By Enora Castagne, Marie Dhumieres
BEIRUT: With the beginning of the first full academic year at local universities and schools since the eruption of the “Arab Spring,” the phenomenon is finding its way into classroom discussions and coursework.
While some professors believe that it is too early to generate any rigorous academic conclusions, others are assigning their students research projects on the developments or using the topic to teach political or philosophical concepts.
At the American University of Beirut, political science professor Hilal Khashan says the Arab uprisings are “the hot topic of the year.” As such, he uses them in lectures but doesn’t have a specific portion of his curriculum devoted to them.
“It’s too early to talk about it as a separate subject,” he argues. “In two or three years we’ll be able to assess it.”
Khashan says students’ reactions usually vary according to the country, explaining that his students nearly unanimously support Egypt’s toppling of Hosni Mubarak, but are much more divided on Syria or Bahrain.
“Sectarian affiliations come first” for most students, he says, adding that many Shiite students stand by Syrian President Bashar Assad while Sunni students tend to support those protesting the regime.
At the Lebanese American University, political science professor Imad Salamey is conducting two research projects with his students on the Arab Spring. One group of students is trying to understand the timing of the protests, the reasons why they were successful, the most efficient tools used to rally protesters, and alternative political systems.
“Students are conducting interviews with organizers and activists, trying to find from their perspectives answers to these questions,” Salamey explains.
The second project looks into Lebanese attitudes toward the uprisings. Students hope to conduct 300 telephone interviews with people of different ages, genders, regions and sects.
Although his students are of diverse backgrounds, Salamey says that working on the subject hasn’t created tensions among them.
“We have people from very different backgrounds, sects and many different points of view, but we train them on research strategies … they’re very careful not to introduce any bias in their research.” Even during class discussions, he says his “well-educated and diplomatic” students are eager to learn and be objective.
Isabelle Mestre, a master’s student in political science at Saint Joseph University, says that discussions of the revolutions in the Arab world are, “unsurprisingly,” being incorporated in courses such as comparative political sociology and international human law and organizations.
While there are no specific courses on the region’s popular uprisings, Mestre says they are particularly fitting as empirical case studies and are essential material for thinking through theories presented in the courses.
She describes her colleagues as a rather homogeneous group as far as political opinions are concerned.
“Everybody agrees on the necessity of democracy, condemns repression and hopes for quick reform,” she says, citing Syria as an example: “I have never heard anyone defending Bashar Assad.”
She stresses, however, that she is talking about students from “the single major of political science, who broadly have the same French-educated, wealthy background.”
As for opinions on the unrest in North African countries, she says “people seem less concerned because it is relatively far from Lebanon.”
When asked about the potential for turmoil on campus brought on by the revolutions, she says that issues that are closer to home, rather than the uprisings, elicit the strongest emotions.
“They get much more emotional about the Palestinian issue … probably because it has been going on for a very long time, and they are more affected by the link between this question and their own history.”
Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University in Louaize and other universities, says the inclusion of current developments in the curriculum is “inevitable.”
He decided to include the uprising in his lectures when it became clear that were part of a long-term, identifiable phenomenon. “This means that you can start evaluating the consequences, building models and comparing the movements,” he explains.
Hanna works to avoid influencing students in any particular way. As he describes it, his aim is to try to explain all the parts of the problem and take as many different positions as possible to look at a situation.
One interesting aspect of the discussions in his classroom is that “students spontaneously project the Arab revolutions onto the situation in Lebanon.”
“They quickly start mentioning Syrian occupation, Martyrs Square in Beirut” and use new rhetoric and slogans that are circulating among Arab young people. They envision how a revolution could occur in Lebanon and are convinced that they, as young people, have power.
The topic of the uprisings is also finding its way into high school classrooms.
Sana Salhab, a philosophy teacher at the College Protestant Français, has been using the ongoing developments in the region in her course since the beginning of the year.
In the French educational system, the philosophy curriculum includes concepts such as “Freedom” and “Political Action.’’
“The Egyptian case,” she says, “was a perfect illustration to cover the notion of a ‘System.’”
“Moreover, it has a teaching advantage” as students are “enthusiastic to talk about it and understand it.”
Caroline Dawecoz just arrived in Beirut to teach English at Lycée Abdel Kader and has already used the revolutions a couple of times “when dealing with themes such as democracy or terrorism.” She uses a number of current affairs topics to encourage her students to speak, and is considering creating a separate lesson devoted to the uprisings.
“I know the administration allows me to talk about it even if it is sensitive, but I set limits,” she stresses. “These are young minds and we must stay as neutral as possible. I never ever give my point of view.”
The only topic she avoids is Syria, as she knows “it has close links with current events in Lebanon, and I cannot risk a mistake in the description of facts, or hurting someone’s feelings.”
“Moreover, even my colleagues do not agree on an objective description of the situation there, so I think we should just avoid this subject,” she adds.
Salhab describes a similar method of “simply giving [students] points of reference, in order for them to think on their own.”
“We must not impose any opinion on them,” Dawecoz agrees.
Students aren’t the only ones grappling with controversial issues, however. “The fiercest debates occur in the teachers’ room,” Salhab says.