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A Tribute To Wm. Theodore de Bary: Asia in the Core Curriculum

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As noted briefly in the fall issue of EAA, Professor Wm. Theodore de Bary died on July 14th, 2017. Professor de Bary, whose career at Columbia University spanned almost seven decades, was both an internationally known scholar of East Asian Confucianism and a pioneer in the movement to integrate Asian studies into undergraduate and secondary school general education courses. Those readers who are interested in learning more about arguably one of the greatest scholars and teachers of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries are strongly encouraged to read Columbia University Professors Carol Gluck and Donald Keene’s memories of de Bary the scholar, teacher, and person posted on the #AsiaNow blog ( Larry Chengliang Hong, a recent Columbia graduate and student in Professor de Bary’s final spring 2017 seminar, also contributes an accompanying essay in the post. Readers who would like to honor Professor de Bary’s memory (as well as recently deceased South Asianist Ainslie Embree) are encouraged to consider contributing to the AAS Wm. Theodore de Bary and Ainslie T. Embree Fund for Education and Outreach at

I chose to honor Professor de Bary’s memory by reprinting (for the first time in the history of EAA) his article in the inaugural February 1996 issue. In “Asia in the Core Curriculum,” Professor de Bary makes compelling arguments for inclusion of outstanding works from four Asian cultures into introductory-level survey courses. In his well-crafted essay, de Bary articulates how inclusion of non-Western traditions both complements and strengthens student understanding of Western traditions. The essay, which I have used numerous times with professors and teachers, concludes with an annotated list of classics that have been successfully used in a one-year undergraduate survey course at Columbia.

Finally, readers who contemplate the ideas in this almost twenty-two-year-old essay will most likely find this piece as relevant now as the day it was written.

(Editing Note: The Article attached will be searchable from its respective archive shortly. We appreciate your patience!)

Asia in the Core Curriculum

Today no one doubts the importance of Asia in world affairs, or questions the need to give it a larger place in American education. Indeed, the great expansion of Asian studies since World War II testifies to the increased awareness of this need. For the most part, however, this expansion has taken the form of elective programs in Asian studies for students majoring in one or another area or disciplinary field. Little headway has been made in reaching the great majority of American students through general education programs. If Asia figures at all in the required curriculum, it is usually in the form of options offered under one or another distribution or language requirement, which leaves many students free to choose otherwise.

The question then becomes how we can do more, how can most students-not just a few majors and specialists, but the majority who are going on into business, government or professional work-be appropriately introduced to the values of Asian cultures in a way that serves their basic humanistic education rather than just expanding the range of their intellectual skills or competencies?

These day much that passes for general education is essentially skill oriented, not value oriented. Such programs promote diversity and versatility through distribution requirement but give students little help in focusing attention and considered reflection on the central concern of human life and society. In this respect then, one feels a need to distinguish between general education, which in practice has allowed a choice among distribution requirements, and a genuine core curriculum, which dares to minimize student options and instead compels undergraduates to grapple together with key issues and shared concerns.

Historically speaking, the term “general education” gained currency in mid-twentieth century America as applied to efforts at reform of university education, increasingly dominated as it had become by departmental specialization in graduate schools, and by an elective system in undergraduate colleges that lent itself to the same trend toward specialization. “General education” today, whether as a term or as a practice, has become, on account of its very generality and vagueness, an anachronism which might better be replaced by a better defined core curriculum. Further, the more recent movement for what is called “multicultural education,” only underscores the need for an education that has both a better defined core and multicultural, especially Asian, dimensions.

The genesis of these educational reform movements came with the abandonment of the classical “liberal” education that had prevailed in British and American colleagues, wherein the required languages had been Greek, Latin, and sometimes Hebrew, and the classic texts studied by “liberally educated” young men were read in those languages. When these languages requirements were abandoned in the early twentieth century, a serious question arose as to how the humanistic values of a classical education would survive if students no longer read these classics in the original. The answer was to read them in translation and discuss them in courses required of all students as part of their common education.

The justification for requiring all students to engage together in reading and discussion of such classics was civic one: that, along with inescapable trend toward academic specialization, colleges should educate their students to deal in an informed way with the shared problems of contemporary society. Preparation for leadership and citizenship were undoubtedly among the educational aims, but the method of personal engagement with the urgent contemporary problems, through active class discussion (rather than just listening to lectures), was almost an end in itself. In other words, the discussion method promoted active civil discourse on the nature of civility.

These, then, were the shared moral and social concerns, along with a sense of corporate responsibility in addressing them in a collegial fashion, that justified limiting the students’ full freedom of election–while also, it is important to add, limiting the faculty’s freedom to teach whatever its individual members chose in the way of their own specialties. In the interests of education, the faculty had to subordinate their personal research interests to the needs of a common curriculum, taught in a collegial fashion.

Subsequently, the idea of having a “required core” spread widely, but one hardly need mention today that the original sense of corporate responsibility and esprit de corps on the part of the faculty has since proved difficult to sustain, and as this true “esprit de corps” has become dissipated, “core” at many places now only means “what is required,” while few remember why. Usually it amounts only to a distribution requirement–at best a methodological smorgasbord.

In the light of this experience, one can say that the very generality and flexibility of so-called “general education” lent itself too readily to centrifugal tendencies in academia. And it is likewise from this experience that one may draw an important lesson concerning the need to refocus attention on common human concerns. Though “a common humanity” may itself be a difficult philosophical question, if it ceases even to be a question, a key issue for shared discussion, we are in deep trouble, exposed to all the divisiveness of special ethnic and political claims on multiculturalism. For this, the important thing is to have a common reading list conducive to shared discourse and collegial discussion–an on-going, open-ended dialogue between past and present, sometimes referred to as “The Great Conversation”,1 because the great minds have spoken to each other, commented on their forbears, and argued with them over the centuries.

True core courses in the Western humanities have continued to make use of major works, not just to learn from the past, but to put before students models that challenge them personally, stretching the intellect and exercising the moral imagination. Thus, the true greatness of “great books,” from this educational point of view, has lain, not in their perfection as final statements, but in their pivotal quality, their ability to focus on key issues and expose the mind to crucial alternatives. Far from  settling things, they have been seen as unsettling, always open to reinterpretation, They have encouraged reflective thinking, critical analysis, and the formulation of the student’s own grounds for positive commitment. The canon (if such it be) and the questioning of it have gone together.

Core, in this sense, has referred not just to content or canon but to process and method–to a well-tested body of challenging material, cultivated habits of reflective critical discourse, and procedures for reexamination and redefinition. A viable core can neither be slave to the past nor captive to the preoccupations, pressures, or fashions of the moment. It should serve rather to advance the student’s intellectual growth and self-awareness, cultivate his powers of thought and expression, and prepare him to take a responsible part in society.

Almost from the beginning however, the proponents of this type of Humanities course at Columbia were conscious of its initial Western focus and anxious to extend its horizons. In the syllabus of the original honors course “Classics of the Western World,” on which the required Humanities course was modeled, “West” signified an acknowledgement of inadequacy and limitation, not an affirmation of Eurocentrism. And no sooner had the required Humanities course been added to the core in 1937-38 than leaders of the movement (though non of them Orientalists or Asianists themselves) began to agitate and plan staff development for counterpart courses in Asian civilizations and humanities, which were added as soon as practicable after World War II.

The way in which this was done is highly significant for the present debate on multiculturalism: its focus was on core concerns, humanity and civility, and the method of instruction continued to put a premium on collegial discussion–that is, practice in civil discourse. No assumption was made of superiority of Western ways or values or the primacy of a European canaon, but only of the presence in other major civilizations, and in other major traditions, of great depth, complexity, and longevity, of comparable discourses on perennial human concerns and issues, which we should try to make our own to the extent that translation allowed.

This assumption of a parallel discourse had no difficultly gaining confirmation from Asian works themselves, but there being no such thing as an “Asian tradition” (in the sense of “pan-Asian”), some judgement had to be exercised in identifying the major traditions or civilizations to be focused on in a one-year course; in our case, Islamic, Indian (including both Buddhist and Hindu traditions), Chinese and Japanese.2 Here, however, our fundamental assumption concerning the nature of any tradition or canon was that it be self-defining and self-confirming. Thus, it was not for us to find counterparts to Western classic models but only to recognize what Asian themselves had long since ratified as works commanding special respect, either through enduring appeal or irrepressible challenge.

Within each major tradition, this dialogue has taken place through a process of constant, repeated cross referencing and back referencing, internal to the tradition and largely independent of external involvement except to the extent that, from at least the seventeenth century onwards, writers in the West, great and not so great, have confirmed for themselves what Indians, Chinese, and Japanese have long held in esteem. Thus, in the Islamic tradition, Al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun have based themselves on the Quran and commented on the great Sufis, while European writers, no less than middle-Eastern, from medieval times onwards, have recognized the greatness of Al-Ghazali and more recently Ibn Khaldun. Something similar is true of India, with teh Upanishads, and Shankara from both and from the Buddhists. It is also true of China, with Mencius drawing on Confucius, Xun Zi commentign on both Confucius and Menius, the Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi taking issue with the Confucians, and so on. Almost all the great classics of the Asian traditions have established each other as major players in their own league, members (even if competitors) in their own discursive company.

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