- The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for World Community by Wm. Theodore de Bary, and: Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security by Denny Roy
Wen 文—“Letters, Classics” Civility and Soft Power (Diplomacy)
Today, at age ninety-five, Wm. Theodore de Bary provides The Great Civilized Conversation as virtually his intellectual autobiography of more than half a century at New York’s Columbia University. He has been the soul of its core curriculum for all undergraduates, expanded by East Asian traditions, his interest and expertise, especially Neo-Confucianism. De Bary is the John Mitchell Mason professor emeritus and provost emeritus, a senior sage highly respected by the Columbia community and the myriad of people he has influenced, including myself.
“Neo-Confucianism” is a term coined by the sixteenth-century Jesuits for the song ming li xue, 宋明理學, the revived and revitalized ru 儒, the Chinese intellectual tradition beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and extending to the Ming (1368–1644) and well into the Qing, 清 (1644–1911) until 1905 when China’s imperial examination system was abolished. After centuries of interacting with Buddhism (arriving in China from India in the first century) and native Daoism, Neo-Confucianism is classical Confucianism, a hybridized Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism had incorporated from Buddhism the metaphysical dimension and from Daoism a wider context of nature and creation—all on its own terms. It kept central its human and social emphases.
It was Zhu Xi (1130–1200), China’s greatest educator, who simplified and systematized the manifold, complex, and disparate ancient classical texts that, in different ways, addressed the human predicament. Zhu’s selection was a coherently manageable Confucian corpus, which included his own commentaries. It provided the textual bases to sustain individual, community, and dynastic life. On the intellectual level, Neo-Confucianism provided the symbolic resources for the imperial literati and gentry rulers; on the rice-root level, it gave practical guidance to ordinary folks in their local schools, community compacts, village granaries, and family rituals. Zhu Xi was, indeed, the teacher par excellence, the one who successfully institutionalized education for the entire Chinese populace.
With regard to de Bary’s life-long commitment to educating undergraduates and his key role in giving depth and breadth to Columbia’s core curriculum, to say that he has been a modern-day American Zhu Xi is no exaggeration. Early in his career, he was once enticed and tempted by Stanford University to leave Columbia with his young family for sunny California. To ensure his coming, Stanford offered [End Page 80] him a high faculty position with no expectation of teaching undergraduates. That proposition quickly settled the matter for educator de Bary, who, with no hesitation, declined under the conviction that no self-respecting institution of higher learning can make such a ludicrous offer.1 His book is an historical account of how a college education nurtures youths into world citizens through Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization program of the 1930s, which later evolved into the core curriculum, with which he was heavily engaged and continues to be so through teaching, even after retirement in the early 1990s, on a pro bono basis. The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for World Community is a model of how colleges and universities can establish their own core curricula amid the competing educational and vocational demands of our day. De Bary observes that “In the rush and din of modernization, such humane traditions [that he advocates] are fast disappearing even in the East” (de Bary, p. 22). Such is certainly true of contemporary China, because of the Maoist anti-intellectual revolutionary cultural iconoclasm. I can vividly recall speaking to a middle-school class in China in the early 1980s, and writing on the blackboard what I thought was a familiar sentence from the Da Xue (Great learning) to elicit...