The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community?
by wm. theodore de bary
?columbia, 432 pages, $35

A history of high civilization is not confined to the West but can also be found in Asia. William Theodore de Bary, who has taught at Columbia University since 1953, including several years as provost, helped create a public aware of this historical reality. He did so by urging the expansion of the idea that the great books include the ­Eastern classics, as well as through his ­inspiring participation in Columbia’s core courses on Asian humanities and through his many books making the cultural history of China and the rest of East Asia available to educated readers.

The Great Civilized Conversation is a kind of review of his lifework. Though it is a collection of previously published articles, it attains a coherence and concentration such collections seldom achieve.

A major part of the book is concerned with the meaning and value of a core curriculum, especially valuable at a time when the very idea is in such serious retreat, even at our best universities. Core courses with broad cultural reach began at Columbia not long after the First World War. They were adopted later at Chicago, where under Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler they were known as the “Great Books program,” and at Harvard under James Conant soon after the Second World War, where they were known as “general education.”

Such programs have continued at many liberal arts colleges, perhaps especially Catholic ones, but also at Columbia, which raised the flag and never took it down. But general education has been seriously weakened at Chicago and Harvard over the past half century. In most of American higher education, the idea that all undergraduates should have some knowledge of the great civilizations of the world has been abandoned. As a student at one of our better Eastern liberal arts colleges told me, the only generally required course seems to ?be calculus.

De Bary’s book focuses on what happened at Columbia from the 1930s to the present, with side glances at Chicago and Harvard. Having a particular case at hand helps us understand general trends. From the beginning of college education in America, the functional “core” consisted primarily of Greek and Latin classics.

This reflected the triumph of humanistic education in Europe from the Renaissance, where it replaced the medieval trivium as the first stage of higher education. Only with the rise of the research university in Germany early in the nineteenth century and in America toward the end of that century was the focus on the ­classical Western languages and literatures gradually replaced by departmental specialization and the ­abandonment of required courses in favor of electives.

What happened at Columbia in the early twentieth century, and to some degree elsewhere, was not an effort to turn nostalgically to the past but to see if something new could become the common focus of undergraduate education. It was clear that any new effort at a core curriculum would have to be based on vernacular translations, not on the original languages.

The old-school professors opposed the abandonment of the classical languages, but those working toward a new core curriculum at Columbia pointed to the near-universal use of the Bible in English. De Bary points out, rather poignantly, that both Gandhi and Nehru first read the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu classics in English because that was the language they were educated in.

De Bary also points out how John Erskine, one of the pioneers of the new program at Columbia, though he had little knowledge of Asian cultures, felt that a core curriculum based only on Western classics was inadequate for the global world in which we live. Before the Second World War, the lack of qualified staff to teach such material and the dearth of readable, accurate translations delayed implementation.

Eventually, however, a second year of core curriculum, one devoted to Asian classics, was added to the first-year requirement in the Western humanities. As a global community, we need global citizens for whom a smattering of “foreign relations” and “global economics” is entirely inadequate. We need at least a significant minority who have tried to understand the deep history of the great cultures of the world.

De Bary is not calling us to ignore the West and turn to the wisdom of the East. On the contrary, he wants us to enrich a necessarily extensive appreciation of the Western tradition by attempting to understand other traditions that rival it in significance and to understand where they are both profoundly different and deeply similar.

The Columbia tradition and the larger ideal of a core curriculum is perhaps best understood through ­Erskine’s notion of the classics as books that “every educated person should have read.” That gives rise to two rather daunting questions: How do we know which books are classics? How can “every educated person” ever have read them all, as Erskine enjoined, not once but many times? It is questions like these that have provoked the simple answer in much of the university today, not only in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well: Drop the idea of a core education altogether, especially when we know that what we really need to be studying is science, technology, and economics.

In response to the question of how to define classics, de Bary would have us go to the traditions themselves. All the great literate traditions have taken certain books as formative of their deepest beliefs and have read them, commented on them, and understood them in changing ways over their entire history.

Thus the notion of a “classic” is open and flexible. Certain texts have never lost their centrality: for the Greeks, the Iliad and the Odyssey , Plato and Aristotle; for Jews and Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures, with Christians adding the New Testament; for the Chinese, Confucius and Mencius, the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi ; and so forth for the other great traditions. But there have always been other books that might or might not be included. De Bary gives the examples of Plotinus or Pascal in the West.

It was only upon reading de Bary’s book that I realized just how important the general education program in early postwar Harvard had been in my life. Harvard, the very source of the idea of the elective, never had a core curriculum that everyone had to take. Instead, the general education program offered a small number of courses from which one had to choose. As a sophomore in 1948, I took a humanities course in what was then called “gen. ed.,” taught in the fall by I. A. Richards and in the spring by Theodore Spencer. The fall readings were the Old Testament, Homer, and Plato, and the spring readings were the New Testament, Dante, and Shakespeare.

In my junior year I took another gen. ed. course: “East Asian Civilization,” known to undergraduates as “rice paddies.” The fall portion was taught by John Fairbank on China and the spring portion by Edwin Reischauer on Japan. That course had an even more profound effect on me: It made me decide to devote my life to the study of East Asia, Japan in particular, and I entered the graduate program at Harvard as the only student in sociology and Far Eastern languages. Studying classical Chinese in my first year, we read selections from Confucius and Mencius.

Sadly, faculty enthusiasm for general education waned at Harvard. The very idea of trying to cover “the great traditions” was felt to be ­impossible. So in the late seventies a modified form of general education was created based on methods, not content. The change was a mistake. Yes, of course an introductory course often takes on a topic that cannot be covered thoroughly. But the answer is not to jettison required content for methods. The real answer would have been that some content is better than none.

Recently, the requirement was revised again with so many alternatives, some of them serious but many in my opinion frivolous, that the very idea of general education has really disappeared into the widespread “distribution” requirement designed to make sure one takes at least a few courses outside one’s major.

In addition to our debates about general education, The Great Civilized Conversation has something important to say about the Chinese tradition and the modern world. De Bary rejects the notion of “Asian values” that makes ideas of human rights inapplicable to East Asia.

He points out the way in which a recognizable tradition of human rights is discernible in Confucianism and has been developed in the thought of modern Confucians. He tellingly reminds us that, at the United Nations in 1948, one of the principal drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a member of the Chinese delegation, a dedicated Confucian who saw to it that that Declaration was not reductively individualist but had a social context. In his final chapters, de Bary introduces us to some of the most influential of modern Confucians and then closes with comments on his college friend, Thomas Merton, whose ­understanding of Matteo Ricci he particularly appreciates.

William Theodore de Bary has spent his life contributing to the great civilized and civilizing conversation. In this rich and rewarding book, he invites a wide public to join him.

Robert N. Bellah (1927“2013) was Elliott Professor of Sociology emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. This review was submitted shortly before his death and has been edited for length.

Articles by Robert N. Bellah

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