Unconventional Wisdom

Unconventional Wisdom

Colby professors teach students to examine the complex forces that shape cultures—and conflicts

By Stephen Collins '74 | Photos by Jon Reinfurt (Illustrations)

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt
As the recent American elections flowed into a winter of considerable discontent about the way the world is going, a round of visits with Colby professors who study and teach about these and other conflicts illuminated two things. First, the fascinating, often overlooked, complexities of each situation. Second, the unique opportunities in the undergraduate years, when a student's primary job can be to excavate and analyze one such hot spot while the rest of us rely on day-to-day or weekly news coverage.


In concert with his academic interests, Professor of Government Guilain Denoeux, who has lived all over the Middle East, does extensive consulting work for the U.S. government. He sees sectarian differences as part of a much larger problem, and said, "You cannot understand the Middle East today without studying history.—

Iraq has been "historically hard to govern, to keep together. You can go back all the way to the Abbasid caliphs [in the ninth century]. Mesopotamia was known to be particularly unruly,— Denoeux said. He moves nimbly from there to a list of contemporary developments that add a new order of magnitude in the very old instability. Most prominent: "the advent of the Internet and satellite television,— which has led to a more informed public opinion—one that governments no longer can ignore.

Trouble in East Asia?

Assistant Professor of Government Walter Hatch said, "For people who teach international relations there is a truism about how much we have come to miss the Cold War, because it was so predictable and stable in so many ways that the current environment is not.—

Hatch, who teaches Conflict in East Asia, sees the North Korea problem through the lens of U.S. and
South Korean foreign policies that are totally out of sync, such that the two allies can't even agree on what happened in either the missile test or the nuclear test conducted last year. It's a fertile and frightening field to plow, and students in his Conflict in East Asia course gravitate to the Korean nuclear crisis over other problems in the region. But, warns Hatch, the question of Taiwan's sovereignty "is just as likely to lead to war in East Asia, in this case between China and the U.S.—

"I find the Taiwan issue much more difficult to explain to my students,— he said. "Our [U.S.] policy—we call it 'strategic ambiguity'—it's so difficult to teach.—


About Africa, which she studies, Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman said, "People say, 'Oh, they're all killing themselves because they're different tribes,' and that's all the explanation that we need. Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that people don't kill each other just because they are a member of a different ethnic group. The entire world would be fratricidal if that was all somebody needed to kill somebody else.—
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