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Andrew Gumbiner '08 Researching Democracy and Education in Middle East

By Lisbeth Redfield
Posted August 28, 2007
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Living in America, we tend to take the existence of democracy and the separation of church and state as a given. Andrew Gumbiner '08 (Glencoe, Ill.) is interested, however, in the parts of the world where this is not necessarily true. Gumbiner, a world politics major, was awarded a Levitt Fellowship this summer to research the current culture of democracy in the Middle East.

Gumbiner hopes to prove a connection between education and social involvement or what he refers to as civil society, "any organized or non-governmental organization that encourages individuals to organize around a group." In the U.S., a group such as the PTA would be considered good evidence of civil society. Gumbiner hypothesized that a more liberal education would encourage a more civil society. To test this theory, he studied the extent of civil society in Jordan and Saudi Arabia as compared to their approach to education.

Jordan is one of the most liberal of the Middle Eastern countries, with numerous universities and a school system currently under reform to encourage secularism; the new curriculum includes lessons in civic education. The result is that "Jordan has a vibrant civil society in terms of the Middle East." Gumbiner explained that Jordanian society was busy on a number of fronts, especially in sports clubs and women's organizations. "They're trying to change education and it's working quite a bit" in terms of a civil society, Gumbiner said.

But in Saudi Arabia, "I'm finding exactly the opposite," he concluded. Like its western neighbor, Saudi Arabia also boasts of overhauling its school system. Gumbiner is skeptical, though, of how effective this education is in encouraging civil society, mainly because of its emphasis on religious education. He theorized that "civil society in Saudi Arabia is non-existent." Traditional Saudi culture, he suggested, uses family ties as a means of social connection.

Gumbiner came to his first summer of research as a change of pace from his previous work with the Chicago Board of Trade. "It's a really great opportunity to do something academic," he said. The topic was a natural choice; Gumbiner has concentrated much of his three years of study on the Middle East. He commented that his work this summer was important to him because current government policy is so concerned with democratization but does not consider that every country needs to find its own "brand" of democracy. "I think we're missing a critical step here," he said. "It's not anybody's job to spread anything yet...democracy needs to grow organically," Gumbiner emphasized.

Gumbiner took an introductory course on Islam at Northwestern University concurrent to doing his research. Before taking the class, "I didn't really get the religious part," he admitted, and explained the deep importance of Islamic religion to its culture. "Religion plays a role, a very important role in society there," he explained. When making policies, "we fail to recognize that."

During the year, Gumbiner is a tour guide and rugby-player; this year he will be president of Hamilton's rugby club. A rising senior, he hopes to use his research this summer as a basis for a senior project in world politics. He plans to enter the job market after graduation, hopefully in a position connected with government.

Gumbiner's research this summer is funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program, operated through the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. The students spend the summer working intensively in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs; Gumbiner is collaborating with Assistant Professor of Government Sharon Werning Rivera. 

-- by Lisbeth Redfield

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