- Confucian Tradition and Global Education
William Theodore De Bary's most recent book, Confucian Tradition and Global Education, is a collection of lectures given in honor of Tang Junyi, with two additional essays by Cheung Chan Fai and Kwan Tze-wan. The book surveys a constellation of themes concerning the place of the Confucian tradition in the contemporary world and the role of Asian classics in global liberal education. De Bary thoughtfully presents the case that not only are Confucian and neo-Confucian works relevant for a truly liberal—and thus global—education, but that repossession of the Confucian tradition by China and other countries heavily influenced by Confucian thought is crucial in the contemporary world. While De Bary is best known for his philosophical scholarship, this book is not narrowly located in Chinese or Asian philosophy. With its focus on issues of education, it addresses many different areas within the humanities, including questions about the purpose of humanities education itself.
De Bary opens the book with a few personal remarks on the origin of his relationships with Tang Junyi, Qian Mu, and New Asia College (now the Chinese [End Page 93] University of Hong Kong). He studied neo-Confucian thought with both Tang Junyi and Qian Mu and was deeply influenced by their passion for neo-Confucian scholarship and their commitment to "Confucianism among the shared values of 'the East' as particularly relevant to the political, social, and economic challenges of the West" (p. 2). De Bary explains that it was due in large part to his studies at New Asia College that he became so deeply involved with the core curriculum program at Colombia University.
The first chapter, "Confucian Education and 'The Point of Democracy,'" addresses the question raised by Amartya Sen as to whether or not the core of democracy, understood as public reasoning, is internally present in the Asian traditions. If not, this would raise serious questions about the value of Confucian thought in contemporary circumstances. De Bary is obviously sympathetic to a positive answer to this question and identifies certain characteristics of neo-Confucian thought that support the claim that public reasoning, as defined by Sen, is present. The extent to which these were actualized in practice in Asia is, however, an open question. De Bary emphasizes the importance of education in Confucian thought and in the Confucian project of self-cultivation, in the context of the discussion of democracy, in order to strengthen his argument that there is no necessary conflict between Confucian values and democracy. He sees Confucian thought—specifically neo- and new Confucian thought—as a potential resource for contemporary reevaluations of education programs. Along these lines, he takes issue with Lee Kuan Yew's conservative understanding of Confucianism and Asian values, because Lee advises against studying the great classics. Lee's position is clearly inconsistent with the larger body of Confucian thought, which has great respect for both studying the classics and continuity of tradition. De Bary closes his first chapter with four points: (1) Confucian education could make a great contribution to contemporary democracy; (2) Confucian education has to be seen in a larger East Asian context; (3) When reappropriated, Confucian education should be put into practice first locally, then regionally, and finally globally; and (4) Asian classics need to be included in the canon of global literature drawn on for general humanities education (pp. 20-21).
Chapters 2 and 3 articulate some of the practical concerns with including Confucian materials in programs moving toward global literacy. As one of the key figures in developing Colombia's Great Books and core curriculum programs, De Bary gives advise for how to incorporate Asian classics into core education programs—including philosophy, history, literature, religion, sociology, history of science, and humanities in general—while avoiding the dangers of tokenism and prejudicial presentation. He recommends that programs 1) give proper context; 2) focus on commonalities and central themes, rather than differences...