Books about major US universities are typically heavy coffee-table affairs, with colourful photos of grinning football players, hoary professors and hand-holding couples, posed appealingly by campus landmarks on glorious spring afternoons. American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America's Influence in the Middle East, however, is none of that. Instead, the US Naval Academy historian Brian VanDeMark, whose previous memoir of the former US defence secretary Robert McNamara, was a bestseller, has focused his new book on the American University of Beirut (AUB), while pursuing a much broader goal. Specifically, VanDeMark makes AUB a kind of stand-in for Washington's relationship with the Middle East: how the US got into the region in the first place and what it's done there since - both good and bad. "The story of AUB is also a metaphor for something bigger and more important," VanDeMarek writes. "Enduring themes of American mission, American nationalism, America's encounter with imperialistic politics, American idealism and American frustration as a great power in the region have all played out in vivid and dramatic detail." AUB is the story of two families, the Blisses and the Dodges, whose descendants controlled AUB for four generations. It's an unfamiliar story, VanDeMark adds, because it doesn't conform to the prevailing narratives of "oil, Israel and security". Indeed, the lack of focus on those themes is actually refreshing. With American Sheikhs we learn how, as early as 1866, the newly founded Syrian Protestant College in Beirut offered the Arab world not just an exceptional faculty but something relatively new among the region's institutions of higher learning: free intellectual enquiry. "Its faculty did not merely fill Arab students' heads with facts," VanDeMark writes of AUB. "It taught them how to organise and interpret facts." Character-building and hard work were other major tenets expected of the college's all-male students who attended classes in an Islamic-style property, built atop a headland on Beirut's outskirts, with glorious views of St George's Bay. Just as AUB's architecture honoured Arab tradition, so too did its educational philosophy, which blended Islamic culture with modern concepts from the West. The students, their families, and local leaders admired this approach enough to rapidly fill AUB's ranks. Mostly they admired its founder, the Rev Daniel Bliss, who'd come to them from America. Bliss, who'd had a poor upbringing in rural Ohio, was a strait-laced Christian missionary whose original official intent was to "civilise" the populace through compassionate Christian service. But Bliss soon realised that proselytising Muslims was a bad idea because it was antithetical to Islamic culture. Converting Eastern Christians was equally ill-advised because those Christians - Maronists and Orthodox Greeks - already considered their American brothers arrogant. That impression was deserved: Protestant missionaries went abroad in those days ingrained with notions of their own superiority; and westerners' impression of Arabs, gleaned from The Arabian Nights, was "as desert nomads who lived in an exotic and faraway world of sand dunes, camels and harems". The term "Middle East" wasn't even popular until 1900; in Bliss's day, the region was simply "the Orient". Bliss meant to have an impact there. Having gained a handle on local language and customs, he set out to change Middle Eastern society from within, by education, rather than from without, through politics. "Evangelism should give way to education," Bliss believed. His ally in this project wasn't so much America's missionary board, which oversaw his work, as a wealthy American businessman (and religious Puritan), William Dodge, who helped Bliss beat the Jesuits - who also planned a college in Beirut - and get AUB up and running. Word spread that this new college was the best in the Middle East, and powerful leaders from multiple nations quickly enrolled their sons. By 1909, AUB had grown to 1,000 students; Bliss's middle son Howard inherited the presidency and created a melting pot on campus amid a city that had grown into a major commercial and cultural centre. Meanwhile, local Arabs had begun to forge a sense of identity separate from their Turkish and French masters; VanDeMark posits that AUB's environment of free thought helped give birth to Arab nationalism. That movement grew stronger after the First World War, when Britain and France notoriously split the region (with former Ottoman-controlled Lebanon and Syria going to France), and when Britain's Balfour Declaration pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Paris Peace Conference swiftly dismissed US President Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination in the region. Meanwhile, a different kind of challenge resulted from the arrival of modernity in the 1920s. But Bayard Dodge, who had married Bliss's daughter and become AUB's president in 1923, responded, expanding the university's curriculum in Arabic language and culture and melding together Arab and Jewish students in the dorms and on sports teams. A young Palestinian student confessed that some of his best friends were Jews, but: "as soon as we get back to Jerusalem, I can't allow myself to be seen speaking with them". In 1924 AUB even admitted its first woman: she wore two veils and attended class with her husband in tow. Between 1920 and 1940, enrolment doubled again, to 2,000; women's numbers also increased, and men and women openly socialised. Then came the Second World War, introducing, for the first time, a chill between Arabs and the West. The US had become a net importer of oil for the first time and later eyed AUB as an asset in the Cold War. Although Time magazine in 1948 said of Bayard Dodge that no other American had done as much to win and keep goodwill for the US in the Near East, those living in the region weren't so sure. Things hardly improved when 14,000 US marines landed in Lebanon in 1958, in response to a coup in Iraq, and when Tapline, a 2,000km Saudi-American pipeline from the Arabian Gulf, was built in that decade right through Lebanon. The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 - with the US supporting Israel - caused tensions to worsen further; AUB's Jewish enrolment fell to zero. Newsweek sarcastically tagged AUB "Guerrilla U": Where the campus formerly had supplied Middle Eastern countries with presidents, prime ministers, doctors and ambassadors, now it was producing "hijackers and guerrillas", the magazine said. Certainly, Arab students viewed AUB as "a symbol of imperialism and hypocrisy", and such views frustrated Dodge, who futilely tried to bring the campus's "melting pot" back together. Shortly before his death in 1972, he said, "It is truer than ever before that history is 'a race between education and catastrophe'." His words predicted the subsequent years, as the new disillusionment with secularism, together with surging Palestinian nationalism, pushed Lebanon's Maronite Phalangist minority into a terrorist act that initiated civil war. US-backed AUB became a bombing target of terrorists, and there was more: president David Dodge was held captive by Hizbollah for a year in 1982 and his successor, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated in 1984. US marines and soldiers took up residence in Beirut - a terrorist bombing in 1983 killed 241 of them. Then came the first Gulf War in 1991 followed by the September 11 attacks, and in turn by the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in retaliation for Hizbollah rocket attacks against its citizens. The new generation of Middle Eastern students at AUB and newer institutions such as the American University of Kuwait, Education City in Qatar, and the American University of Cairo "objected to many things in American policy", an Arab educator once remarked, "except for one thing: American-style education". So what is an American-style education worth today? American Sheikhs could have been a dry academic tome, but VanDeMark's vibrant writing and in-depth reporting make AUB's story an allegory about what it takes to calm ethnic and religious tensions. "At AUB," he writes, "Arabs and Jews and Americans and Muslims became humanly familiar to each other through dialogue and learnt tolerance, and therefore politically plausible partners to each other." These components, VanDeMark adds, "are the most powerful and enduring antidotes to extremism of any kind" - words worth thinking about too as more and more US-linked institutions, from New York University-Abu Dhabi to the American University of Sharjah, take root and flower in the UAE and across the Middle East.