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[Beijing Forum 2014] Nicholas B. Dirks: The Opening of the American Mind

Peking University, Nov. 7, 2014: After the opening ceremony of Beijing Forum 2014 at Diaoyutai State Guest House this morning, Professor Nicholas B. Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley gave a report as one of the four speakers in the keynote speech section.

Professor Nicholas B. Dirks focuses his studies on South Asian history and culture, primarily concerned with the impact of British colonial rule. In the speech, he shared his views on globalization and cultural wars and their effects on higher education in universities, particularly the liberal art and area study.

The title of his speech, “The Opening of the American Mind”, was a response to the bestseller written by Bloom Allen “The Closing of the American Mind”, which had been declared to be “the first shot of the cultural war”. He commented on Bloom’s criticism of anthropology and history, and looked back to the cultural war in America and the heated debate between conservatives and liberalists on the role of liberal arts and higher education.

He opposed the idea of seeing “the acknowledgements of other parts of the world as new signs of further closeness of American mind” and the western hegemony in area study, which according to him was threatening the dialogues related to area and culture study. He noted that as world had become interconnected in such an unprecedented way, we “require more open, porous, dialogic and productive engagements with other cultures, civilizations, peoples and ideas” to explain how society should respond to globalization.

He pointed out that though there was growing awareness of world issues including terrorism, climate change, global epidemic and global economy in the age of globalization etc., “the studies of history, culture and sociology has been lagging seriously behind”, which in part is because of the loss of the prestige of the liberal arts in education. He stressed that liberal arts was critical not only to the development to a country’s own civilization but also to the understanding of the world’s character and world civilization.

He admitted that the history, too important yet too contradictory, had problems itself, sometimes susceptible to authoritative narratives, but the rewriting of it conveyed new idea and new ways. He stated that history should be “the accumulation of the truth”, and the history and the critical thought which were targeting themselves should not be neglected.

To “build the new molds of cultural understanding”, was what he suggested as the way to break through the general cosmopolitan statements on establishing cultural recognition. He said what was vitally needed was a whole new political and economical theory to reconsider the notion of “global citizenship” and “transnational governance”, which was “as inclusive of cultural difference as it engages with the task of building cultural dialogue”.

According to Professor Nicholas B. Dirks, a global, intellectual and political project is the key to this. And he viewed university as a project applicable and effective in attaining this goal–to create and disseminate knowledge, to gather intellectuals and thoughts, to facilitate internal and external interaction, and to promote "not only new curriculums, but new theories, new conventions, new ideas and ultimately, new practice”.

In the end, he suggested we should take culture and civilization seriously, and deepen our understanding through effective and productive cultural dialogue and increasing engagement in liberal learning, in which process universities around the world would play a fundamental role, enabling people to attempt open minds and to confront global challenges and opportunities they faced together.

Reported by: Wu Zhangxin’an
Edited by: Choisum kwok