SHARED WISDOM; for Decades, Asian Universities Have Followed Western Practices. Now It's Time for Them to Take the Lead

By Mahbubani, Kishore | Newsweek International, August 21, 2006 | Go to article overview
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SHARED WISDOM; for Decades, Asian Universities Have Followed Western Practices. Now It's Time for Them to Take the Lead


Mahbubani, Kishore, Newsweek International


Byline: Kishore Mahbubani (Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS) and author of "Can Asians Think?")

A revolution is coming in the field of global education. Up to now, all leading universities have relied primarily on the deep Western pool of wisdom to provide both the method and content of their educational systems. This made sense. Western education created the most successful societies humankind has ever seen. Asian nations, beginning with Japan, quickly realized that to modernize successfully they had to absorb the best of Western education. During the Meiji Restoration, young Japanese traveled around the West to study and bring home what they learned.

Asia benefited from Western education even under colonial rule. When the imperialist Lord Macaulay was put in charge of education in British India, he called for English to be the language of instruction, remarking that the historical information found in all the books written in Sanskrit was less valuable than even "the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England." He promised that Indians' minds would begin to open when they read those English texts. "Come what may," he famously added, "self-knowledge will lead to self-rule, and that would be the proudest day in British history." The magic that Macaulay predicted did indeed happen: Western schooling opened Indian minds. The new, confident India of today owes its success at least in part to the influence of Western literature and learning.

Now a second Asian cultural awakening is upon us, completely upending Macaulay's dismissal of local works. There is a growing realization that the world can learn a lot from, say, Chinese and Indian civilizations, in everything from poetry and philosophy to traditional medicine and strategic thinking. Paradoxically, leading Western institutions are ahead of their Asian counterparts in grasping this. Yale University, for example, has signed student-exchange agreements with several leading Asian universities, including Peking University and the National University of Singapore (NUS); similarly, the French business school INSEAD has set up a campus in the region. Cooperation between Asian and American universities in scientific research is also growing (for example, in SARS, avian flu and genomes).

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