02/21/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

Media Education and the Arab Identity

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates -- One factor perpetuating imbalance in the relationship between the Arab world and the West is the continued reliance on English as the exclusive language of instruction in many of the top Arab universities, particularly in media education.

This was among the topics addressed at a recent conference on media education at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Granted, English is the world's most widely spoken language, and knowledge of it is essential in today's globalized society. But in relying on English to the exclusion of Arabic, universities in the Middle East may be abandoning part of the Arab soul.

Arab educators should embrace the rich literary heritage of Arabic and acknowledge the importance of people receiving media messages in their own language. With social media redefining the relationship between news providers and news consumers, this issue takes on added urgency.

Arab universities must decide what their goals are. Do they want the next generation of Arab media professionals to aspire to work for the BBC, CNN, or the New York Times, or do they want to provide the next leaders of Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, and print and online media throughout the region? Do they want their graduates to serve elite audiences, or be aligned with the people who take pride in speaking and reading Arabic?

The Jordan Media Institute in Amman has a full range of media-related courses in Arabic, and the American University in Dubai (on whose advisory board I serve) offers communication courses in both English and Arabic, but these are exceptions to the English-only instruction offered by many of the region's best journalism and communication programs.

Development of Arab media education has been slowed by ill-conceived efforts to mirror Western -- especially American -- curricula. This problem is rooted in a failure to recognize that the heart of a media curriculum is not technique but culture. Over the years, it has not been uncommon to find Arab media curricula in which all the textbooks are Western, all the case studies are Western, all the political and cultural references are Western, and all the media techniques being taught are based on working within a Western media environment.

Countering this de facto intellectual imperialism is not easy. Arab educators who say, "Let's find some Arab examples related to TV production, journalism ethics, or other media issues" will find few course materials -- in Arabic or English -- that address these topics from an Arab perspective.

To lessen their reliance on outsiders, Arab media scholars must produce more of their own academic literature and must design their own curricula. Too seldom are Arab scholars -- except those teaching in the West -- represented at international academic conferences or in international academic publications. As long as this continues, there will not be an identifiable Arab approach to media education that is comparable to those developed in other parts of the world.

Part of the remedy could be provided by course material that places the Arab experience in the context of global affairs and underscores the significance of how global media cover the Arab world. I cannot imagine training someone for a career in Arab media without examining the lessons found in Edward Said's Orientalism about the West's persistent "othering" of Arabs. Certain authors and topics might be controversial, but -- as I tell Arab academics -- you live in a rough neighborhood and you need to provide your students with an unvarnished perspective on the past, present, and future.

Another challenge facing media faculties is resisting the appeal of vocationalism -- training students merely in the mechanics of media. This is an issue in the United States as well as in universities elsewhere in the world. The debate centers on two questions: Should media programs graduate scholars as well as professionals? Should media graduates be knowledgeable in the substance of what they cover as well as in the mechanics of coverage?

These are not esoteric questions. Sloppy journalism has become pervasive. How often have you come across a news story and thought, "That reporter is an idiot"? In terms of Western coverage of the Middle East, Arabs are consistently astounded by how uninformed many of the correspondents are. Perhaps if Arab journalists were better trained and their coverage of their own world was more sophisticated, reliance on reports from outsiders would diminish.

When Al Jazeera was created in 1996, its popularity with Arab audiences was due largely to its providing news coverage based on "seeing our own world through our own eyes." That concept should be taken to heart by Arab educators today. Their students should be trained not only in generic communication skills, but also in creating media products that are uniquely Arab. Only when that happens will Arab publics enjoy the intellectual independence that their media should help nurture.