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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 165-166



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Teaching Middle Eastern History against the Headlines

Magnus T. Bernhardsson and Sally Charnow


Despite the long-standing cultural, economic, political, and military ties between the United States and the Middle East, the teaching of modern Middle Eastern history in American academic institutions is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many universities and colleges do not regularly offer courses on Middle Eastern history and do not have faculty who specialize in the field. Very often the field has grown and positions have been filled as a response to the various wars and crises in the region. For example, the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79 and the terrorist attacks of September 11 brought an unprecedented demand for scholars in Middle Eastern studies.

It is unfortunate that it requires tragic and violent events to make people interested in Middle Eastern history. For scholars in Middle Eastern studies, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it can be enlivening to find that there is interest in one's field and research. But on the other hand, this interest is often politically driven, polarizing the field and its scholars, engendering divisive and destructive effects.

The following essays focus on the pleasures and challenges of teaching Middle Eastern history in the American academic context. As both essays demonstrate, it is indeed difficult to navigate between the clamor of media headlines and its stated assumptions and the polyglot voices of the primary source materials. In the United States today, there are many groups that take a proprietary stance over the Middle East, whether for ethnic, political, or religious reasons. Their view of the Middle [End Page 165] East is often based on wishful thinking or idealism, which may be far removed from the historical conditions of the region or the concerns or reality of the contemporary inhabitants, whether in Israel, Egypt, or Iran. All too often students predicate their discussion and analysis of the class material on current events. This proclivity can lead instructors to interpret and, in fact, mold the past so that it has contemporary relevance. Given the cliché-ridden, sound bite format of current media analysis, students often seek to find simple solutions to contemporary conflicts in the complex realities of the past. The following essays suggest ways to overcome these challenges and to present students with a meaningful way to interpret history.

 



Magnus T. Bernhardsson teaches modern Middle Eastern history at Hofstra University. He received a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from Yale University in 1999. He is the author of the forthcoming Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nationalism in Modern Iraq (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003). He is currently working on a cultural and political history of Iraq between 1941 and 1991.

Sally Charnow teaches modern European history and women's studies at Hofsra University. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in 1999 and is currently working on a book titled Theatre, Politics, and the Modern in Fin de Siècle Paris.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1453
Print ISSN
0163-6545
Pages
pp. 165-166
Launched on MUSE
2003-05-23
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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