“The average well-meaning student comes into class believing that intelligent people will end up with a good solution. After this class they know that’s not necessarily true.”
“The USA will not negotiate with Hamas.” So went the opening salvo in a mock Middle East peace negotiation—an important component of Political Science 222: Regional Conflict and Security.
This popular course, taught by Professor Andrew Latham, covers all sides of contemporary Middle East conflict zones, including those in Israel, Syria, and Iran.
But what makes this course unique, say the students, is the real-world feel Latham brings to it by organizing both mock negotiations and war games. “This course is less hypothetical and textbook-based and more pragmatic,“ says Rachel Banen ’16 (Las Cruces, N.M.). “We’re looking at what’s happening in the Middle East right now and talking about real possible solutions.”
Latham, who tries to be “scrupulously fair” when balancing the course readings, encourages his students to join the negotiation and war game teams of groups—Israelis, Iran, United States, Palestinians—they don’t immediately identify with.
After deeply researching the details of controversial topics such as water rights, borders, and the right of return, even class members who had started out neutral can become intensely partisan, and emotions frequently run high. “They can get carried away,“ says Latham. “It’s been an eye opener for me to see how seriously students take this class and how committed they are to learning. And they really get into the role playing.”
Despite the intensity of mock negotiations and war games and the ease with which things can become polarized, says Latham, he is regularly impressed by the civility his students typically maintain.
Which is not to say there is always a good outcome, points out Latham. “In the war games of all three classes I’ve held so far, my liberal Macalester students have ended up bombing Iran,” says Latham. “The average well-meaning student comes into class believing that intelligent people will end up with a good solution. After this class they know that’s not necessarily true.”
Class member Ollin Montes ’17 (Niwot, Colo.) agrees. “There’s an immense level of complexity in Middle Eastern issues,” he says. “What has struck me is how many interests negotiators have to balance—it’s not a black and white issue.”
That complexity keeps the class interesting, says Montes, as does Latham’s style of “holding us intellectually accountable and letting the class move in the direction it needs to.”
As for why it’s critical for a peace-loving college to offer a class about war, Latham has a ready reply. “It’s important to understand wars and conflicts even if you don’t like them,” he says. “It’s a domain of human life.”