Some reviewers have called this book the definitive study of the American University of Beirut (AUB), but author Betty Anderson, associate professor of Middle East History at Boston University, writes more modestly that hers is "a history of AUB and only one of many stories that can be told". Whatever the eventual conclusion, the book is fascinating, comprehensive and extensively documented.
Anderson portrays the evolution of the AUB from the vantage point of its administration, curriculum, student body and the interaction among them. Going well beyond the campus walls, the book analyses the institution in the context of its local and regional environment. It traces the pivotal political events that impacted on the university, and explores how the competing trends of Arab nationalism and US-inspired liberal education coalesced to mold it. In this sense, the book is a case study of the East-West encounter in the field of education. Developments at the AUB are also compared to other educational experiences, particularly in the US. Thus, while stressing the AUB's uniqueness in many respects, Anderson also brings it into the global discourse on student politics and the relation between education and society.
The author's nuanced and dynamic approach is well-suited to capture the inordinate number of transitions which occurred at the AUB under the impact of tumultuous events. The most obvious transition is from its establishment in 1866 as a missionary school, the Syrian Protestant College, heavy on classical subjects, to becoming, in 1920, the American University of Beirut, offering a liberal arts curriculum. This transition paralleled moves at US colleges, towards a more secular education designed to teach analytical skills rather than a fixed body of knowledge. The university also transitioned from Arabic to English as the language of instruction, from a largely American teaching staff to having more Arab professors, from a predominantly Lebanese and Christian student body to a more diverse one, and from an all-male college to admitting women as early as 1921. Though fully integrating female students was a slow and reluctantly embarked upon process, still AUB was a vanguard in the region in this respect, and way ahead of the US universities on which it was modelled that didn't accept women until decades later. In addition, there were the many transitions and adaptations required to keep the university functioning during years of civil war and to rebuild it in the aftermath.
Through all these transitions, Anderson consistently tracks the growth of students' agency as documented in numerous campus publications, for students were quick to use the critical thinking skills they acquired at AUB to demand a greater say in their education. Starting from their first protest in 1882, partially sparked by the forced resignation of a professor for championing Darwinism, "the students felt free to attack the administration for not fulfilling the ideals attached to American education". (p. 44) While the character building and modernity espoused by the university's founding fathers dovetailed with the aims of the late 19th century Arab Awakening or nahda, and were eagerly embraced by students, events of the 20th century reshuffled the deck. The colonial division of the area, the1948 Palestine War, and the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s, led students to challenge the claims of their American professors about the superiority of Western civilisation and the America way.
Supported by progressive Arab professors from Philip Hitti to Constantine Zurayk, students sought new models for their Arab identity and more instruction in Arabic. Reacting to political events, they staged frequent on-campus demonstrations for Arab nationalist causes led by George Habash. Though not specifically targeting the university, student demands for influence over the curriculum and the right to political activism implicitly challenged the administration, often leading to conflict. After the 1967 war, protests virtually exploded, paralleling the world-wide student rebellion, and increasingly focusing on support to the Palestinian resistance movement. "More so than in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the student protestors demanded that the administration accept the intersection of freedom of speech, freedom of action and educational growth as the existential element of their AUB education." (p. 152)
Obviously, AUB graduates will want to read this book, but Anderson's comprehensive approach and sharp analysis should appeal to an even broader audience. The book is highly readable not least because of Anderson's passion for the subject. In the acknowledgements, she describes how she was tantalised by Beirut and AUB on her first visit in 2000. After a decade of returning yearly to do research for this book, she reports, "Whenever I walk through the main gate, I still get the same catch in my throat I did that first time." (p. ix)