The rather surprising question in my title is inspired by three things. Most immediately, I have just returned from the AAS Conference in San Diego, where I participated in a panel on Elite and Popular Confucianism, presenting a paper called “American Confucianism: Between Tradition and Universal Values.” Second, I have heard some talk about the establishment within one or more Chinese universities of explicitly Confucian-themed academic units. Finally, I recently became aware of Soka University, a liberal arts college in Southern California that was founded by the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organization from Japan.
These three sources of inspiration could lead conversations in lots of directions, and I’d be happy to be guided by whatever reactions and questions readers of the blog happen to have. But my first interest is not so much the practical question of who might found a Confucian academy or college in the US (and with what money, and what ulterior motives), as the more abstract question of what a good and valuable such institution might look like — if indeed there is a model that might be good and valuable in the contemporary US. One of the key arguments of my American Confucianism paper is that the rupture of modernity poses a greater challenge to Confucianism’s relevance and value than does “travelling” outside of a primarily “Chinese cultural” context to, for example, the US. So in thinking about what a Confucian university should look like in the US, I claim, we are simultaneously thinking at least partly about what such an institution should look like in China.
More concretely, here’s an example of what I have in mind. Probably part of the curriculum would be designed on a “great books” model. But would the books be primarily or exclusively “Confucian classics”? Or would texts be drawn from a variety of traditions? Because of the importance to Confucianism of learning to harmonize multiple perspectives, I believe, it makes sense to have a balance of multiple traditions represented in such a curriculum. Another interesting question is whether there should be even more explicit “moral education” in the curriculum, and if so, whether it should be modelled directly on past Confucian models or whether it should also draw on broad findings about successful moral education from contemporary scholarship. Again, my view is that Confucian institutions in the modern world should be open to and informed by modern scholarship, and thus any new efforts toward moral education will be distinctly shaped by these findings.
In my AAS presentation, I discuss the example of Chinese Buddhism, in which over the course of several centuries China adapted to Buddhism and Buddhism adapted to China. I point out that at the beginning of that process, the very notion of Buddhism in China may have seemed quixotic, given the significant cultural differences between India and China, yet by the time the process was mature, China was perhaps the world center of Buddhism and Buddhism’s influence in India was greatly lessened. For Confucianism, who knows what the future may hold?