January 2, 2014

The Old and the New

Fighting fundamentalism; overcoming strengths that weaken; teaching yesterday’s ways

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism

by Karima Bennoune. W.W. Norton & Co., 2013.

The pounding on her father’s door in Algiers led Karima Bennoune, then a human rights lawyer for Amnesty International, on a journey that turned her into “the woman who makes people weep.” Home for a visit in 1993, Bennoune and her professor father knew they probably faced Islamic fundamentalists on the other side of the door—a group that had killed an intellectual every Tuesday for a month. It was the beginning of Algeria’s “dark decade,” when fundamentalist groups killed some 200,000 Algerians.

Read that again: 200,000 people were murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria in the 1990s. That’s precisely why Bennoune wrote this book: No one noticed. No one did anything. She visited 286 people of Muslim heritage in 26 countries and Skyped even more to ask how they fight fundamentalism and live with the personal risks that involves. The author rejects the so-called modern clash of civilizations and writes that “the clashes within civilizations … are much more defining today.” 

The more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are as diverse as members of any religious sect. Lumping them all together makes it as easy for the knee-jerk Westerner to hate them as for the fundamentalists themselves to reject any questioning of their beliefs or actions. A Muslim woman in Pakistan tells Bennoune, “I would call myself an atheist,” knowing full well that that admission could get her killed as quickly as removing her head scarf in public. She also understands better than we in the West often do that Islamic extremism has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with politics. 

The West, specifically the United States, often backs the oxymoronic “moderate fundamentalists” because they can keep order, just as we have often backed other autocrats. Keeping order makes it easier to do business—damn the human rights consequences. That monolithic lump of Muslims blinds us to the nuances of who is really on the side of rights and freedom, often long enough for extremists to step into the breach while we vacillate on picking our new allies. 

This is a disturbing book—assassinations, torture, intimidation, repression, disappeared sons and brothers, or those freed after years of captivity returning permanently broken but refusing to back down. Bennoune intends it as such. You do not interview people and make them weep unless you plan for your readers to react with tears as well. The reader’s own guilt is not far away either. Yet some of the prose is awkward, which detracts from the compelling rush of personal accounts. There are also a disproportionate number of stories from women. 

Women, of course, receive some of the extremists’ harshest treatment, and as a Muslim woman, Bennoune probably had better access to them. But the lower percentage of male voices starts to make this sound more like gender warfare than a global sociopolitical threat. Her comparison of Islamism to fascism is apt and heightens this from the realm of human rights to that of world war.


Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem

by Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

Play to your strengths. Hire for the rest. How often have you heard that? 

Well, forget it. As these two leadership consultants have found, you may be so overdoing what you’re good at that you’re bad. You’re forceful; that got you where you are. But you’re so forceful that no one can argue with you, and you shut down the people who should be advising you. You’re curious. But now you go in so many different, new directions that your company has lost focus. You’re great at bringing in new business, but you’re so focused on growth that you gloss over operations. 

The book is very short—fewer than 100 pages—with big type and lots of space between the lines. You can read it in one sitting, underline the advice that applies to you and then take yourself to the woodshed for a lesson in humility. Know your strengths, but maintain moderation in all things. And hire for the rest.


Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education

by Mark Edmundson. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Forget for a moment that technology has changed everything, including education. Forget that student loan debt is at an all-time high. Forget that many high school students can barely read yet still are accepted into college. Forget that tenure pushes the average age of college professors to almost 60, with many in their 70s and 80s. Forget all of that, and ask yourself what’s really wrong with higher education.

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and himself in his early 60s, says it’s because it’s not like the good old days. Back then, universities turned out scholars. Post-secondary education taught you how to think, not how to do. Liberal arts professors took unformed lumps of adolescent clay and turned them into well-rounded, thoughtful individuals. And the world was better for it. Edmundson was certainly happier—happier than the grumpy curmudgeon who wrote this book. 

The book’s problem is not its argument but its tone. Universities did paint themselves into a financial corner, the author correctly points out. They built dorms and classrooms, hired lots of professors and promised to keep some of them for life, all for the post-World War II baby boomers. When that generation’s children hit college age, there just weren’t that many of them. All those dorms and classrooms, all that staff needed students and, the author argues, universities drastically lowered admission standards to keep the desks full. Meanwhile, employers wanted people with skills. Well-rounded and thoughtful were great, but what about spreadsheets and cost-benefit analysis and how to write a contract? A college degree became a necessity, and students wanted a guarantee that the thousands they borrowed would get them a job. As a result, education itself, what actually happens in the classroom, changed.

All of that is true. But change is constant outside the ivory tower, so why not inside? Edmundson, however, would like higher education rolled back to the early 1960s. 

Edmundson’s otherwise valid arguments come with a heavy note of disdain, intellectual snobbery and an almost audible sneer. He looks down his nose at his students, his fellow professors and, most dismissively, administrators. Everyone, “and I mean all,” he writes, should “at least consider becoming English majors.” Apparently we need no scientists, mathematicians, professionals of any kind or, obviously, business people. 

I agree with Edmundson on many fronts, and I love that he quotes everyone from Proust to Blake to Malcolm X—the author who inspired him to become a scholar. The job of higher education is certainly not to turn out small-minded people with low expectations and minor dreams. But time did not stop in the 19th century. We do not all live in a book-lined study. The modern world is getting on with it and demands that we do the same. Unless Edmundson has some better ideas about how to improve higher education for the real world we occupy, I suggest he light his pipe and sit quietly with a good book.