|Posted on February 25, 2014 at 9:00 AM|
I recently returned from my first-ever visit to the Middle East, working with a university in one of the small oil-rich countries that ring the Persian Gulf. While my visit was brief, it was a life-changing experience for me.
One of the powerful lessons of my visit was the diversity of the Middle East and Muslims. The faculty at the university I visited are from 55 countries, most but not all from the Muslim world. I was struck by the diversity of their backgrounds and perspectives. Seeing them work together was a forceful reminder that, just as one cannot stereotype Christians (or people of any other faith), one cannot stereotype Muslims.
The other powerful lesson of my visit was how ignorant Americans are about the Middle East and Islam. When I told (college-educated) friends and family about my pending visit, their questions were invariably, “Is it safe?” and “What do you have to wear?” (The answers, for this particular country? “Safer than most of the U.S.” and “Business attire that covers my elbows and knees – no scarf.”)
One of my most memorable experiences was a conversation with a young man who dreams of coming to the United States and starting a business that he’s already planned out. (Yes, America is still viewed as the land of opportunity.) But he is a Palestinian, whose family is originally from the Gaza Strip, and therefore has no passport. (He was born in the country I visited but is not a citizen of it.) Does he fit the view most Americans have of Palestinians?
Why are Americans so uninformed? Part of the reason, I think, is that we are so geographically isolated. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are indeed big ponds, and it is expensive and time-consuming for people here to travel to other parts of the world. I envy Europeans who can travel to many other countries as quickly and easily as Americans might travel to the Caribbean.
But the other reason, I think, is that too few college students today are graduating with a solid liberal arts education, the kind that gives them the truly broad, global understanding and perspectives that the United States needs. Yes, most of the colleges I work with have a general education learning outcome or requirement on “diversity” or something “global,” but how do students achieve those outcomes? Are they studying what the United States really needs them to learn, or are they studying what the faculty want to teach?
Imagine what the world would be like if more Americans had that broad global perspective, even if they never work with someone from the Middle East. The liberal arts—done right—can change lives and society and the world even if it doesn’t directly impact one’s career.