[N.B.: An invitation to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of Harvard University's Center for Middle East Studies prompted the following reflections.]
In the years after World War II, Americans came to realize that the Cold War demanded expertise on the world's regions; Harvard University responded to this need in 1954 by establishing the Center for Middle East Studies and hiring H.A.R. Gibb (1895-1971), arguably the biggest name in Middle East studies of that era. Gibb gave the new center instant credibility but also surrounded himself with minor scholars who lasted well beyond his own tenure. Specialists in their beer agree – as do I, who spent the years 1969-86 in and out of the CMES, getting an A.B. and a Ph.D. along the way – that Harvard's work on the Middle East has been distinctly less successful than that at other major research universities, including UCLA and Princeton.
Further, the poor state of Middle East studies at Harvard reflects the judgment of the university administration that the field is a hopeless morass – something first learned in the debacle over Nadav Safran's conference on politics and Islam in 1985 and relearned again and again in subsequent years (most recently, in the embarrassing episode days ago of returning $2.5 million in cash to the United Arab Emirates). As Martin Kramer wrote in his pathbreaking book on Middle East studies, Ivory Towers on Sand, "Harvard tolerated its Middle East center (it brought in money), but never respected it."
Beyond Harvard's problems, there is the larger issue of the failure of Middle Eastern studies, as documented in particular by Kramer and also by Norvell B. De Atkine and myself in "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" The public critique of Middle East studies has been undertaken by Campus Watch, a unique project begun in September 2002 with the goal of improving the field.
None of these problems, however, are in any way acknowledged in the "CMES Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration Schedule" that details festivities planned for Oct. 30-31, 2004 in Cambridge, Mass.
The outline suggests a mood somewhere between smug ("Lunch with brief reminiscences about CMES") and self-congratulatory ("An Israeli at CMES or why did I go to the States to study the Middle East?"), with not a word of self-criticism, not an iota of awareness of the field's troubles, and not a place on the program for a critic ready to point these out. But, then, what might one expect of Middle East studies? (August 9, 2004)