I am taking a survey course on the history of the modern Middle East. The class isn’t exactly designed for a senior history major who has studied and traveled in the region and is writing an honors thesis about modern Middle Eastern history. Nonetheless, I am enjoying it. I never got the chance to take this class before. The Middle East/North Africa Studies program is new at Oberlin. (And I am happy to say that it appears to be growing quickly.) The professor is new–it is her first year–and she is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. She is younger than most of the professors I have had and her youth gives her an energy and an outlook that is fresh and exciting.
This professor has made a serious point of questioning some fundamental values that most Americans hold about modernity and progress. I don’t mean to suggest that she is any way a radical–her views are consistent with those of many academics. But she insists on making us ask ourselves whether or not we believe that Western culture is somehow superior to others.
When I put the question that way it sounds like an easy one, right? Most people, at least the people I know at Oberlin and the people I grew up with in New Jersey, would probably say “No one culture is better than another. To argue such a thing is simply racist!” But when you put it in the context of the modernization of the Middle East, that assumption butts up against another.
I don’t intend to write a blog post about Middle Eastern history at the turn of the twentieth century. Even I know that that would be boring to most people. So allow me to give a brief sketch: When “modernity” was introduced to the Middle East through European colonialism the effects were deleterious. Modernity, in this context, includes the modern economy, modern technology, modern conceptions of human rights and women’s rights and the state and secularism. Some fundamental stuff that we take for granted as good.
I bring up all of this as a way to get to an even more arcane point. (I’m impressed if you’re still reading at this point.) In order to sort out my feelings on this issue, I have found myself turning to the thinking of Richard Rorty. Rorty is an American philosopher whom I first encountered in Jed Deppman‘s Itineraries of Postmodernism class last year. (Jed is an absolute must-have professor if you are a humanities/social sciences student at Oberlin. You will not regret taking one of his classes.)
Rorty is a relativist, in a way. I won’t bore you by explaining the complex details of his philosophy; I barely understand them. Besides, that is a task far better left to John’s blog. But the basic idea is that all of our understanding of the world exists in language. There is no way to prove that one kind of language, or, more abstractly, “vocabulary” is better than another. Instead what you must do is be aware of the limitations of your vocabulary and engage in a kind of (I’m quoting a paper I wrote in Jed Deppman’s class) “radical self-conscious ethnocentrism.” Your vocabulary, the way you interact with reality, must constantly expand. But you have to believe in your beliefs.
And so there was my solution, in a way, to the question of the value of modernity as it was raised by my brilliant new history professor. I’m not sure I’ll bother articulating it to my classmates, but it works for me. I developed my own approach to this difficult question.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry. It doesn’t have to. But I think that I have just proven the true beauty of a liberal arts education.
Crossposted at Oberlin Blogs.