Marc Lynch

Changing Middle East Studies, part 2

Scott Jaschik at Insider Higher Ed has a good article today discussing my post from last week about the coming influx of Iraq war veterans into the field of Middle East Studies.  He does a great job of rounding up a variety of reactions, including comments from the President-elect of the Middle East Studies Association ...

Scott Jaschik at Insider Higher Ed has a good article today discussing my post from last week about the coming influx of Iraq war veterans into the field of Middle East Studies.  He does a great job of rounding up a variety of reactions, including comments from the President-elect of the Middle East Studies Association and the President of the Association of Middle East Scholars.   Highly recommended — and I hope it helps push this conversation further. 

I’ve already said my piece, but wanted to pass on a few of the more interesting comments I’ve received or seen (in addition to the very thoughtful comments attached to the original post):

  • Dan Drezner, on our humble blog

    "To put it bluntly, most top political scientists don’t have a lot of experience beyond being political scientists.  That is to say, the top Ph.D. students often enter graduate school straight from undergraduate programs.  They might have interesting summer internships, but otherwise have limited hands-on experience with politics or international relations….. 

    The problem comes when everyone in a profession pursues the identical career track — to the point where those who deviate from the career track are thought of as strange or different.  At that point, the profession loses something ineffable. 

    So, former members of the military should be ecouraged to enter Ph.D. programs — as should those who worked on the ground for NGOs and civil affairs branches of the government.  I can’t guarantee that it will lead to better scholarship.  At a minimum, however, it improves the quality of the teaching and the conversations that take place between colleagues.  And I’m pretty confident that that leads to better research."

  • Bernard Finel, formerly of Georgetown and now at the American Security Project: 

    "I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer.  But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be.  I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since).  And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.”  They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

    History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding.  The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French.  I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well.  Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?"

  • An experienced Washington Middle East policy hand who prefers to remain anonymous:  "I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field."

I will update with other constructive comments and links as I come across them.

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