Arab Protesters in the American Classroom: Notes on a Failure worth Repeating

Have you seen the Time magazine cover story by Kurt Andersen today? How great that “The Protester” was named Person of the Year for 2011! And how great that an Arab woman is the featured icon! Yet, as much as I applaud the thousands of people who swept through Tahrir Square in January and who continue to help move the revolution into permanent democratic reform in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, I feel obliged to go on the record about a different kind of encounter with The Arab Protester that I witnessed this year, and which did not turn out so well. I’m not sure why, exactly, it failed. But two things are sure: the videoconference held between students of the University of Notre Dame and the American University of Cairo was a dismal flop. And I’d willingly do it again.

In preparation for our session in early November, students of both classes (my class on the French Revolution at ND, and a political science class at AUC) agreed on texts to prepare: chapter one of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The idea was to discuss the origins and importance of human rights for democratic political progress. When the class convened, however, what ensued were mainly ad hominem attacks on American foreign policy uttered by classmates in Cairo who were visibly upset by the rise of military presence in their city streets, anxious about the potential for fraud in their imminent elections, and assumed that both were caused by a meddling superpower, namely the United States. They were seeking a target for their anger, and the eight Americas in my class were apparently good game. We got an earful. Although some of my students joined in the spirited discussion and appreciated the emotional tenor of this exchange which was truly “revolutionary,” others were unnerved by the anger it incited. One timid soul in my class was almost in tears, and later complained about the “unprofessionalism” of the event, saying that she wished she had never been there.

So why rehash this fiasco?

Because I think it is a good reminder that: 1) revolutionary groups are often violent; they need a target, and they may act in irrational ways. 2) revolutionaries may act irrationally even toward those people who are sympathetic to their feelings, if they are deemed insufficiently fervent in their support. Supporters need to do more than just voice their feelings; some kind of action is called for. 3) in order to be successful, revolutionaries need more than the infrastructure and communication skills outlined in the Time magazine article (p. 61), they also some human skills, e.g. an appreciation for history, an awareness of crowd behavior, and especially, mature leadership. 4) protesters may make for exciting viewing, and participating in a protest itself is good for the soul of any democratically-minded citizen. But it is exasperating to dialogue with a revolution-in-progress in the classroom. The calm, the ability to step back and seek perspective, are really difficult to achieve when a battle is raging outside.

Maybe I should lay off videoconferencing with AUC for a while. Teaching flesh-and-blood students in person feels hard enough on most days. But the memory of this event, as flawed as it was, remains the most powerful image of my past semester in the classroom. I suspect that a little anger and “unprofessionalism” are just what we need to bring human rights into living color… and incite some indignation right here at home.

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