Letters about Princeton's
Near Eastern Studies Department
I was delighted to see you focusing on our department in your Notebook (December 19, 2001). Allow me a slight correction which, you'll admit, is statistically of great significance in our case: We currently have five rather than the reported four undergraduates majoring in the department. This figure does not include the 12 to 15 certificate students the Near Eastern Program regularly attracts.
Erika H. Gilson
PAW's Notebook story "Near Eastern Studies Grow" (December 19, 2001), claims that Princetons Department of Near Eastern Studies "is the oldest of its kind in the country." In fact, Yales Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations enjoys this distinction. Americas first professor of Arabic, Edward Salisbury, was appointed at Yale in 1841 and taught the first courses in Arabic and Sanskrit in American history. Since there were no elective courses for undergraduates in those days, his was the first formal graduate appointment in American higher education and Arabic was Americas first purely graduate subject. Although biblical languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic, had been, at least in theory, part of the American college curriculum since the 17th century, effective instruction in them migrated to divinity schools founded for that purpose in the early 19th century. Yales chair in Arabic antedates creation of individual faculty positions in most other foreign languages taught in American colleges and universities today, so the study of Arabic and the Near East should not be presented as a crisis-driven discipline. In Salisburys time, modern European languages, when available at all, were "extras," like music lessons in the present curriculum, and Yale, for example, appointed a professor of German only in 1872. Academic departments, as the term is now used, emerged when universities were established in America; Yales academic department, called then "Semitic Languages and Literatures," was organized in 1886. One of the first programs in "area studies" was worked out between Yale and Columbia in 1905; what we would call "area studies" today was stimulated by World War II and its aftermath, bringing us back to PAW's 1947. Princetons Department of Near Eastern Studies, of which I am a proud graduate, is by these standards a youthful but honorable newcomer.
Princetons innovation was to stress contemporary, rather than medieval, Arabic, using an inductive method developed by the late Philip K. Hitti. Princeton also took a leadership position in teaching all three major Islamic languages: Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, including speaking and listening comprehension.
Benjamin R. Foster 68
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