Commentary  Asia rising; McGill doesn’t rise to the challenge

Eastern philosophers and thinkers should be studied with their Western counterparts

Educational institutions are often fond of referring to themselves as both steeped in tradition and highly modern. McGill is no exception to this rule; students are frequently exposed to quotations from University administrators applauding new steps toward our school’s future or revelling in the glory of its tradition. One area in which I believe it is past time for McGill to firmly shut the door on tradition and step into modernity is East Asian studies.

McGill students are surely aware of the many good arguments in favour of paying attention to East and Southeast Asia. The enormous population of the region, its growing role in international economics and politics, and the so-called “China model” for development are all areas of intense interest for many burgeoning social scientists. Despite our shared acknowledgement of the relevance of Asia, we remain, in general, willfully ignorant of the area. While a number of readers will be familiar with the names Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, few Westerners will be able to tell you that Li Changchun is the “propaganda chief,” or that Wu Bangguo is the nation’s top legislator. Despite constant bombardment about China’s growing importance, it seems a safe bet that only a select few McGill students could tell you who is most likely to succeed Hu as president of the world’s most populous nation.

Likewise, Japan’s most recent election was in some sense revolutionary, not unlike that of Barack Obama, yet I doubt many people on campus could tell you anything about Yukio Hatoyama. Japanese students, on the other hand, would be likely to know something about the American president, while my former students in China could easily tell you the functions of the secretary of state and that Hillary Clinton currently holds that position.

Our ignorance of their world, in contrast to their relatively impressive knowledge of ours, extends well beyond politics. Few Asian students would have trouble telling you about at least a couple of Western literature’s heroes, yet unless you’ve taken a 20th-century Chinese history class, you’re less likely to know of Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Ding Ling, Li Ao, and Yu Hua. And even if you’ve studied Mandarin Chinese at our University for four years, McGill will not provide you with the opportunity to read these authors in their native language – nearly all Asian literature courses are taught in English.

The problem of lack of access to Asian-language based courses is largely one of funding and attention at McGill. Grace Fong, the chair of the East Asian studies department, commented that it is simply impossible to offer advanced language or literature courses with the current amount of funding. “Ideally, we would have at least one person who could teach pre-modern fiction and one who could teach modern fiction as well,” Fong commented, “but as it stands we’re required to have one teacher who can cover over 2,000 years of literature [before the 20th century].”

With Chinese offered by a greater number of high schools, McGill’s language program may soon face difficulties catering to students with an interest in Asia, argued Robin Yates, the East Asian studies graduate program director. “It’s the third most spoken language in Canada, and there is a serious problem of us not having enough language teachers to really offer it,” he said.

Perhaps more troubling than our lack of cultural knowledge is our self-imposed blindness to East Asian political thought. Neither in the philosophy nor the political science departments do we see a class devoted to the teachings of Confucius, Zhu Xi, or their followers. Fully one-third of the world’s people are governed under systems that evolved out of their teachings and yet the McGill departments representing the two areas they most greatly affected – politics and philosophy – consider them to be utterly unimportant. While Yates noted that Asia scholars at McGill offer courses that teach Confucian thought in a religious or historical context, he added that “there is ample reason to look at the great Chinese philosophers as philosophers.” One has to wonder how McGill could possibly foster an image of modernity when it overlooks the works most cherished by and influential to over two billion people.

I spoke to Philip Buckley, a former chair of McGill’s philosophy department, about this gap in the philosophy program. Buckley is involved with the development of higher education in Indonesia as the director of the McGill IAIN Indonesia Social Equity Project. He noted that a number of the professors at McGill have expressed interest in early Asian philosophy, but that it would be “disingenuous” to add just one position in the field if it’s not linked to overall commitment to develop that area. “We recognize we don’t have that strength,” Buckley said, adding that when hiring, departments tend to “build on strengths.”

However, if the department insists on not hiring one Asian philosophy professor out of fear of being “disingenuous,” while continuing to focus on elaborating existing programs, Western students – the majority of McGill’s students – will remain unable to study a tradition other than their own. I would suggest to the philosophy department that hiring one professor with an Asian background might not be “disingenuous,” but rather the first step toward modernization and internationalization.

Of course, our primary concern ought not to be the state of McGill’s reputation or the legitimacy of its image. Rather, our concern should be that McGill has elected to not provide its students with the option of learning from or about Asia. If our philosophy department chooses to ignore the most important thinker outside of the Western tradition – and Confucius and Zhu Xi have arguably had a greater impact than any two Western philosophers – then let’s at least be honest and call the department “Western Philosophy.” On the other hand, if we’d like to prepare students to interact with the fastest growing region on earth, or if we’d like them to at least know in what way it differs from their own backyard, we ought to open venues within the school for greater attention to East Asian studies.

Xi Jinping, by the way, is Hu Jintao’s most likely successor.

Tyler Cohen is a U2 East Asian Studies and Philosophy student. Write him at