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From Dhaka, With Hope

August 17, 2003|Ted Widmer | Ted Widmer directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown. He was director of speechwriting at the National Security Council from 1997 to 2000.

CHESTERTOWN, Md. — This sleepy town on Maryland's Eastern Shore is deeply rooted in the 18th century. Crab fishermen still ply the waters of the Chester River, and painstakingly restored homes bear witness to its history as a remote outpost of the British Empire long before it joined the upstart United States. Yet Chestertown has improbably become the laboratory for a bold new experiment in the war on terrorism.

Against this colonial backdrop, 21 young Muslim student leaders from South Asia, chosen from among hundreds of applicants, spent their first summer in the United States. Like their American counterparts, they went to cookouts, baseball games and Fourth of July parades. Unlike most Americans, they hotly debated the fine points of the U.S. Constitution, explored the rising importance of Islam in America and stayed up late at night seeking solutions to the Kashmir conflict.

Six months ago, the State Department asked me to organize the first American Studies Institute -- an experimental summer school on American values for students from the Muslim world. The brainchild of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the program is a visionary idea on several levels. By reaching out to foreign college students -- which the department's educational programs have not done for nearly half a century -- the program offers an alternative to the madrasas that have been training young Muslims in the fanatical extremes of anti-Americanism. By asking American colleges to run the programs, the federal government entrusts the teaching to independent scholars, avoids the taint of propaganda and widens public participation in our foreign policy.

In the 1990s, the U.S. committed a serious error when we eliminated many of the overseas cultural programs that had been in place since the Cold War. American educational centers and libraries were closed down in places like Pakistan, where they had never been more desperately needed, and under pressure from then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the U.S. Information Agency was folded into the State Department and effectively eliminated. Is there any wonder that foreigners have trouble understanding us?

But now, called to attention by the events of 9/11, the U.S. government is groggily waking up to the need to explain itself better to an uncomprehending, often resentful world. Just as we did in the late 1930s, when the State Department created a cultural division to counteract the rise of fascism, and again in the 1950s, when the Cold War led to some of our best efforts to wage cultural diplomacy, we are discovering new incentives to explain the ideas that animate us.

After some hurried spring planning, the first of three American Studies Institutes opened at the beginning of July. Twelve women and nine men, ages 19 to 27, came to Washington College from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. (A second program at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., taught Middle Eastern and North African students, while a third at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Ill., taught Iraqis). At Washington College, we prepared an ambitious five-week course of study that included reading, outside speakers, road trips and lots of classroom discussion. There was a heavy dose of American history, which they were not expecting, and a generous immersion in current events, which they were. We tried to tell the story from all sides, with pride in the things that Americans have done well and unflinching honesty about the things they have not.

Yes, there were hilariously inaccurate assumptions on both sides. We were told that all of the students would be vegetarians -- but the first one we met, Sazidul Islam of Bangladesh, told us that he was a pure carnivore who hated vegetables. For their entertainment, we planned a tasteful menu of Capra-esque Hollywood Golden Era films, but that fell apart after another Bangladeshi brought a suitcase full of recently pirated films he had bought for a dollar apiece at home. ("American Pie" is apparently very big in Dhaka.)

The students were expecting severe taskmasters, in coats and ties, asking them to memorize statistics confirming American superiority. Instead, they found typically irreverent young American academics. It was an education for us as well -- discovering our own deep reservoirs of patriotism too rarely expressed in academe, learning about the dignity of Islam, and in the end achieving something like equality on the scrubby cricket pitch we created, where it quickly became apparent to our amused students that none of us knew how to play the sport they loved.

From the pitch to the prayer house, daily lessons in tolerance followed.

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