This weekend, I had the pleasure of going to Washington, D.C. with John Carroll’s Model Arab League to compete in the 2015 National Competition against a myriad of the best universities that the United States has to offer.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the interworkings of the Model Arab League (and presumably the majority of you are not), it is essentially an organization that holds competitions that serve as a venue for college students to congregate and play the role of an Arab League diplomat.
Every participating institution is designated a nation to represent, and at the end of the academic year there is a three-day-long contest in our nation’s capitol.
As a political science major with a focus on international relations, I was unsurprisingly in my own little nerd-vana. Our team, representing the United Arab Emirates, was pitted against some of the brightest and most ambitious global studies students in America (and in Egypt, for that matter, as the American University of Cairo also sent a delegation).
The level of political knowledge of some of the students there was remarkable. The event is sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and entails three days of conferences, lectures and most importantly, hours and hours of mock debate and hearings. The Council crafted different topics for debate that forced the “delegates” to put themselves in the shoes of Arab parliamentarians, encouraging critical thinking and careful political analysis, and I was thrilled to see JCU hold their own with some of the best and brightest in the country.
None, though, at least from my point of view, were as good nor as bright as the delegation from Cairo.
But hang on. This should serve as no great shock, as it is only logical that the political science students from Egypt (an actual Arab country) would prove to be better-versed in Arab politics than their American counterparts. After all, they have the opportunity to study such politics at its epicenter, right?
The catch is, however, that nearly none of the Egyptian students even studied politics. During scheduled events and after the program had ended on each of the days, I made a point to spend time with some of the Egyptians that I had befriended, and was amazed to find that very few of them actually centered their studies around anything even remotely political. You had prospective accountants and actuaries, journalists and sociologists, and even a few future doctors—but very few who dedicate much of their time to formal, institutional political study.
Many of the American students were global affairs or political majors, and many had a focus on the Arab world. There were, of course, several who were affiliated with the program despite pursuing careers in other fields, but the percentage of American political students was far higher than that of the Egyptians.
Nonetheless, their breadth of political knowledge, of current affairs and the ideological roles of each nation of the Arab League far surpassed that of the average American student. In addition, their impressive awareness was not strictly limited to the Arab world.
They know American and European history well, from the colonial period through the Cold War. They proved themselves as generally well-versed in subjects about which most higher-educated U.S. students know very little. They are truly well informed global citizens, something that you are hard-pressed to find stateside.
The whole experience got me thinking. How would your average American actuarial mathematics or biology major have faired in some of the discussions that went on at the competition? More than likely, the majority of U.S. college students can’t even find most of the Arab League nations on the map. Could you, with the utmost confidence, show me where Djibouti or Bahrain is?
The United States is the single most influential actor in the international political world. Our policies, regardless of whether you agree with them, impact countries from all corners of the planet. Therefore, I must ask, is it not a little bit frightening that those with the most control know the least of what happens?