LEBANON-The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education/American Sheikhs

By Majstorac-Kobiljski, Aleksandra | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

LEBANON-The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education/American Sheikhs


Majstorac-Kobiljski, Aleksandra, The Middle East Journal


The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education, by Betty S. Anderson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011. 254 pages. $55.

American Sheikhs, by Brian VanDeMark. Amherst and New York: Prometheus Books, 2011. 252 pages. $25.

Reviewed by Aleksandra Majstorac-Kobiljski

Betty S. Anderson's The American University of Beirut is a well-crafted work exploring the institutional and educational history of the college established in 1866 by a group of American missionaries under the name of Syrian Protestant College (SPC). Anderson highlights the agency of the students in shaping the college, an innovative approach and welcome counterweight to extant narratives that stress the role of university presidents and a few prominent faculty members. By making students' voices the cornerstone of this meticulously researched book, Anderson makes a powerful case for students' agency. She argues that although protests on campus have not always achieved their stated goals, taken together with campus activism, they were just as important, if not more important, than the agency of faculty members, the administration, and donors in making the university a vibrant force in the region.

In chapter 1, Anderson vividly introduces her subject and offers an overview of the book's key concepts, most notably questions of student agency and student-administration relations. Chapter 2 offers an excellent synthesis of the complex transition between Classical and Liberal educational models in 19th century American higher education, as well as a condensed account of the SPC's early history, including its first major student protest of 1882. In chapters 3 and 4, Anderson addresses the gendered nature of education dispensed at an institution that had yet to retire the legacy of its Protestant founding fathers and find peace with scientific inquiry and liberal arts education. Of particular interest is her analysis of what the college's agenda of "making men" meant for its female students (women began to be accepted in 1921). As Anderson clearly shows, women had to tread carefully because many eyes were on them. Unlike men, they faced constant questions - direct as well as indirect - regarding their right to be in the classroom. Women's responses were mostly addressed to their fellow students, but to a certain extent also to the faculty and administrators, who were initially less than enthusiastic to have women in the classroom - a point that warranted more attention. Despite its liberalism, Bayard Dodge's administration wished to divert as many women from the campus as possible. Rescue came with the opening of the American Junior College for Women (AJCW) in 1927. From then until 1951, all women desiring a college education at AUB (the acronym commonly used for the American University of Beirut) were not allowed to enroll as freshmen or sophomores, regardless of their academic achievements. They had to graduate from the women's junior college first before being allowed to pass through the Main Gate as AUB students. Once there, female students became increasingly vocal, asserting not only their presence but also taking on leadership roles in the male-dominated student press on campus. Among the highlights of the book are Chapters 5 and 6, in which Anderson focuses on two waves of student activism that inflenced the campus well into this century. The first, from the 1930s to 1950s, centered on the student societies of al 'Urwa al-Wuthqa and the Student Council; the second started in 1968 and ended with the student takeovers of the campus in 1971 and 1974.

Anderson makes a significant argument: students helped shape the university and, in so doing, made it of Beirut and of the Arab world (p. 3). Yet, here it would have been worthwhile for Anderson to explore more fully AUB's intellectual roots in the Arab nahda of the second half of the 19th century. In establishing the college, American missionaries found inspiration more in the innovative educational initiatives of Arab reformers, such as Butros al-Bustani (and an associated fear of becoming irrelevant, unless they followed such initiatives), than in their sense of Christian service. …

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