In a classroom at Governors State University, Dr. Khalil Marrar calls his freshman cohort to action. During a discussion of levels of government and how to effect change, he demonstrates active citizenship by calling a municipal hotline to report a pothole near the Northside neighborhood he commutes from every day. He places the call on speaker so that his students can hear.
Marrar moves quickly from the podium to being perched on a desk where he can engage a student in an earnest cross-examination that substitutes exploration for recitation. The moment plants both student and teacher deeper in understanding with each new question that enters the exchange.
Marrar joined the Governors State community in 2009 and is one of GSU's full-time faculty involved in our nationally-acclaimed freshman cohort experience. Born in Kuwait, he has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Illinois State University, and he earned his Doctorate degree in Political Science at Loyola. He is widely published, and his areas of expertise include International Studies; Comparative Political Systems; International Political Economy and Institutions; and American, Ancient, and Modern Political Theory. Marrar has taught and lectured on some of the most prestigious campuses in the Midwest, including Loyola, DePaul, and University of Chicago. Over the last decade, he has made regular media appearances as a terror expert on multiple networks, including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS television, and Fox News Chicago.
His book, The Arab Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Two State Solution, was published by Routledge in 2010, and Middle East Conflicts: The Basics will come out later this year through Taylor & Francis.
Marrar recently sat down with GSU News to talk teaching, Brussels, and Governors State.
Dr. Marrar, what brought you to Governors State University?
I have two reasons for being at GSU. First—and this is not just a slogan—GSU is a place where ideas are allowed to thrive. The second reason is people, the students and colleagues I work with. The students that I’ve met are so down to earth and capable. Emotionally and intellectually, in terms of the kind of life skills that they have and bring to the table and to the classroom, you could not find anywhere else. And my colleagues bring a wide variety of backgrounds and talents to the university.
Governors State is a place really at the nexus of suburban and urban, where people can come and better themselves in a way that is much more profound, much more dramatic than anywhere else, not just in the city but nationwide. And when I say that, what I mean is this university gives them an opportunity that few other places can give them, not just to enlighten themselves but to be able to do well economically for themselves. I love that the people here actually believe in it.
Look at the university’s mission, for example. It’s not a cookie cutter mission. It’s tailored to meet economic needs of the community—which is important—and intellectually, it’s one that really allows the individual to become better rounded as a citizen as well as a worker. This is truly a public university that has a liberal arts sensibility. The classes that we teach here are smaller than most classes that I’ve taught at the most expensive liberal arts colleges, and in those classes, we explore ideas that resonate in any liberal arts school.
What inspired you to study politics?
It was sort of an accident really. I was in Springfield visiting the center, the whole complex and Federal infrastructure surrounding the museum, and I was reading about Abraham Lincoln. Young Abe worked for his father. They were basically homesteaders, and his father lent him out and took his wages. I read this plaque that said because of this, because of the grueling work he did without a wage, he was made empathetic to the slave experience. This was quite possibly the moment that made the young future president wise to the plight of the slaves.
Abraham Lincoln’s insight hit me—and I realized that everything that happens in the world around us is connected to politics in some way, shape, or form.
But then the political world is not always the way it appears. The awesome thing about places like GSU is that we can, in the classroom, demonstrate to students that politics, broadly conceived, includes them. They have something to add by drawing on their lived experiences. Politics is potentially transformative—it makes us want to strive for something better. That is what brought me to politics.
The topics you teach unavoidably touch on events that we see on the news. When something like the recent event in Brussels happens, we even see you on the news as an authority talking about it. What can you say to your students on days like that, when the politics manifest as something so tangible and jarring?
I like to highlight the ideas behind the headlines. As to Brussels, in a world where you have lots of ideas, the people that, for example, attacked Belgium are motivated by ideas to destroy. The beauty of GSU in particular, and the sort of higher education that GSU stands for in general, is that we work to counter those destructive ideas by creating knowledge. And I think there’s something magical and beautiful about learning and that creation taking place here which counter not only those ideas to destroy, but the very motivation behind that destructiveness. Ignorance and radicalism, extremism, fanaticism and stuff like that are all things that basically come out of—not a world that is critical but—a world that’s frankly dogmatic, and the best way to sort of undo dogma is through an education, an education that makes us want to think.
I remind students that we’re part of the real world at this institution, because everybody here has experience in the world. I basically teach people who are practitioners, literally students that are practitioners who work in various fields and have experienced their own field here as graduate students, right? I also have undergraduates who may have grown up in an environment that was not necessarily one that would have led them to college, and they’ve persevered and worked hard, got good grades, and they’re here now. The freshman cohort that I see here after the transformation is filled with people that want to do well. And the nice thing about GSU is that we give them the tools to do well. We give them the skills to do well, and most importantly we give them the direction to do well. I think that’s our strongest point.