Saturday, July 05, 2008

How To Teach Arabic

Responding to this WaPo op-ed by Joel Pollack (related to Noah?) on how Arab language courses are taught with an Arabist (and thus anti-Israel) slant, Matthew Yglesias mocking commends the Post for being "brave" and "speaking truth to weakness."
Given that in the United States there are virtually no outlets aside from major newspaper and magazines, broadcast and cable television networks, and hugely popular books in which pro-western or pro-Israel interpretations of Middle Eastern politics are available, it's absolutely vital that we eliminate this scourge of Arabism from our campuses.

I bit too nonchalant, I think. Certainly, some of Pollack's complaints seem rather trivial (the film about the Islamic scholar battling fundamentalist didn't mention that he had Jewish transcribers? Anti-semitism!), but I think Matt is misinterpreting how the Israeli/Arab conflict is presented on college campuses on at least a couple of levels (in part because I think Matt overestimates the pro-Israel bias in American society generally).

For starters, even if American society writ large is permeated with Zionist propaganda, that doesn't mean colleges are. We can debate whether being pro-Israel makes one an oppressed minority in American universities, but it is at least clear that the anti-Israel point of view gets plenty of airtime and representation in the collegiate context. And in my observation at Carleton, the folks who were most likely to take Arabic were the most likely to hold these (anti-Israel) views already. That's a generalization -- one of my friends who is essentially a fascist was also one of the first students in our Arabic program -- but it shouldn't surprise that folks interested in Arabic would be ones who already were sympathetic to the broad Arab outlook. You'd forgive me then, if I'm not thrilled about the next generation of critical middle eastern foreign service operatives are one's whose ideology in the region is anti-Israel from front-to-back.

The mistake boils down to the common and inaccurate (in general, but particularly in a college context) sense that Americans only hear the Israeli side of the story, that nobody ever thinks of the Palestinians, and that thus anything that portrays the "voice" of the Palestinian or Arab side -- no matter what the substantive content -- is a valuable addition to our moral and political development (and by extension, anything that gives the Israeli or Jewish side of the story is superfluous or extraneous).


Unknown said...

Pollack really does come across as an idiot in that piece. I guess it's preferable in his eyes for language classes to never expose students to the culture of the peoples who *speak* the language.

For example, I am outraged, outraged I say, that a French class would ever expose the frail sensibilities of students to the misery permeating the works of Victor Hugo.

Anonymous said...

"We can debate whether being pro-Israel makes one an oppressed minority in American universities..."

Really? Can we? Because the "why indeed, it does!" side of this case would be totally amusing.

Seriously, David, could you be any more self-pitying and self-righteous about this issue? For one, it would help if you put the cloying oppression rhetoric on hold for, like, two seconds. Is it possible that a viewpoint can be marginal in a discourse without those who hold it being, "oppressed minorities"? This totally smacks of the "PC IS TURNING OUR CAMPUSES INTO LEFTIST INDOCTRINATION MACHINES" - which is interesting, since that's a claim you mostly mock, except, conveniently enough, on the one issue where you depart from a lot of contemporary leftists, and suddenly you swallow the argument hook, line and sinker -- women's studies is trivially not anti-male, af-am studies is trivially not anti-white, but arab studies does seem to produce a large number of intelligent folk who disagree with me, so suddenly I'm suspicious!

What I'm saying is, you can be in a disagreement with the majority and attribute it not, sanctimoniously, to the injustice of your own oppression but, perhaps more humbly, to the fact that your arguments just aren't that fucking convincing. And then you suck it up and get to work trying to convince people -- I mean, what the hell happened to "Vive, the unpopular cause!" Not only do you not want to engage in deliberation with your peers - because introducing evidence or perspectives that against you is not morally enriching and necessarily implies your own uselessness? since when?!?! - but you apparently think it's "worth debating" whether or not the fact that you are expected to deliberate against a majority is facially unjust.

Are you at all aware of how whiny this sounds, especially when the context for introducing your claim is you-not-liking-Matt-Yglesias-not-liking-some-editorial-because-some-admittedly-shitty-generalization-about-who-you-knew-who-took-Arabic-and-how-Anti-Isreal-you-personally-feel-they-are-cuts-against? WAH.

David Schraub said...

That's a lot of self-righteousness directed at a half-sentence expressing ambivalence.

Anonymous said...

I generally don't get into this argument, but my experience with people at Carleton has actually shown them leaning more towards Palestinian sympathy (not a representative sample mind you).

Pablo Kenney said...

I would agree that Carleton leans "pro-Palestinian" with the operative word being "leans." I'm not sure that this is a zero-sum equation in which support for Palestine means being against Israel.

Honestly, as far as Carleton goes I think that people who are either Pro-Israel or Pro-Palestinian can accurately claim to be minorities. The plurality at Carleton, and I imagine at most thoughtful colleges or universities would put themselves in an "other" category. That category would include the hopeless, the ambivalent, and the practical. This third category is the one that is often ignored. They are uncomfortable being labeled either pro-isreali or pro-palestinian and they are certainly not anti anyone, but rather they are interesting in finding a working solution in the region.

If Arabic classes were becoming radical madrassas where anilation of Israel were being preached, I would concede that there is a problem. As it is, it seems that students are taking in one point of view (in that context), but need only to look out to America's greater social context to get the other side of the argument (no, i'm not arguing that its pervasive, I'm just arguing that the other point of view is widely available from many reputable sources in our country).

PG said...

If someone asked me if I was "pro-Palestinian," I probably would say yes just because of my exposure to people on the right who have seriously contemplated whether it would be best to kill all the Palestinians in order to end the problem. All of these terms are relative. There's probably some folks in the Muslim world who are described by their acquaintances as "pro-Israeli" because they don't think the "push them into the sea" plan is a good one.

As Pablo says, if the Arabic teachers are actively teaching anti-Semitism or jihad against Israel's existence in class, that's a huge problem and such teachers should be fired or removed from teaching Arabic. If they merely talk a lot about the oppression of Palestinians, that's obnoxious (there's a LOT more to Arab culture than bitching about Israel), but not best addressed through alarmist op-eds. Rather, it would be great if universities affirmatively sought out Arab Christians and Arab Jews for Arabic teaching positions, in order to show the commonality of Arab culture across religious lines. South Asian studies departments have a mix of religious backgrounds among their scholars, reflecting the mix in the region.