Teaching American History to Muslim Exchange Students

by Ted Widmer

First American edition of the Koran, 1806 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)Everyone knows that the election of 2004 marked a pivotal turning point for the American people. That point was brought home forcefully by the experience of teaching American history that summer to a group of twenty-one young Muslim students from universities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The election signals an important test for the fragile set of beliefs that we are trying so hard to export under the rubric of democracy, for if we can show our would-be imitators around the world a fair contest in which Republicans and Democrats argue their positions effectively, it will go far to improve our credibility in the nation-building business. Even in the current partisan political climate, Americans know that our persuasiveness abroad is linked to the success of our democratic rituals at home. As the seventeenth-century Puritan governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, said, and nearly every politician since has repeated, the eyes of the world are upon us. We need to live up to our rhetoric.

It is encouraging to report that a little-known program started by the State Department is helping the United States do just that. The department has received a fair amount of publicity—most of it negative—for some of its efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. A new satellite TV network—Al Hurra, “The Free One,” is trying to reach young Muslims with music and news. The results have been somewhat disappointing.

Fortunately, a new kind of summer school pioneered by the State Department is providing a candle in the darkness. In the summer of 2003, the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs created the first American Studies Institutes on three college campuses. Washington College, where I teach, hosted students from South Asia. Dickinson College hosted students from North Africa and the Middle East. And Southern Illinois University-Carbondale hosted students from Iraq. The results were magical. In 2004, the program was slightly expanded, and included Georgetown and Purdue Universities, Washington College, and the University of Delaware.

Washington College’s six-week program began in late June, with twenty-one sleepy South Asians arriving at Dulles and BWI airports after long passages from a destination so far away that they flew both east and west to get there. Only one had ever left her country before, and most had never been on a plane, or even away from their families. Yet all the students, selected by US Embassy officials from hundreds of applicants, were gifted English speakers and clearly motivated. On our way back from the airport, we stopped for refreshments at a convenience store run by Indian-Americans, and everyone got out of the bus for photographs and rapid conversation in Hindi. There were a lot of unplanned moments like that.

Our program was divided into different themed weeks. The first, “Birthrights,” explored early American history from the age of exploration through the Constitution. We began with the idea that Columbus was searching for India when he happened upon the New World, and the students could instantly identify with the reason for his search—that Europeans needed to spice up their bland food (the students found American cuisine laughably boring). A visit to a seventeenth-century Quaker meetinghouse—a structure that was moving in its simplicity—provoked an animated conversation about similarities between Islam and some of the egalitarian sects populating North America in the colonial period. The Muslim students reminded us that they consider Christians and Jews to be fellow “people of the Book,” and far closer to their tradition than Hindus and Buddhists. Long conversations about the American Revolution and early republic prompted comparisons to various features of the South Asian experience, and searching conversations about whether the United States is historically an imperial or anti-imperial nation. As the students were quick to remind us, America’s resolution of federal issues in the 1780s and 1790s hardly offered the final word on the matter, and each of the three South Asian nations is still dealing with the same tensions over representation that the American founders faced. All summer it was like this—obscure episodes from the American past proved to be fertile places to begin long conversations about the aspirations that unite all people.

Our second week, “Civil Rights,” looked more critically at the American experience and the many ways in which different groups—African Americans, women, immigrants—have been denied political participation. Again, our past spoke to the students, and a day devoted to slavery and the Civil War prompted arresting comments about the caste system in South Asia and the civil wars that gave birth to all three South Asian nations. One remarkable day was devoted to frank discussion of the gay marriage movement. We tried never to speak down to them, but always to address the most complicated topics that we ourselves are facing. That formula seemed to work, because this was one of our best sessions. Jonathan Rauch, the author of a recent book on gay marriage, led an electrifying group discussion about human sexuality and ways of incorporating minority rights into majority cultures. Since several of the students were already expecting to enter into arranged marriages, we found surprising pockets of sympathy (and some opposition as well) to the argument that marriage is a right, and that love should have something to do with it.

Week three was devoted to the small town in which our college is located—Chestertown, Maryland—and the ways in which Americans actually live their lives, far from the history books. We spent a long session with Chestertown’s mayor, Margot Bailey, who impressed our female students with her tenacity at standing up to her (mostly male) opponents, and described her long and successful campaign to keep Wal-Mart out of a small, historic town with mom-and-pop businesses. Another great day came when our congressman, Wayne Gilchrest, spent two hours with the students, answering every question they could throw at him. Gilchrest, a former high school US history teacher, instantly got where we were coming from, and enjoyed the students as much as they enjoyed him. Many came at him with tough questions—they were glad to get a Republican after hearing from a lot of Democratic academics—but he handled them well, and spoke openly about some of his own reservations over US foreign policy.

Weeks four and five were specifically devoted to this huge topic, and gave the students a chance to give vent to their limitless irritation with our foreign policy and their almost equally limitless hope that we will improve it and in so doing, live up to our own standards. It will come as no surprise that the topics that exercise them the most are Iraq, US policies in the Middle East, and the dismissive way in which the United States is perceived to treat Muslims (Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo being exhibits A and B). But it was impressive to see how well-informed they were, and how effectively they used our own history and traditions to argue against some of our policies. Anti-Americanism is not as simple a phenomenon as it is usually portrayed, and there is a great deal of frustrated admiration underneath the anger that seems to be roiling the world’s peoples at the moment. To the students’ credit, they won’t let us get away with just parroting slogans about democracy—they want the real thing, and they want a single standard for all people. It was difficult to answer their criticism that most Americans have very little understanding of how our foreign policy actually affects their lives, as it indisputably does.

During these deliberations, we enjoyed a two-day trip to New York City, visiting the United Nations and a former US ambassador to India (Frank Wisner), sampling South Asian cuisine from numerous restaurants, and like most first-time visitors to New York, staying awake for nearly the entire visit. During a history talk I gave on the bus on the way back to Chestertown, nearly every student fell asleep. I took that to be a sign of a successful trip.

Our final week was spent in Washington, DC, visiting the shrines of American democracy, worshiping at a mosque, taking in an exhibit on Islamic art at the National Gallery, and attending final briefings at the State Department. Our final banquet, in a Lebanese restaurant, was a tearjerker as we realized, with amazement, how close we had all become to one another.

A number of lessons became clearer to me after the institute had ended. The first was simply how effective American history—all periods—can be as a universal language joining together people from different parts of the world, equally concerned about the state of democracy and the role of the lone superpower in advancing it. Every people on earth takes a strong interest in America, and yet most know very little about our history and the concrete steps we took to become who we are. Teachers need to step into this gap. With a little creative tweaking, and some imaginative team teaching, American History and International Studies can be one and the same. It’s good for each.

It was a helpful coincidence that the Democratic convention took place in our final week, because nearly every speaker seemed to mention that the American Revolution, which began in Boston, is an ongoing experiment whose final result is not yet foreseeable. That point never seemed more true than after a summer with these students, who were able to point out our imperfections, but who were frank in their admiration of what Americans have achieved, and were hopeful for their own fragile efforts to build democracy. As they argued on their first day in the United States, our election is only one of several big ones in 2004 which will be held in places ranging from Spain to Venezuela. The recent peaceful transfer of power in India, the world’s biggest democracy, was in many ways as important as the decision Americans are about to make.

I hope the ASI experience is not over. We have plans to hold a reunion in South Asia at some point, and we are currently staying in touch through a list-serv that is unbelievably active, as any list-serv including a group of near-teenagers has to be, no matter what country they are from. I now cringe every time I read the headlines from that part of the world—assassination attempts in Pakistan, bombs exploded at opposition party meetings in Bangladesh, infernos at poorly built schools in India—and when I think of the challenges facing these brave young men and women. But I take heart from the fact that there are so many young people out there trying to build a future that works. Fifty-four percent of India’s billion people are under age twenty-five, and surely it makes sense, from every conceivable viewpoint, to engage them.

There is no doubt that the State Department has achieved something special—not only in conceiving the program, but also in giving teachers the independence necessary to teach well. Americans do not always realize what a potent source of strength our educational system offers, and despite many new restrictions on foreign students, it is comforting to know that one part of the federal government is rediscovering a sense of pride in one of our most effective forms of diplomacy. I hope other teachers of American history will think hard about ways to use their gifts to reach out to other places and traditions where democracy is not just a word in a textbook, but an essential path to a better world.

Ted Widmer is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library. An award-winning author, Widmer is widely published on topics in American history and politics. His first book, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (2000), was the recipient of the 2001 Washington Irving Literary Medal. He is the author of Martin Van Buren (2005), and Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (2008). When this article was published he was an associate professor of history at Washington College and director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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