Cultural Crossings: Imperial Designs, Transnational Education, and the Middle East

AHA Session 59
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia Hall 8 (Washington Hilton)
Douglas J. Little, Clark University
Ellen Fleischmann, University of Dayton

Session Abstract

This panel, which includes historians of the United States and the Middle East, analyzes the roles and consequences of Anglo-American educational interventions in the Middle East from the 1890s to the 1950s. The panelists focus on individuals and institutions that established missionary schools in the Ottoman Empire, public educational initiatives in the Mandates for Iraq and Palestine, and the private sources of funding that linked overseas training to Iran’s modernization drive.  Each paper traces how Great Britain and the United States exported pedagogical models or educational policies to further their strategic interests in the region. The presenters adopt a multidimensional approach including the examination of the complex set of interactions between governments and individuals, as well as their historical antecedents, local consequences, and international reverberations. They argue that cultural crossings – understood through western schools, their students and alumni, educators, and their institutional backers – require not simply an analysis of encounters and ideas. A transnational framework demands an exploration of how educational networks were enmeshed in geopolitical maneuvering and great power competition, andhow these networks created new sites of resistance, negotiation, and adaptation in local environments.

This framework for understanding transnational education allows for two historiographical interventions. First, it contributes to a growing literature on foreign involvement in schooling, nation-building, and cultural projects in the Middle East. Second, it weighs in on debates surrounding the meanings, definitions, and methodologies of transnational history that still remain unresolved. Both Reeves-Ellington and Shannon focus on the cultural and political consequences of nominally private institutions and their connections to the widening set of U.S. interests in the region. The paper by Reeves-Ellington on the American College for Girls in Constantinople during the last years of the Ottoman Empire illuminates the ways in which the faculty and students at this former mission school became a voice for American influence and a channel for U.S. political and commercial interests in the Near East as a consequence of political changes in the empire and the United States. Shannon’s paper examines the fraught nature of American involvement in Iranian education during the 1950s. He shows how American institutions and foundations sponsored international education to promote the Shah of Iran’s rapid project of socio-economic modernization to strengthen the high-level alliance between Washington and Tehran. Falb shows how British civil servants in the Departments of Education in the British Mandates for Iraq and Palestine served as colonial representatives, despite the cultural unpalatability and economic infeasibility of direct colonialism after the First World War. Her paper explores the shifting nature of the colonial state through the eyes of transnational actors and the ways in which they represented that state to populations under its control.

The panel uses a synthetic methodology and an original perspective for studying cultural crossings. By charting the ruptures and continuities of the transnational dimensions of Anglo-American educational interventions in the Middle East, this panel unearths the multiple points of intersection that produced individual transformations, generated new social formations, and altered power in the international system.

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