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Hamilton Alumni Review
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Illumniating Asia

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Where history is personal

Bartholomew blames the American education system for not focusing enough on social studies. Too little emphasis is placed on the rest of the world. What he is suggesting is that cultural knowledge is now a tool, a global competency for the 21st century. In turn, Thomas Wilson, a history professor who played a crucial role in landing the series of grants that expanded the Asian Studies Program in 1999-2003, argues that historical consciousness is a big part of that cultural awareness — especially in a region where the recorded past stretches back so far. Wilson teaches Chinese and Japanese history and is seeking to incorporate more Korean history into his courses, which are popular with majors in Asian studies and East Asian languages.

"Unlike most Americans, Chinese and Koreans and Japanese are very deeply historically minded," he says. "If you ask them, 'Where do you come from?' they'll never say where they were born. They'll identify themselves with the land of their ancestors." ­Wilson learned that the hard way, telling someone on his first visit to China that he was from Chicago, not the home of his forebears. He's since lost track of the number of times he's traveled to Asia. But it's often enough to have been invited — along with one of his students — to witness a ritual feast to Confucius in one of the few places where that ceremony has been held without interruption for several hundred years.

Wilson is writing a book on ancestor worship, and he is an expert on Confucianism and the moral principles that permeate Chinese society. His 2002 book, On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius, explored the mythical grip of the past on Chinese culture. This focused, nuanced willingness to explore history is critical to the multidisciplinary foundations of Hamilton's Asian Studies Program, and it can play an important role as Hamilton students engage with that region of the world. Many of the students who study under Wilson are future scholars; Brooks Jessup '99, who attended the Confucian feast with Wilson, is now writing his dissertation on Chinese history at the University of California at Berkeley. But Wilson points out that he is preparing businesspeople, too — and that they're going to do well. "They really do communicate very effectively because they know the language, they know the history, and there's a resonance there," ­Wilson says.

Trivedi, whose work focuses on modern South Asia, colonialism and women, adds that it's important to strike a careful balance between past and present. "We in Asian Studies feel very strongly that students need to engage substantially with Asia's traditional cultures," she says. "However, we feel equally strongly that students know something about Asia today. They should not leave Hamilton with an outdated view of Asia and its people."
 

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