of American education, galvanized the U.S. Congress into action and led to passage of Title VI of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) - which authorized support for strategic language and area studies. Under Title VI the U. S. Office of Education has subsequently allocated nearly $13 million to centers at qualifying universities to create or expand such programs. In the 1978-1979 academic year, for example, Title VI funds allocated $1,850,000, the largest sum ever, to 14 universities: Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Chicago and Pennsylvania, long-time ivory towers for Orientalists, and to the universities of Arizona, Texas (at Austin), Utah and Washington, Portland State, Georgetown, New York University, UCLA, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
In addition, Title VI money provided 142 graduate fellowships in Middle East studies, 109 of them for the Arabic-language area. The most recent of nearly 2,500 awarded since the passage of NDEA, those fellowships will help provide a continuing flow of qualified instructors for 123 American universities and colleges that now offer graduate and undergraduate programs in Middle East studies.
The energy crisis, which intensified American interest in the Middle East - and subsequently generated additional funding - stimulated another wave of interest in Middle East studies. But by then the approach to such studies had begun to change. Where Orientalists of the Hitti era once pursued knowledge for its own sake and concentrated on linguistics, today's Middle East specialists advocate a more utilitarian approach. As Walid Khalidy put it, "It is a pity that so many Middle East centers are still housing classical Arabic and pre-Islamic odes when, next door, nuclear proliferation is being discussed." Khalidy a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut and recently a visiting fellow at Harvard, says that today's needs are more topical and urgent. "Today there is much interest from many quarters which reach deeply into academia, and everyone has become more intellectually inquisitive about the Arab world."
Universities which continue to emphasize the roots of Islam and medieval studies - notably Princeton and, to a lesser degree, Harvard, Chicago, Michigan and Pennsylvania - argue that the modern "area studies" approach is too broad, and not demanding enough, to produce professionals with an adequate historical perspective and language ability. And even those in the utilitarian camp admit that they have a point. "No doubt about it," admits a professor who teaches interdisciplinary courses, "the narrow philological basis of the Orientalists was thorough."
Because of this conflict, Georgetown has developed still a third approach by establishing a new center for concentrated area study, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, to answer a need for Arab studies as distinct from Middle East studies. The reason, says Professor John Ruedy, chairman of the program, is that the utilitarian approach made the same fundamental error as the Orientalists, "in assuming that all the people of the Middle East could be studied as 'the other' just because they were different. This does not solve modern problems - economic, social or developmental. We hope to produce experts who will be functional in the Arabic language as well as professionally functional."
Despite their differences, however, Middle East specialists remain allies and together grapple with the problem of determining how a university can best teach, back research, maintain high academic standards and, at the same time, graduate men and women qualified for diverse careers and roles in a changing world.
Another change in approach - arising from a scarcity of professorships and other doctoral-level positions - involves a new emphasis on master's-level programs for those who are career-oriented. Some of these are in Islamic studies or Arabic literature and linguistics, some are an interdisciplinary concentration on the Middle East. The University of Chicago, for example, now awards an M.A.T. degree to teachers with a sub-speciality in the Middle East. And Michigan has established a unique master's program for teaching Arabic as a foreign language; not only Americans have enrolled but also Arabs sent by universities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria.
Other new programs provide joint training with a university's professional schools: business administration, law, public and urban policy, public.health, diplomacy and communications. Pennsylvania's law school now offers a diploma in Islamic law, while Harvard, Pennsylvania and the University of Washington offer graduate courses in Middle East economic systems. One of them, a graduate seminar on the economics of oil - open to students from the Harvard Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy - recently included four Japanese, one Pakistani and the public relations director of the Yemen Arab Republic.
Undergraduate courses in Middle East studies have also proliferated. In many universities undergraduates can include a concentration on the Middle East in their major, and some, like Texas, UCLA and Arizona, award an interdisciplinary degree in Middle East studies. Ricker College in Houlton, Maine has since 1969 offered a B.A in Muslim world studies, and gives academic credit for a junior year abroad at a college or university in a Muslim country. (See Aramco World, March-April 1975). Funded by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the government of Kuwait and Aramco, this program is intended to provide background to students who plan further specialized study and careers in fields dealing with the Middle East.
At the undergraduate level there are even students studying in Arab countries full-time. An estimated 50 American Muslims, for example, have been admitted to Saudi Arabia's universities - including the Islamic universities at Mecca, Medina and Riyadh - some with the help of the Muslim World League and the Muslim Students Association, others on their own. And in the 1970's two American graduate students who were not Muslim also studied in the kingdom. One was James Piscatori, now assistant professor of government at the University of Virginia. He says that he was the only Westerner among thousands of students on the Riyadh campus in 1974, where he lived in a youth hostel while working on his dissertation. More recently, Philip Suse, now completing his master's degree in international studies, attended the Arabic Language Institute in Riyadh.
In the U.S., so far, Portland State's is the only undergraduate program funded by NDEA, but recently some other U.S. grant money has been made available. The National Science Foundation, for example, has given a grant to the University of Chicago to locate and classify texts and translations - in the university's own collections - that are literary classics of Islamic civilizations. And John Marks, the program's administrator, hopes that translations of Islam's "50 great books" may some day be available to undergraduates. Another grant, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will help a committee headed by North Carolina history professor Herbert Bodman to produce an updated atlas of Islamic history plus a microfiche collection of printed materials, slides, syllabi and teachers' guides - the beginning of a data bank from which instructors can draw materials they need to teach undergraduate courses.
Middle East studies are also filtering into secondary schools and adult-education programs through what are called "outreach" programs - an attempt to offset what Arab-Americans see as cultural bias and ethnic stereotyping. Funded by the U.S. Office of Education, "outreach" centers tailor their programs to the needs of their communities, holding workshops for teachers and providing teaching materials. Arizona's center has outfitted a van with colorful photographs and artifacts which goes around to Tucson schools - sometimes accompanied by one of the university's Arab students. Harvard and the University of Utah have sent teachers, administrators, librarians and media specialists abroad for a first-hand view of the Middle East. It's expensive, but important, says Barbara Aswad, anthropology professor at Michigan's Wayne State. "How can a teacher generate enthusiasm in the classroom when all his knowledge comes from books? When you see a culture whole then you can revise your ideas and understand it better."
The "outreach" programs are also helping American businessmen in their quest for needed export markets. Traveling to the Middle East for the first time, many businessmen have learned how little Americans know of foreign language and culture - particularly in the Middle East. Today, therefore, they gratefully pack outreach-sponsored elementary grammars into their attache cases, and, at the University of Pennsylvania, take televised instruction in a language lab. At the University of Arizona, the Thunderbird School of International Management offers two-week seminars led by American experts and the cultural attaches of Arab embassies.
Some universities have also instituted lecture series and mini-courses, both credit and non-credit, and mounted exhibitions in university museums. Others have turned to television. Professors from Princeton and New York University, for example, have offered courses on the Middle East on "Sunrise Semester/' an early-morning, nationally televised production.
According to some of the professors, the response has been astonishing. Frank Peters, an NYU professor of Islamic philosophy and theology, offered lectures on Muhammad and the Koran and found that "there are an enormous number of people who can't sleep or else get up early to learn something." A similar response was reported by Bernard Lewis, Princeton's eminent professor of history who breezed through his series, and also by Peter Chelkowski, director of NYU's Near Eastern center, who didn't. He was so nervous on his debut before the cameras that he lapsed into Polish - a switch the control room did not notice but which delighted his Polish-American viewers.
American academics, these days, are also traveling more. Involved in burgeoning cross-cultural exchanges, some are on the road constantly, one day reading papers - in Arabic and English - at a University of Riyadh conference on history, the next attending a USC conference on the life of King Faisal. They attend such gatherings as Utah's international conference on comparative law (Islamic, Talmudic, Roman and British), Georgetown's on U.S. - Arab commercial and financial relations, and the University of Petroleum and Minerals' conference on solar energy.
They also undertake research projects - like UCLAs two-year study of the economic relationship among states in the Middle East - and manage to attend the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). A three-day convocation of some 700 academic, business, and government people, MESA offers panel discussions, workshops and papers on every aspect of Middle East studies.
Academia is also providing professors for Arab institutions of higher learning. Some 100 Arabic-speaking Americans now teach in Saudi Arabia. Most are specialists in such fields as engineering, computer science, and the humanities - but some, in a coals-to-Newcastle situation, are even involved in Arabic. One example is Dr. Zaki Abdel Malek, assistant professor of Arabic and linguistics at Utah, and director of a new program for teaching Arabic to Americans at Dhahran. Other American professors are teaching Arabic at Riyadh's Arabic Language Institute.
America's corps of Middle East specialists, moreover, has pushed far beyond the groves of academe. In what are clearly examples of the utilitarian approach, some specialists virtually commute between their campuses and Arab countries.
This is particularly true of those at universities with alumni in Saudi Arabia, many of whom now head university departments and government ministries. Economists from Harvard and MIT, for example, advise Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Planning on the country's third Five Year Development Plan, while specialists from USC help Bahrain tackle its problems of growth. They make surveys and evaluations on subjects as varied as nomadic response to irrigation development and the progress of family planning programs.
Despite that, however, the ivory tower contingent has by no means given up; indeed it seems to be making a comeback. Even as social and economic problems seem to be absorbing the attention of American Arabists, some universities have quietly begun to re-focus their attention on subjects dear to the Hitti-era Orientalists. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, a series of summer institutes on medieval studies recently brought together international Latinists, Byzantinists and Arabists to study the interaction of those cultures. It is not, obviously, a topical or urgent problem. But it is, says George Makdisi, Pennsylvania's professor of Islamic studies, important.
"We can no longer study these medieval cultures separately," Dr. Makdisi insists. "What we learn on one side of the Mediterranean throws light on the other. If there is so much of Arabic Islamic culture in medieval Latin culture, that means our culture in the West has been formed by many elements, among them, and very strongly among them, the Arab Islamic elements. We all belong to the same culture. Muslims are not Oriental in the way the Far East is Oriental. They are more like us."