By Oliver Ramsay Gray for The Daily Star
The absence of high-level humanities research in Lebanon is widespread and brings with it consequences that go beyond academia. A main aspect of the poor state of humanities in Lebanon is the failure to bridge the gap between academia and a wider audience. Despite Lebanon’s pride and reputation in higher education there is a notable absence of public intellectuals.
The lack of public-academic engagement weakens the humanities’ reputation as it gives off the impression that the humanities are of little worth to society.
“Colloquially, to philosophize is to bullshit,” said Rami El Ali, assistant professor of Philosophy at the Lebanese American University.
“[That’s because] it’s not immediately obvious what we’re contributing to society.”
Ali said it was understandable “because this is a post-war society [and people] are very concerned about making a living.”
This reputation is reinforced by many parents who are well known for placing pressure on their children to study science, engineering, or medicine – a “serious problem,” according to Selim Deringil, professor of History at LAU. Only four sophomore entry students enrolled in LAU’s Translation program this year, and not one in Arabic, History, or Philosophy.
Deringil explained that this is a common characteristic among developing nations, and is by no means limited to Lebanon.
Financial struggles and job prospects in the country play their part as well, tying into the low status and low priority given to the humanities. Abdul Rahim Abu-Husayn, professor of History at the American University of Beirut pointed out that “in the West, you can live by writing... here you cannot.”
Despite the 40 or so universities that Lebanon boasts, Abu-Husayn dismissed their ability to sustain and support an academic culture. “Apart from a few institutions, the others are just dispensing degrees and making money,” he said.
The problems begin in secondary school teaching that is also failing the humanities.
There is a need for history students to “relearn” what they studied at school, according to Abu-Husayn. “I succeed with 50 percent of them. I fail with the other 50 percent,” he said.
It is not only the narrow confines of the course, however. The wider humanities culture at school is severely lacking and uninspiring Deringil explained.
“They [students] have the idea that they just have to memorize,” he said. “They just don’t like reading.” It is no surprise on that report that the humanities are easily dismissed as a soft subject.
In the professional arena of academia there are issues as well. There is a widespread lack of engagement with recent Lebanese history in both research and teaching at other leading institutions.
Currently not one professor at the AUB’s history faculty is conducting sustained research into post-World War II Lebanese history. Abu-Husayn explained that “our department is rather conservative in this respect.” He added, however, that history was very useful for understanding contemporary affairs.
This is in part due to the significance of the relationship between the humanities and politics according to Deringil. “It teaches you to think, it teaches you to question... and not accept received wisdoms,” he said.
But given what he also describes as the “amazing baggage of recent memory,” this is problematic to say the least.
History is an extremely contentious subject and because of this “one of the major bones of contention that can lead to civil conflict,” as Abu-Husayn said he experienced even within the classroom when he began to teach early Islamic history. “Even academic historians generally tend to follow a sectarian history,” he said.
Another telltale sign of the shortcomings of the humanities in Lebanon is the persistence of inaccuracies believed to be historical facts. A common myth is that Fakhr al-Din I met Sultan Selim I, who bestowed upon him the title of sultan al-barr (sultan of the land). However, Kamal Salibi in an article published in 1973 entitled “The Secret of the House of Ma’n” proved that Fakhr al-Din I actually died 10 years before the meeting was meant to have taken place. Yet the story persists.
Another myth, according to Deringil is the belief, particularly among Christians, that Youssef Bey Karam opposed and resisted the Ottoman Empire.
Records have proved that Karam had tried to become an Ottoman official himself.
The myths, and the inaccuracies they entail, are built up around particular communities and have contributed to divisions within society by reinforcing separate, distinct identities. Deringil called for steps to bridge such gaps. “I think it’s a very important part of our profession to reach out to people who are not academics,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re doing enough ourselves to [implement] that.”
Ali has gone beyond the realm of academia and has recently been involved with the Beirut Madinati movement and is now an assembly member – “something like Beirut Madinati, a lot of the people who are there have done stuff that has to do with the humanities.”
From the Secular Club at AUB to the Intersectional Feminist Club at LAU, political activism is closely connected with the humanities.
In light of the struggling humanities disciplines, this is a worrying connection for Ali, who noted that “none of our problems are problems that have to do with science and technology.”