Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Great Civilized Conversation

The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community

Wm. Theodore de Bary
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 432
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Great Civilized Conversation
    Book Description:

    Having spent decades teaching and researching the humanities, Wm. Theodore de Bary is well positioned to speak on its merits and reform. Believing a classical liberal education is more necessary than ever, he outlines in these essays a plan to update existing core curricula by incorporating classics from both Eastern and Western traditions, thereby bringing the philosophy and moral values of Asian civilizations to American students and vice versa.

    The author establishes a concrete link between teaching the classics of world civilizations and furthering global humanism. Selecting texts that share many of the same values and educational purposes, he joins Islamic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Western sources into a revised curriculum that privileges humanity and civility. He also explores the tradition of education in China and its reflection of Confucian and Neo-Confucian beliefs. He reflects on history's great scholar-teachers and what their methods can teach us today, and he dedicates three essays to the power of The Analects of Confucius, The Tale of Genji, and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon in the classroom.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53510-6
    Subjects: Education, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    For centuries, a conversation has been going on in both Asia and the West about the values that could sustain a human community, but there has been only limited exchange between the two conversations. Today, the challenges of the contemporary world are such that the civilizing process can only be sustained through an education that includes (at least in part) sharing in the traditional curricula developed on both sides, based on classics now recognized as not only enduring but world class.

    The essays in this book speak first of all to the nature of a core curriculum as it has...


    • 1 Education for a World Community
      (pp. 3-25)

      It is a good sign that today, as we meet to consider how the new world situation may affect our college education, our theme should suggest an awareness not only of the revolutionary changes going on around us but of the undiminished importance of liberal education. “Liberal Learning in a Changing World” are the terms in which one recent book has formulated the matter for us in 1964.¹ To me, it is a favorable indication of the progress made in over a decade of continuing discussion. In 1950, one had to argue the point with proponents of so-called non-Western studies...

    • 2 “Starting on the Road” with John Erskine & Co.
      (pp. 26-33)

      The beginning of what would become Columbia’s Core Curriculum lies in the World War I era, when two courses were started that soon became the heart of the Columbia College program later known as the “Core.” One of these was the prewar General Honors course of John Erskine (1879–1951), which sought to conserve the values of classical liberal education in the face of the growing trend toward specialization in the research university. Along with this latter trend came the threat to classical learning that arose from the abandonment by the college of the requirement for Latin and Greek, the...

    • 3 The Great “Civilized” Conversation: A CASE IN POINT
      (pp. 34-39)

      Those familiar with the early history of the movement at Columbia identified with John Erskine’s Honors Course and the “Classics of the Western World,” known later in Chicago and St. John’s as the “Great Books Program,” will recall how its early advocates, including, among others, Mark Van Doren and Stringfellow Barr, referred to the dialogue among the great writers and thinkers as the “Great Conversation.” They thought of it as the great minds speaking to one another over the centuries about the perennial issues of human life and society. Contrary to those who misperceived the process as one of handing...

    • 4 A Shared Responsibility to Past and Future
      (pp. 40-44)

      When Chinese Confucian scholars escaped from Mao’s armies and his anti-Confucian campaign, taking refuge in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere, Qian Mu and Tang Junyi set up New Asia College in Hong Kong in the hope of conserving Confucian studies there (somewhat like the New School in New York as a “university in exile”). Much later, when Mao’s successors shelved the Marxist-Leninist class struggle and turned back to Confucian “harmony” as a better basis for a stable political and economic order, Confucian studies began slowly to resume on the mainland. Still, it was a sign of the times—of the...

    • 5 Asia in the Core Curriculum
      (pp. 45-52)

      The term “general education,” as it gained currency in mid-twentieth-century America, was originally applied to efforts at the reform of university education, which had become dominated by departmental specialization and by an elective system in undergraduate colleges that lent itself, by the choice of a major, to the same trend toward specialization. The earlier history of these reform movements, as well as their subsequent history in America, tells us something about why “general education,” whether as a term or as a practice representing a diffuse generality, is somewhat anachronistic today and would better be replaced by the concept of a...

    • 6 What Is “Classic”?
      (pp. 53-61)

      What is classic? To answer this question, I do not believe we need agreement at the start on how to define a “classic.” In fact, it is important not to theorize about this until we have taken into account what representatives of the major world traditions have considered classic, whatever the terms or genres of expression they propose. From this base of reference arrived at inductively, not deductively from our own premises, we might also ask to what extent have certain classics, sprung from one tradition, come to be recognized by others, as many Chinese classics came to be accepted...

    • 7 Classic Cases in Point
      (pp. 62-96)

      In this chapter, I offer three examples of how three different Chinese and Japanese works may be read to illustrate the question asked by the preceding chapter: “What Is Classic?”

      Although this section will speak mostly to why and how I read the Analects of Confucius, the reason I entitle it “Why We Read the Analects” is not that I claim to speak for everyone but only that my personal reading follows from what others have thought and said about it. Ever since Confucius’s disciples recorded his sayings, teachings, and examples in the fifth century c.e., later generations have been...


    • 8 Human Renewal and the Repossession of the Way
      (pp. 99-108)

      Neo-Confucianism in general, and the Learning of the Way (daoxue) in particular, had their inception in the great reform movements of the Northern Song period (960–1127). Politically, these reached a high point in the determined efforts of Wang Anshi (1021–1086) to effectuate his New Laws (xinfa), which can be read also as new formulas, methods, systems, or policies. Here, however, the key word is “new,” for it stands in seeming contrast to tradition as expressed in the dominant restorationist ideal of the time, that is, to the idea that the institutions of the ancient Zhou dynasty should be...

    • 9 Zhu Xi and Liberal Education
      (pp. 109-131)

      The thought of Zhu Xi begins and ends with the aim of “learning for the sake of one’s self,” or, more simply, “learning to be oneself” (weiji zhi xue), a phrase that recalls Confucius’s dictum in the Analects (14:25) that learning should be for the sake of oneself and not for the pleasing of others. This aim, which set a higher value on self-understanding and self-fulfillment than on all else, was put before Zhu early in life by his father. It was what motivated his studies under his teacher Li Tong (1093–1163), what guided him in official life, and...

    • 10 Confucian Individualism and Personhood
      (pp. 132-165)

      From the standpoint of the Chinese population as a whole, the family was the predominant social and economic institution in an agricultural society, and in many respects it furnished the theoretical model for other institutions such as the patriarchal dynastic state. But as a literate tradition, Confucianism was also concerned from the start with individuals in relation to one another, as well as with the role of the scholar-official in his relations with the ruler and other scholars, teachers, and students.

      Classically, the paradigm of human relationships was stated by Mencius as:

      Between parent and child there is to be...

    • 11 Zhu Xi’s Educational Program
      (pp. 166-202)

      Zhu Xi thought of himself, like Confucius, as the bearer of tradition rather than as the founder or originator of a new doctrine. Content with the modest role of teacher and transmitter, he was a scholar who devoted himself to editing texts, compiling anthologies, and writing commentaries on the classics instead of writing treatises to advance his own theories. Indeed, by modern Western standards he would probably have to be put down as the next thing to a “mere translator.” Yet, his own modesty notwithstanding, to Zhu, as to Confucius earlier, must go the credit of instigating a virtual revolution...

    • 12 Self and Society in Ming Thought
      (pp. 203-226)

      In the three centuries since the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) until recently, the Neo-Confucian thought of the Ming period had been held in generally bad repute. Each of the great dynasties before the Ming had been seen as making some enduring contribution to Chinese thought—the Zhou through the profusion and profundity of thought represented by the “Hundred Schools”; the Han through its synthesis of a Chinese worldview; the Six Dynasties, Sui, and Tang through the assimilation and development of Buddhist philosophy; and the Song through the great Neo-Confucian revival in humane learning and, especially, philosophy. The...

    • 13 The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea
      (pp. 227-276)

      Despite its modest size and marginal situation on the edge of Asia, Korea has played a key role in the development of East Asian civilization. Without challenging China’s claim to be the Central Kingdom or dreaming, as Japan at times has done, that it could become the dominant power in Asia, Korea has afforded again and again throughout its history not only a meeting ground and sometimes a battlefield for its larger neighbors but also cultural achievements to rival those of China and Japan. It is only recently, however, that its stellar contributions to East Asian culture have gained the...

    • 14 Confucianism and Human Rights
      (pp. 277-307)

      To many contemporary observers, Confucianism and human rights would seem to be an unlikely combination, if not a completely incompatible couple. As far away as Africa, the New York times reports, authoritarian regimes restrictive of human rights are looking to an Asian model of development based on Confucianism rather than to a Western one.¹ The presumption is that Confucianism spells authority and discipline, limiting individual freedom and strengthening the state. How, then, could it be reconciled to a view of human rights fundamentally premised on the dignity and autonomy of the individual? Moreover, anyone familiar with the Confucians’ reservations about...

    • 15 China and the Limits of Liberalism
      (pp. 308-326)

      On the first day of my return to Beijing in the spring of 1979, two things in particular struck me. At the airport, as we left the plane for the terminal, there were portraits of the great authority figures of Communist China hanging over the entrance—monumental in scale, heroic in style: Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng, and then the patriarchal figures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin—the latter especially impressive in his Soviet marshal’s uniform. Today, many of these portraits have been removed, but the picture of Stalin, so long after he had been put out of sight...


    • 16 Huang Zongxi and Qian Mu
      (pp. 329-337)

      When I was invited to give the Qian Mu Lecture for 1982 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the honor of being asked to participate in such a distinguished lectureship was enough to compel my acceptance, whatever the doubts I had about being able to meet the expectations aroused by so great a name in Chinese scholarship. I had, too, strong personal reasons for taking up this charge. For many years, Qian Mu had been a teacher of mine through his writings, and though others also have taught me in this way, he was one of the earliest and...

    • 17 Tang Junyi and New Asia College
      (pp. 338-344)

      It is a pleasure and a great privilege for me to be asked to address this distinguished gathering, which is meeting to honor the memory of Professor Tang Junyi and to discuss the future of Chinese philosophy. I regret that my wife’s health prevents me from attending in person (a fact and a reason which I think Professor Tang himself would appreciate because he and his wife were greatly devoted to each other).

      First, let me speak to my personal association with Professor Tang, which was in some ways a happy accident of what was otherwise a misfortune in the...

    • 18 Ryūsaku Tsunoda, Sensei
      (pp. 345-350)

      Ryūsaku Tsunoda, retired curator of Columbia’s Japanese Collection and former lecturer in the Department of Chinese an Japanese, died in Honolulu on November 29, 1964. It was an appropriate place for him to take his departure—where he had first set foot on America and where he still had family, friends, and former students. It was also an appropriate time; though he had hoped to spend his last days in Japan, in retirement at home, one could hardly imagine such an active life dragging slowly to an end. And it was in an appropriate manner—in transit between America and...

    • 19 Thomas Merton, Matteo Ricci, and Confucianism
      (pp. 351-366)

      I’m not sure when I first met Tom Merton. It was probably in the middle of my college years at Columbia. Merton had graduated a few years before (1938), but as a part-time English instructor and half-serious graduate student he continued to hang out with other former and current editors of Jester, the college’s humor magazine, in their office on the fourth floor of John Jay Hall. The “Jester crowd” included the poet Robert Lax; Robert Gerdy, later an editor at the New Yorker; and Edward Rice, who created Jubilee. Robert Giroux, who went on to the publisher Farrar, Straus,...

  8. Appendix. Wm. Theodore de Bary: A Life in Consultation and Conversation
    (pp. 367-372)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 373-398)
  10. Index
    (pp. 399-416)