Conversation 18: The Idea of A College For Asia
Universities seemed to have lost the plot when it replaced its sense of purpose - whether theological or nationalistic - with the vacuous pursuit of quality, which really stands for nothing. The term we all came to love, 'quality education', is actually a pathetic postmodern posturing, a surrender to the consumer ethic and an abandonment of any grander project of shaping human futures. And, this framework of valuelessness, one could argue, leads directly to the current state of crisis in the university ranks: We may not need them anymore if only we need a conveyor belt of making consumers.
But, then, this is only one conception of the future ahead of us. This is a powerful conception, reinforced by all things we live by, and it seems there is no escape. And, as it happens, we can already glimpse into the brave new world of technologically enabled societies built around a few superstars and lots of indebted consumers: The whole story seemed incongruous with our middle class existence and values, and yet, appears inevitable from the things and theories around us. The universities, pliantly helping us build such a future, are building up their own obsolescence rather proudly.
However, an alternate conception is possible, because such a future will invariably undermine the coalitions of power that brought us so far. This will perhaps break down the middle class consensus, by breaking down this faceless lump into winners and losers, just as it is doing now in the middle east. It will test the possibilities of nature when a further 3 billion demand the lifestyle of the first billion as they were promised. And, it will test the boundaries of our economic imagination when indebtedness spreads so far ahead into future generations that it starts becoming meaningless.
Such an alternate conception can come from Asia. Not the Asia of roaring tigers that we see now, one that is built on promises of catching up on consumption, but an alternate conception, drawing on its heritage but looking solely towards the future, which will be about participation, harmony and self-sustainability. Indeed, there is no such formula right now in circulation, but a felt need and an optimism: Once we have tested the limits of material acquisition and triumph over nature, it is perhaps logical to expect the next stage of our history to be defined by the Asian values of giving up and living in harmony.
This is, and should be, the idea behind the College for Asia. This is not about going back to religiousity, but about a secular ethic of living to be discovered in context of the modern society, a re-imagination of success, prosperity and well-being through exploration of the alternate conceptions. The idea of 'Asian' is not dialectic, hence it does not have to stand in opposition to anything; yet it is a system of values that must be explored, nurtured and celebrated. And, this should construct the purpose on which this kind of college can be built, rejecting the conceptions of value-neutral 'quality' and embracing a greater purpose not of reviving any tradition but of imagining a future.
College for Asia, in my mind, is not a place but an idea. But it must also be real to be transcendental. It may either take the form of a real college which may be built around the ideas of harmony and creative living, respect and sensitivity towards others, an idea of success based on contribution rather than acquisition, an approach to knowledge based on understanding and discovery rather than creation for consumption; or a membership community around the same values. Indeed, it perhaps have to be both, an institution that defines its DNA through practise and finds its place in the world through an open celebration of its values.
This, in a sense, is the purpose I am committed to, the goal beyond all the temporary phases of my life. This is the object of my search, and indeed, it is only appropriate that I search for such an idea through my very European education - because, as I must affirm, this idea is not based on rejection but assimilation, not either-or but a deeper understanding of the world. And, this search, shared by so many others all over the world, is the seed from which a new conception of the university will ultimately come, one that is built around purpose and values, rather than just merely acquisitive pursuit of usable knowledge and credentials.