Learning from Asian University Traditions

by Ruth Hayhoe

The eleventh biennial meeting of Comparative Education Society of Asia (CESA) was held in Siem Reap, Cambodia May 11-12, with good participation from current OISE faculty and students as well as some of our graduates. Dean Glen Jones led a session on the Challenges of the Comparative Study of the Academic Profession, and there were many other stimulating sessions on internationalization of higher education, teaching and learning in higher education and related topics. There were over 300 participants from 24 countries, not only in Asia but also Europe and North America.

Dr. Phirom Leng, who graduated from our doctoral program in 2015 and returned to work in the Cambodian Development Research Institute (CDRI) in 2016, was a key organizer of the conference, and has also taken the initiative to organize a Cambodian Comparative Education Society. Other current and former OISE graduate students participating include Cassidy Gong, Oleg Legusov, Hantian Wu, Peng Liu, Yeow-tong Chia,  Jun Li, Anatoly Oleksiyenko and Julia Pan.

pic1I was privileged to give one of two keynote addresses, the other being made by Dr. Chhem Rethy, Director of the CDRI and a Canadian citizen who taught at both McGill and Western universities in past years. He now combines medical research with an intense research interest in the history of Cambodia’s ancient universities.

Reflecting on an Asian Tradition

pic2The title of my keynote was “The Gift of Asian Learning Traditions to the Global Research University.” I spent a year reading about Angkor Wat and the remarkable heritage of the Indian monastic universities which go back to Taxila in Northwest Pakistan, established in 700 BCE and the even more influential Nalanda, which thrived from 427 to 1127 CE. The latter has recently been revived with strong support from the Indian government as well as many governments of Southeast Asia and East Asia.

To be at Angkor Wat and visit a Buddhist university established in 1181 and functioning until 1410, when a Thai Invasion decimated the whole area, was amazing. Giving this talk reminded me of the conference we held at OISE in 1992, Knowledge Across Cultures, which attempted to open the minds of western scholars to the richness of Asian learning traditions in the space that opened up after the end of the Cold War. It was followed in 1994 by a second conference held in China’s Yuelu Shuyuan, established in 960 CE earlier than any European university. How amazing 24 years later to see the global leadership of scholars at Cambodia’s ancient centre of learning, with so many coming from Asia, Europe and America to learn rich lessons from this important civilization.

I did not feel able to contribute much to the literature on Angkor Wat, but I did get deep new insights into the significant contribution Indian monastic institutions have made to Chinese higher education. The classical shuyuan or academies that thrived from the 12th to the 20th centuries in China functioned as a kind of civil society, offering a critical voice that aimed to keep the civil service examination system honest and providing a place for scholars out of favor with the emperor to find protection. They arose out of Buddhist monasteries introduced from India and were organized as corporate communities that gained support from the income of land holdings in rural areas.

Mahayanan Buddhism, introduced from India in about 250 CE also inspired nunneries for Chinese women, where it was possible for them to pursue scholarship, to write and publish and to manage their lives independent of Confucian strictures that required subordination to fathers, husbands and sons. The best known bodhisattva of Mahayanan Buddhism, Guan Yin, became female in the 8th century CE and is widely revered throughout East Asia as the one who hears the cries of the world, whether it be sailors in danger at sea or women hoping to conceive children. In the early 20th century, TImothy Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary who made important contributions to Chinese higher education,  saw the parallel with the Christian gospel and translated the Lotus Sutra as “The New Testament of Higher Buddhism.”

Asian learning traditions clearly have much to offer the global research university, perhaps first and foremost in the way in which they put spiritual texts at the heart of the curriculum, as did the medieval universities of Europe.  This moves the goal away from intense competition in a global knowledge economy, to heartfelt concern for serving the public good in a global knowledge society.

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