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(212) 854-6579 May 18, 1999

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Columbia Celebrates 50 Years of Asia Studies

 

Fifty years ago, only a handful of American universities taught courses for undergraduates on Asia and none offered a broad-based general education on Asian civilizations. Most courses on Asia were highly specialized, dominated by classical language study at the graduate level.

Today, there is hardly a college campus in the country that does not offer some undergraduate courses on Asian humanities and civilizations. On May 7, Columbia University celebrated the pioneering initiatives of its faculty following World War II in developing general education courses on Asia to add to its renowned undergraduate Core Curriculum on Western civilization.

As the first college in the country to develop a broad-based study program on Asia for undergraduates, Columbia‚s leadership and excellence has long been recognized as the spark for programs elsewhere.

In the fall of 1948, Professors Moses Hadas of the Greek and Latin faculty and Herbert Deane, a political scientist, were the first to teach what was then called the Oriental Colloquium. This course was followed in 1949 by Oriental Humanities and a year later by Oriental Civilizations.

„The fact that the early instructors were not specialists in Asia demonstrates the willingness of scholars in those days to venture beyond their own fields,š says Columbia Professor Wm. Theodore deBary, one of the foremost scholars of Asian humanities who for many years guided Columbia‚s Asia humanities and civilizations program.

The general study of Asian humanities was so new then in the West that source materials in English for reading and discussion were almost non-existent, said deBary, who with support from the Carnegie Corporation translated original source material and wrote a series of books for use in the Columbia Asia courses: Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958); Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960) and Sources of Indian Tradition (1960).

Professors Donald Keene and Burton Watson were major contributors to the series, which to date includes more than 150 titles for use in general education on Asia. It is now supplemented by Sources of Korean Tradition and by Translations from the Oriental Classics. For many years, the Sources books have been top sellers for Columbia University Press.

During the 1960‚s courses were added on Asian music and art. Today, Columbia offers undergraduates a sequence of one-year courses on the civilizations and major texts representing the four major Asian traditions: Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese and Japanese.

Through the 1990‚s, the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East has been engaged in a major revision and expansion of the Sources books, now six volumes in all, as well as the completion of Volume II of Sources of Korean Tradition.

Many students who enrolled in Columbia‚s early Asian humanities programs and who went on to become leading specialists in this field will participate in the day-long 50th anniversary convocation for Asian humanities and civilizations.

Several dozen professors, instructors and students past and present spent the day on campus recalling the beginnings of Asian humanities and civilization courses at Columbia and discussing the state of Asian studies today.

Organized by deBary and Irene Bloom, chair of the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East, the convocation brought together other major academic figures in the field, including Donald Keene and Ainslie Embree, professors emeritus of Columbia, and Robert Goldman of the University of California at Berkeley and John C. Campbell of the University of Michigan.

Many students who participated in the program have gone on to distinguished careers in academia, business, public affairs and other fields, including Kenneth Lipper, Chairman, Lipper & Co. and former Deputy Mayor of New York City; Philip Milstein, President, Emigrant Savings Bank and Columbia Trustee; Morton Halperin, Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, and Norman Podhoretz, Editor-at-Large, Commentary Magazine, who was a student in the first Oriental Colloquium.

DeBary, who at age 79 continues to teach Columbia undergraduates as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars, said faculty in Columbia‚s Core Curriculum foresaw the need to include Asia as early as the mid-1930‚s. „Though in the minds of many Asia only came into focus after World War II, the implementation of this early vision at Columbia was actually interrupted by the war,š said deBary.

„It was the outgrowth of an educational vision that went beyond their own academic specialities,š said deBary of the pioneers of Asian studies. „They thought of themselves as responsible, not only for scholarship in their own fields, but for the overall education of young people, at a formative stage in their lives, as citizens and more broadly as human beings.š

DeBary‚s own interest in Asia began as an undergraduate at Columbia, where he took up the study of Chinese. He continued his studies at Harvard in 1941. With the outbreak of World War II, he was commissioned in the Navy and attended Japanese language school. He went oversees in 1943 as a Naval intelligence officer and was stationed with Admiral Chester Nimitz‚ Pacific headquarters staff. After the war, he earned a doctorate and returned to Columbia where he was put in charge of designing undergraduate education in Asian studies.

 

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