Some may ask, why establish a Middle East Institute in the heart of the Middle West? Why set it in a faith based, liberal arts university? The rationale could not be more compelling: It is a citizenship responsibility and humanitarian obligation.
Put in the most basic context, the fate of humankind has never been more interwoven with unprecedented security challenges. Jeopardized at one end by weapons of mass destruction and at the other by hatred-driven anarchy, civilization and civilized values are being challenged in unprecedented ways. Vulnerability is now the state of man, everywhere.
The bottom line case for international studies is thus a risk management one: the necessity to help students understand more deeply the world in which we live and, as a consequence, be able to assist society at large in developing the wisdom, policies, and tools to avoid the apocalypse. The only credible methodology to secure and ennoble life on the planet is to build habits and techniques of conflict resolution that do not involve recourse to violence at every level of social interaction. This can only occur if there is instilled in peoples around the earth a sense of common destiny, of shared community, of appreciation for the core importance of loving, or at least respecting, thy neighbor instead of hating what makes him different.
As important as controversies of the day, politics of the moment, may be, they are generally surface concerns. To understand problems on the surface it is necessary to know the depths below: the history and culture of one’s own society and that of others, even the most distant.
What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of the basics in education. Traditionally, the basics are about the three “R’s,” which here in Iowa are sometimes understood to be “‘readin, ‘ritin, and ‘restlin.” However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizen understanding of other cultures as well as our own communities.
To understand and compete in today’s market of goods and ideas we need a fourth “R,” what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as “reality” – which includes relevant knowledge of the world and its people near and far.
How can we compete in our own markets if we don’t understand our own culture and its enormous variety of subcultures, or abroad if we don’t understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?
How can we understand our own era and the place of our own values if we don’t study other faith systems – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?
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How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?
How can we undergird our civic institutions and precipitate sound public policy if we don’t understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?
What if society allows liberal arts and international studies to fade in significance? Is it not likely that America’s capacity to lead the world and manage our own institutions of governance and commerce will diminish?
To fail to study history and ponder deeply what it means to be human, to refuse to contemplate the human condition revealed so resplendently in great literature, and to decline to think through the sources of our religious differences and the ethical and philosophical quandaries of the day is to impoverish our potential for making good decisions for ourselves and for our country.