Theodore de Bary, Doctor of Humane Letters
by Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Columbia University
The death of Ted de Bary has brought his life all the more vividly to mind — a life of extraordinary dedication and accomplishment, as the obituaries and tributes duly noted in their accounts of his scholarship, teaching, and service to the field. He died on July 14, 2017, a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday, having published his latest book, The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community, in 2013, submitting the final grades for his co-taught undergraduate seminar “Nobility and Civility” this past May, and in the midst of contemplating new ways to expand the long list of Asia-related publications and translations that he had overseen for more than half a century. In short, Ted de Bary continued with passion and persistence to the end of his long life the efforts he began as a young instructor at Columbia University in the late 1940s. He worked tirelessly to bring Asian history, culture, and thought — civilization, as he called it — into the undergraduate curriculum and the wider realm of humanistic scholarship and at the same time to foster a “civilized conversation” about meaning and values that spanned the division of East and West. More than a profession, Asian studies was his vocation, one that he pursued with unflagging commitment and integrity.
I am a member of a generation between that of Ted de Bary’s oldest and dearest friend Donald Keene and one of his most recent students Larry Hong, both represented here. For years I have recognized how much I, and so many others, owe to his inspiration and example. It began for me in the classroom in the late 1960s in his year-long graduate lecture courses on Chinese and Japanese thought. I marveled at the way he succeeded in presenting each different thinker or trend, whether Confucian, Buddhist, Shinto, nativist, nationalist, as if from the inside, first inhabiting the texts and contexts in order to understand why the authors saw the world as they did, and only after that to think critically about them. How did he, the living intellectual and moral exemplar of Confucianism — Confucius on the Hudson, we fondly called him – manage to give all the diverse and divergent aspects of East Asian thought such incisive and respectful readings? This display of what George Eliot called “sympathetic imagination” remained a pedagogical model for many of us for years to come.
As the founder in 1948 of what became Columbia’s Committee on Oriental Studies (later the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East), Ted de Bary practiced the same kind of humanistic empathy in the study of South Asian and Islamic thought, insisting that the canonical texts of Asian tradition, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, be incorporated into the mainstream of undergraduate education. As a product and eloquent supporter of Columbia’s West-based Core Curriculum, he created parallel courses in Asian Humanities, primarily literature and culture, and Asian Civilizations, mostly history and thought. For these courses he began to develop the expansive collections of primary texts known as the Sources, of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese tradition, used by scholars and students around the world. The editorial effort demanded by these team-produced volumes was often herculean, and it lasted for decades.
During those years, Ted de Bary continued to rally the cause for including Asia in the undergraduate Core Curriculum, holding steadfast against those who thought (as one Columbia dean put it) that the new exchange program with Oxford and Cambridge would usefully expose students to an “exotic civilization.” As a result of de Bary’s efforts, generations of Columbia undergraduates first encountered Asia in classes in Asian Humanities and Civilizations, and were vocally grateful for it at the time and in the decades since. And because Ted de Bary never saw Asia as either exotic or even Other, he always insisted on thinking about Asian and Western ideas in conjunction with one another, which is how “Nobility and Civility” came to be a world-spanning inquiry into social and cultural values and why his last book urged a global intellectual conversation.
In seminars the de Bary teaching style was Socratic, and like Socrates, however adept he may have been at eliciting dialogue, there was no doubt who was master in the room. Yet it never seemed that way. In the 1970s I team-taught an Asian Humanities class with him, a form of co-teaching he had championed from early on. I watched in awe as he brought forth ideas from the students that they didn’t know they had and made them think it was the Asian classics that had inspired them, when in fact it was Ted de Bary. Of course, he knew the texts almost by heart, but it appeared to the class that — thanks to them — he was just discovering what they were about. The prices of the paperbacks we were reading were a sign of the continuity of the great chain of learning he had fostered in Asian studies at Columbia: the students’ copies of the Analects and The Tale of Genji cost $16.95 (now they are $28.00), mine $12.95, and Professor de Bary’s, only $2.50. Purchased unimaginably long ago, close to the age of the sages, I thought.
Ted de Bary was a prodigious scholar whose more than thirty books – where did he find the time? – argued for a revolutionary, even radical moment in Ming Neo-Confucianism, and what he called a liberal tradition in East Asian Confucian thought, with strong commonalities and connections among China, Korea, and Japan. He wrote about education, human rights, leadership, and the relationship between self and society. He devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to service to Columbia, where he had been an undergraduate and graduate student, and was later professor, Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Provost, University Professor, founder of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Society of Senior Scholars, the University Lectures, and recipient of an honorary degree for his lifelong contributions.
He was a founding figure, together with John King Fairbank, Ainslie Embree, John Whitney Hall, Marius Jansen – all former Presidents of the AAS – and others, in the academic expansion of the field of Asian studies in the decades after the Second World War. Theirs was a towering generation who established or supported many of the institutions we have come to take for granted, from organizations and publications to fellowships and US-Asian scholarly relationships. I recall testifying before Congress on behalf of the Title IV fellowships sometime around 1970, Professor de Bary having decided to bring two graduate students along as a kind of congressional show-and-tell about the value of the funding. In 2011 AAS established the Wm. Theodore de Bary and Ainslie T. Embree Fund for Education and Outreach in recognition of their contribution as “early champions of the integration of Asian studies into the core curriculum.”
Ted de Bary was a young socialist as a teenager in the 1930s and later held to liberal values of the good society, rejecting both radicalism on the left and reactionary conservativism on the right. His 1970 AAS Presidential speech, delivered in the wake of the 1968 university risings was entitled “Nonpolitical but not Unconcerned,” alluding to the protests of the Concerned Asian Scholars while asserting that keeping the AAS open to all points of view did not mean “moral neutrality,” which by his lights would violate the principles of “responsive and responsible scholarship.” Recognized over the years for just this kind of scholarship, Ted de Bary received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2013, the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government in 1993, and the Tang Prize for Sinology in 2016. The citation for the National Humanities Medal commended his fostering of a global conversation, helping to bridge differences and build trust – no small achievement for a scholar of Chinese Confucianism.
All these things that Ted de Bary accomplished deserve praise and celebration, but so too does the way he conducted every part of his life. His family stood always at the heart of it, his wife and four children and their families. He never accepted any honor or even an after-dinner toast without thanking his wife Fanny for making everything possible, which was generous but also accurate. He supported his students with enduring warmth and attention, and it should be said, he supported the women in his life — his wife, daughters, colleagues, and students — with a natural generosity of spirit that, at least in the academy, was in those days (my days) a rarity indeed. He grew vegetables, abided by his faith, cared for his family, maintained friendships, nurtured students, worried about the world, and followed his vocation all with the same devotion to human values, openness to learning, and moral action. Ted de Bary was a Doctor of Humane Living as well as a Doctor of Humane Letters in the truest sense of those words.