Frank Conlon, University of Washington Professor Emeritus of History, South Asian Studies, and Comparative Religion, has enjoyed a distinguished career as both an outstanding teacher and scholar. Conlon, known to many readers of this journal as the cofounder of H-ASIA, has been widely published on a variety of India-related topics including caste, the role of women, colonialism, religion, and urban history. Given Frank’s extensive experience with India, we think EAA readers will profit from his thoughts on how we, as educators, can more accurately teach about, what many believe to be, the most misunderstood major Asian country.
Lucien: Thanks for doing this interview, Frank. Could you inform our readers a bit about yourself and how you first became interested in India?
Frank Conlon: New friends often ask me “however did you come to study India?” An old vaudeville joke has it that “when you get older, the memory is the second thing to go,” but I trace my interest in India to my undergraduate days at Northwestern University when Professor Leften Stavrianos allowed me to take the graduate seminar on his project of rethinking world history as “global history”—this was when he was writing what became a widely used textbook that is known to many of our readers. I think India captured my attention when, while reading about the long vanished Chola and Vijayanagar empires, I realized that while in their time these states had been major theaters of human activity, now little remained save some ruins, art, and inscriptions. I realized that my studies of American history hadn’t taken me very far from home—humanity’s story was broader and deeper. Subsequently, in my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, I was encouraged to study India by the late Professor Burton Stein—a pathway that was enabled by the then new NDEA fellowships for language and area studies.
I went to India for dissertation research in 1965 and spent nearly two years there. While my research turned to a study of the history of a brahman caste from the west coast of India—the Saraswats—I was interested in learning how “caste” had been influenced by colonial rule and modernization and how it had, in turn, influenced the experience of those processes. It was a great experience since I did archival research and field work while visiting Saraswat families and institutions. The book that grew out of this project is long out of print, and I am starting to work on a revised edition, primarily in response to requests from members of that caste. That diverse research experience was an enormous boon to my subsequent teaching career.
History provided the framework for my courses, but my interdisciplinary studies greatly aided in meeting my obligations as a teacher. My goal was to introduce students to the main events and ideas of Indian civilization and also to encourage them to critically engage with another civilization that was every bit as plausible as our own. One of the most avid audiences for that latter perspective were young people of South Asian descent who had grown up in America with a sense of uncertainty and defensiveness about their heritage. While I could not offer the perspectives of an “insider,” I emphasized my belief that the term “multi-cultural” means engaging intelligently with more than one way of perceiving and living ones life. I hoped that my students could be “comfortable” in a diverse world, not “complacent.” Accepting a perfected “shrink-wrapped” model of India was not sufficient—students should also be willing to engage in thinking about the complicated, imperfect reality of India’s evolving past and present.