I recently wrote a term paper on the mixed economy of China for my History of Economic Thought class. I chose this topic partly because of the recent media attention on China and my own personal interest in learning about the subject.
From the very start of the project, my ignorance of Eastern history and culture became painfully clear. Having attended a classical Christian school from kindergarten through high school, I had spent my entire education studying Western history and culture, much akin to the Hillsdale model of education.
I don’t mean to deny the merit of knowing one’s own heritage, and I understand that America’s founding and intended culture is built on a largely-Western foundation. That being said, now we are living now in a much more global culture than our forefathers.
Hillsdale covers Western culture and thought to the almost total exclusion of its Eastern counterpart. Hillsdale should offer classes in multiple departments that specifically discuss Eastern ideology, culture, and history.
Based on my experience at Hillsdale so far, many members in my generation are wholly uninformed about Eastern history and current affairs. This makes it nearly impossible to adequately understand the future of American relations with China or compare Western and Eastern thought. Based on my survey of the Hillsdale Course Catalog, there is one class in the art department on Non-Western Art and one class in the History Department on the History of the Far East and one on the Middle East These are not enough to provide students with a thorough grasp on Eastern thought.
Hillsdale students in particular should study Eastern thought to challenge and strengthen their understanding of Western thought. Largely, we are Westerners and we are fully inundated with Western culture. We have a lot to gain by comparing our native culture with other worldviews. For example, we often take a certain level of individualism for granted, in the West, while Eastern cultures are more comfortable with collectivism. Why do we insist on the importance of the individual? What do we gain by rejecting collectivism? These questions are best answered by understanding the alternative to the perspective that we often take for granted.
Ancient asian societies are not the backwards cultures Westerners sometimes write them off as either. China developed technology for paper, printing, gunpowder, paper currency, and a smallpox vaccine, to name just a few things. We should take their history and global contributions seriously.
There are also practical reasons to study the East. With China’s growing presence on the world stage, the prepared statesman or citizen should anticipate the objections raised against his Western perspective and the perspective Eastern countries are introducing to the global conversation. The conversation is not restricted to politics either. Businessmen and women will find themselves dealing with Eastern economies and business more than in the past, and academics will need a more solid background for interacting with arguments originating in the East.
At Hillsdale, we usually think of the Bible as one of the founding documents of our Western heritage. This is true, Judeo-Christian thought has shaped civilizations, including our own. But the Jewish Bible began as an Ancient Near East document and thus was written to a people comfortable with and influenced by Eastern thought. In the book, “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes,” authors Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien argue that the Bible can and should be studied with both Eastern and Western perspectives in mind. They argue there is room in the text for both individualism and collectivism at times, or a need to consider the honor and shame system alongside the traditional Western moral system.
In order to preserve Western thought, prepare ourselves for a changing world stage, and deepen our biblical interpretations, Hillsdale should offer its students more classes on the East. Don’t settle for a brief big-picture glance to our neighbors.
Emily Marsh is a sophomore George Washington Fellow.