Great Professors: Kevin Reinhart

Professor Kevin Reinhart has been a professor of religion at the College since 1986. He has a BA in Middle Eastern and Arabic Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and an MA and a PhD in religion from Harvard University. Professor Reinhart is Dartmouth’s resident specialist on Islam, with his research pertaining specifically to Islamic legal theory.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): I’ll just begin with this question: you spent much of your youth living abroad — how did this experience shape your undergraduate and graduate education?

Kevin Reinhart (KR): Well, the fact that I did Middle Eastern Studies as an undergraduate was because I had lived abroad in high school. It just was interesting — I had always had some fear of being bored, of having a job that was boring. I found the Middle East interesting, so, in a sense, my study was just a positive feedback loop. Also, I, partly as a result of the particular professors that I had, came to feel that talking about another culture if you have not lived there and do not speak the language is illegitimate. It drives me crazy when people pontificate about the Middle East who have never lived there or who couldn’t talk to anybody from the region who has not been educated at a university to speak English. The usual, “my taxi driver told me”  kind of stuff is just so inauthentic. I think it accounts for a lot of why American policy in the Middle East is so off the wall. U.S. officials can’t imagine what is actually motivating people, because they can’t talk to them. I always think: imagine some Japanese guy who comes to the United States and writes all these things about American politics or culture or such, and he can literally not speak to a single American. That’s what it’s like for most American journalists and a lot of policy makers who work in the Middle East.

TDR: Is there an aspect of your education, either at the University of Texas or at Harvard, that you wish that Dartmouth students got to experience?

KR: Graduate students serve a lot of purposes at schools that have graduate programs. Much of it, frankly, is just slave labor. They’re just teaching people so you don’t have to hire a professor to teach. TA’s who are just getting their PhD and work for very little money. But I do think it is true that having graduate students in a course raises the level of that course. They add a sense that your undergraduate education is not simply high-school extended. That’s something, perhaps for good reason but nonetheless, effectively Dartmouth does not have. To that point, before we had majors in the Arabic program, the level of the conversation that was possible in class was always relatively low. Now that the program has committed Arabic students who spend two or three years intensively studying the language, even spending time studying abroad, the level of conversation in the class is raised for all students.. Therefore, if it were possible for Dartmouth students to take classes with graduate students, not to be taught by them, I think it would be very beneficial. I don’t think that this is significant justification for Dartmouth to develop extensive graduate programs, but it was certainly one aspect of my undergraduate education that I enjoyed.  When I was a junior and senior at UT, I took graduate seminars; I wrote graduate seminar papers. That was really exciting for me, and I think it really made a difference in my undergraduate experience.

TDR: One of your specific areas of interest is Islamic law. What sparked your interest in this area of study?

KR: Well that’s easy — I wanted to study the things that Muslims thought were important historically. Just as theology was the queen of the sciences for Western Christians, law was the queen of the sciences for Muslims. A lot of the self-reflexiveness, the study of what it means to be an adherent of the faith that was being done in theology pertaining to Christianity, was being done in law pertaining to Islam. Because of a certain intellectual provincialism, modern historians of Islam had focused heavily on theology. They had neglected the study of Islamic law. I wanted to see this change. By and large the study of Islamic law began with my generation. Spontaneously, different people across the country came together with the notion that this was an important field of study. Now we have a lot of people and many organizations devoted to the study of Islamic law. All of this has happened since I was in graduate school.

TDR: As a professor of religion, a department in the humanities, what do you think is the role of a liberal arts education in today’s pre-professional society?

KR: Well the short answer to that is simple: people who do pre-professional work, someone who comes to Dartmouth and just does economics all the way through, I think are being trained to be middle-management. It is a luxury to be one of the people who, to use the business cliche, can see around corners. People who can draw on a wide variety of, not just American but also world cultural features —  history, languages, so on and so forth — have that kind of ability. They are the ones who are going to be leaders. The ones who do solely pre-professional work may be well compensated, but they will not be leaders. To that end, I would point to the fact that two of Dartmouth’s most successful graduates in finance, one the head of the Fed and one the Secretary of the Treasury, both studied subjects other than finance. One was a history major and one was an Asian Studies major. It is a shame that students feel discouraged from taking advantage of a liberal arts education when, in fact, that is both what will benefit them and what Dartmouth is best at.

TDR: Do you think that Dartmouth’s current system of distribution requirements does a good job of encouraging this kind of liberal arts education? Why or why not?

KR: Well it’s an interesting thing. We are moving towards a new program, a new system of distributions as you know. I think the jury’s still out as to how well that is going to work. We will see what is going to happen, but I would like to think that Dartmouth students will remain curious under the new system and will continue to take classes in wide breadth of subject areas.  My fear is that it will allow students to become more pre-professional.  When I taught it Brown, it was possible for you to take thirty-seven courses in English and get a degree. I don’t think that’s a good thing. As an undergraduate I was forced to take distribs. I resented them to no end, but some of those courses have been the ones I have most drawn on during my adult life. They  made me more broadly interested in things outside of my own little bailiwick.

TDR: If you were advising first-year students, is there a particular course, on Islam or any other subject,  that you would encourage them to take?

KR: I wouldn’t name any particular course. What I would say is that students should approach their education with a sense of tentativeness.  They should not be absolutely tied down to the idea of majoring in one subject. For instance, in my first year as an undergraduate, in addition to courses in Middle Eastern studies, I also took courses in Russian history and political science because those both seemed like potential options for me at the time.

TDR: Students in your courses commonly say that they learned more about writing in your class than they did in their first year writing seminars. Has instructing students in this way always been important to you?

KR: Well first, if that’s true they have not taken a writing seminar with my wife. [Professor Reinhardt’s wife, Professor Marlene Heck is a professor in the Art History Department focusing on the architectural and social history of Jeffersonian America] There are many freshman seminars that do a terrific job. For me, a focus on writing education has become important as I’ve become increasingly influenced by Orwell and the idea that bad writing is bad thinking. I think the people who are bad writers are often politically confused. I don’t mean politically in the sense of Democrat or Republican, but rather your view of the world. Poor writing demonstrates that you do not push yourself to be logical and clear. It’s become more central to my concerns over the years. There is so much lousy academic writing —  pretentious, full of nouns as opposed to verbs, so on and so forth —  that I see the need for a kind of corrective. The faculty that I admire most at Dartmouth are similarly very focused on developing students writing. If my students don’t remember who founded the Zaydi Imamate version of Shiaism in twenty years, alas, but if they are still mindful and aware of their writing then I have done my job.

TDR: Finally, to what degree would you agree with the statement that “it is more important now than it ever has been for all Americans to have an understanding of Islam?”

KR: I guess I would agree with that, but not for the reasons that most people would suppose. I think that the most important reason is that now a lot of us in America are Muslims. The number keeps shifting, ordered according to Pew I now see that by 2040 Islam will be the second largest religion in America. Here at Dartmouth, we have a lot of American Muslims. I also think that those American Muslims have a fairly narrow exposure to their own tradition. They are often not aware of the rich potential of being a Muslim. For that reason particularly I think that Americans should know about Islam. And then of course there is the fact that it is already the second largest religion in the world and either it impinging on us or we are impinging on it a lot. But still the most important reason in my view is that as citizens we ought understand our fellow citizens.