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Asia in the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Case for Asian Studies in Liberal Arts Education

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Suzanne Wilson Barnett
and Van Jay Symons, Editors


Reviewed by Fay Beauchamp

This is a book not for undergraduate students but for the readership of Education About Asia. EAA readers are often giving rationales for studying Asia. We are writing grants and justifying new courses, new curricula; we are trying to convince administrators, faculty and students to see the delight and usefulness of Asian material. We challenge old disciplinary views about what in the world needs to be taught, how, and to whom. The essays in this book draw together relevant information for these tasks, but also lead to a greater awareness of the complexities involved.

The prologue by Suzanne Wilson Barnett and Van Jay Symons explains the book’s genesis. The Luce Foundation, which funded its writing, is helping to “launch” forty new positions in Asian Studies at liberal arts colleges between 1999 and 2002. As hundreds of colleges compete for this Luce funding, administrators need to be persuaded of the value of such positions! Furthermore, graduate students and junior faculty need to be attracted to teach at small liberal arts colleges. While I sense that this target readership galvanized the writing of the book, as a community college teacher, I see a much wider application for the book’s essays than for the 2 percent of American students currently at liberal arts colleges (one of many interesting statistics). All of us concerned about the first two years of college curricula need to judge not only the value of Asian studies in liberal arts education but how global studies justify a liberal arts foundation for every student, erasing the dichotomy between vocational/career training and pure academics.

The critic most often referred to is Edward Said, and two contributors, Thomas B. Coburn and Ainslee Embree, make explicit the desire to avoid “orientalist” justifications for Asian studies; the authors critique American efforts to control and dominate the world culturally, politically and economically. Accordingly, some of the most obvious reasons to study Asian countries are not emphasized. The authors do not evaluate the economic and military strength of different countries to encourage career choices based on potential for business, diplomacy and espionage! If one thinks about the pull of Asian studies rather than African or Latin American studies, for example, Asian economic factors play a large role. But this book is more idealistic. The chapter by Samuel Hideo Yamashita on the history of Asian courses in liberal arts colleges traces this idealism to a missionary concern of Protestant colleges. One gets the sense that these missionaries were less concerned with conversions than they were with altruistic reasons to escape a homogenous Midwest. For those who are skeptical about altruism, all careers in Asia are orientalist to some degree. But the authors’ emphasis on the intrinsic rather than extrinsic reasons for learning indicates an attempt to articulate goals that promote peaceful, harmonious relationships among peoples. The goal “to understand better a diverse and interconnected world community, and to live more fully in it” reflects a secularization of religious values and appears in my community college’s mission statement, as it does, I am sure, in various forms in private colleges today.

The essays on teaching Asian languages and on study abroad will be useful to those designing such programs, but I thought the book was more broadly interesting for the questions raised by the more theoretical essays. One such question involves the definition of Asia itself. Are the continental designations of Europe and Asia arbitrary and a result of ethnocentrism? I wonder whether more recognition should be given to the geographical barriers of mountains, deserts and ocean currents that made diffusions of peoples and ideas significantly easier among the countries we call Asian than through the narrow corridor of the silk routes. What generalizations are worth making, what commonalities, influences, conflicts and complementary dualities can be analyzed to make Asian area studies meaningful rather than the study of discrete nation-states and ethnic groups? Can we escape the old East-West dichotomy that many of these authors criticize and justify Asian Studies without claiming as Asian the birth of Islamic culture and the contribution of Jerusalem (see p. 10)? The book does not cover the Middle East, but it makes apparent the need for another term for that central region that radiated ideas to Europe, Asia and Africa.

Rita Smith Kipp emphasizes the need to see change and heterogeneity in Asia. In terms of my college’s thousands of students, this is certainly crucial; over-generalization precludes understanding the series of alliances, conflicts and treaties that have led Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chinese and Japanese at different times to come to our neighborhoods and become our students.

It should be noted that this book continues the efforts of Columbia University to make Asian materials accessible to nonspecialists. The inclusion of Ainslee Embree recognizes his lifelong dedication to the establishment of courses and programs with both breadth and depth in Asian Studies. We need the specialists such as those the Luce Foundation will support. But I like the idea that Coburn proposes to see the work of specialists and nonspecialists as fruitfully complementary, because introductory courses educate the broadest numbers about Asia, including the 55 percent of students at community colleges. We need to continue the book’s debate concerning interdisciplinary programs and comparative courses such as world history and world literature. These lead to different types of questions, insights, and careful analysis. For all of us who want to step back and reflect on curricular decisions, this is a timely, provocative, and informative book.

The AAS Secretariat will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observance of Memorial Day