Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM
Chicago Room (Palmer House Hilton)
In the wake of the Syrian Civil War of 1860 and the American Civil War, a group of American missionaries working in Ottoman Beirut embarked on their most ambitious and influential project: establishing the Syrian Protestant College, which, in 1921, became the American University of Beirut. In many histories, the College, and the university that it became, serves as a symbol of America’s orientation towards its Orient, both the culmination of the New England Puritan evangelistic ethos and the beginning of a paternalistic educational project. This narrative reflects its founders’ ideologies and narratives. Their memoirs, magazines, and pamphlets presented the College as a font of enlightenment for an ignorant land, a worthy endeavor because Ottoman Syria’s people lacked knowledge and educational institutions with real value. A prospectus for British donors called the region’s educational institutions “partial, deceptive, and perverting,” and described Syria’s “native” doctors as “quacks and medical jugglers.” However, if we put aside this ideological posturing and examine how the College actually operated in the context of nineteenth century Beirut, we will see that the school provided instruction in modes of knowledge that its founders disparaged, imitated the institutions that they called “inadequate” or “perverting,” and asked the “quacks and medical jugglers” to endorse its graduates. The College was not, and never could be, purely American. Its corporate structure, staff, and curriculum reflected the values of Ottoman officials and Syrian intellectuals as well as American churchmen and capitalists. It was not an Amherst on the Mediterranean, but a hybrid between a Puritan college, an Ottoman military training school, and a madrassa. This missionary school, a cornerstone of America’s early encounter with the Middle East drew prestige from, and upheld, the hegemony of Muslim intellectuals and the Ottoman state, complicating its founders’ identities and ideologies.