A Dialogue of Civilizations

Robert Redfield
and the development
of language and area studies at the University of Chicago

An Exhibition
based on the papers of Robert Redfield and Milton Singer
at the
Regenstein Library
University of Chicago

Curated by Arjun Guneratne

September 11 - October 31, 1992

Language and Area Studies are a relatively recent phenomenon in universities in the United States. Before World War II, universities paid little attention to the world outside North America and Europe and to the civilizations and cultures which had developed there. There was little institutionalized basis for the study of China, Japan, South Asia, the Islamic World, Africa or Latin America. Language training meant an immersion in the classical tradition, not a study of the world's vernacular languages. What research or teaching did exist was the work of a few individual scholars, or (as at Chicago) inspired by missionary concerns. As one writer has pointed out, many Americans learnt about the world "beyond the bounds of Christendom" from the writings and lectures of returned missionaries (McCaughey, 1980:4). At Chicago, the study of India was in the hands of individual scholars of Sanskrit (Carl Buck, George Bobrinskoy) or was included in the curriculum of the Divinity School, which was busy training missionaries to work in India.

Education for Hot Wars and Cold

This situation changed dramatically in World War II. The United States found itself involved in a global war, its servicemen engaged in parts of the world the country knew little about. There were few institutions that the government could readily turn to as a source for information; unlike the countries of Europe, the United States had not developed a significant colonial civil service nor were its universities engaged in any relevant research about these regions. In the case of South Asia for example, the kinds of knowledge that missionaries and sanskritists had to offer were not particularly useful to the war effort. There were exceptions of course. Norman Brown, a sanskritist from the University of Pennsylvania, was recruited to the war effort and became a director of the Organization for Strategic Services.

Starting virtually from scratch, the government had to put together the resources it needed and it turned to the universities for assistance. Individuals with some knowledge of different areas of the world were brought together in Washington and many were recruited to the OSS. In 1943, the U.S. army established a number of intensive foreign-language training programs and Civil Affairs Training Schools (CATS) on certain university campuses to enable the military to administer occupied countries. A CATS program was established at the University of Chicago, and trained a large number of the military administrators of occupied Japan (Stocking, 1979: 31).

World War II was a catalyst for the development of language and area studies. The United States emerged as a superpower after the war and began a process of economic and military expansion around the globe that would be ended only by the war in Vietnam. Its new global interests had to be supported not only by military and economic power, but by intellectual resources as well. As European colonial empires disintegrated, many new states came into being. Their relationship to the United States was defined in the context of the Cold War, a relentless contest for global supremacy with the Soviet Union which had as its goal the creation and maintenance of Third World regimes friendly to the U.S. and amenable to its control (and the concomitant deposition of those that were not), and to maintain access to global markets and raw materials, mostly in the Third World. As Gabriel Kolko has noted, "To come to grips with the U.S. relationship to the Third World is also to analyze the single most important aspect of the international role of the United States in modern times" (Kolko, 1988: ix-x).

The U.S. needed to know more about the societies emerging from colonialism whom it now sought to dominate or influence. It also needed people in its service who were conversant in their languages. The country's universities were the logical locus of these efforts. From the point of view of national policy, the funds and resources that were poured into the development of language and area studies, from private corporations and foundations (Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller) and from the government were a necessary investment to enable the United States to better wield the global power it had gathered into its hands. The development of "intellectual resources" became even more urgent in the context of the United States' rivalry with the Soviet Union, particularly following the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and the perception engendered at the time that the Soviets were drawing ahead in education and science. As one American educator noted in 1953,

America's consciousness of it's world must undergo the same transformation that occurred in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a result of the great voyages of discovery. The knowledge of new places and peoples, beliefs and practices crowded upon Europe's consciousness... Truths that had seemed absolute became relative; beliefs that were assured became doubtful. Large new bodies of information had to be incorporated. Discrepancies between ideas and collisions between beliefs had to be reconciled and mediated. The outcome was an enlargement of horizons, an expansion of knowledge, and a new view of the world without which Western Europe could not have moved into its new position of world leadership. (de Kiewiet, 1953: 14)

Does America need a hearing aid?

Some of the individuals associated with the development of language and area studies at the university level were motivated by other considerations than those driving policy makers in Washington. At the University of Chicago, the preeminent individual associated with the development of language and area studies was the anthropologist Robert Redfield, who was also Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences from 1934 to 1946.

The destruction caused by the war, particularly the use of atomic bombs on Japan troubled Redfield and turned his thinking to the cause of world peace and how it might be attained (see for example, his letter to his daughter Lisa, dated August 19, 1945). His own intellectual interests took him in the direction of a comparative study of civilizations, on the assumption that peace must be based on mutual understanding and dialogue among the world's people. Through such a study one could "advance the movement toward common understanding among the peoples of mankind" (quoted in Davis, 1985: 32).

Another factor influencing Redfield's thinking was his criticism of the wartime approach to language and area studies. The wartime model of crash programs were unsuitable for an academic environment in peacetime. The purpose of a university was "to make intelligent citizens, or to train the mind for intelligent action" and not simply to make one competent in a particular thing. He proposed instead, to a conference organized by the Social Science Research Council in 1944, that civilizations in their totality be taken as the units of study, not geographical areas:

Such an enterprise would combine the study of books and texts with field study of the people living in the area to-day...For the conception which would give unity to the effort would be not so much the spatial fact that China or Russia or Latin America is one part of the earth's surface, as the fact of culture. These students would all be concerned with a traditional way of life that had maintained a distinguishing character over a long time, to great consequence for mankind....Ultimately the conception of culture as a naturally developed round of life and the conception of culture as enlightenment through mental and moral training, go back to the same reality; a people with a way of life that is or can be the subject of reflective study. The regional program in research may take the form of long study of the great world cultures (quoted in Singer, 1976: 194).

In an article in Saturday Review, entitled "Does America need a hearing aid?" in which he presented his ideas to an audience outside the academy, Redfield suggested that "mutual security depends on mutual understanding, and for understanding you have to have a conversation." His criticism, for example, of the Voice of America radio programs and the assumptions that underlay them was that in their haste to propagandize the American way, the conversation they carried on was one-sided. They needed to listen to the people they were trying to reach.

The Comparative Civilizations Project, 19S1-1961

In 1951, Redfield's proposal for an Institute for Cultural Studies, which had earlier been rejected by the Carnegie Corporation, was accepted by the Ford Foundation, to which Robert Maynard Hutchins had gone after leaving the University of Chicago. Although Redfield was unable to establish the Institute for Cultural Studies as he had originally envisioned it, his project, in its final form, was conceived of as a catalyst for scholars at a number of different institutions at home and abroad.

The Project devoted much of its attention to a study of the relationship between civilizations (the "great tradition") and the "little tradition" of local communities, particularly peasant villages, existing within its ambit. Redfield believed the village would provide the appropriate entry point for a study of civilizations "from the bottom-up. (Singer, 1976: 208)." An example of this approach was the Spring 1954 session of the Comparison of Cultures seminar conducted by Redfield and Singer regularly between 1951 and 1958. It was devoted to a discussion of "The Indian Village." The papers, edited by McKim Marriott, were subsequently published as Village India and became influential in their field.

As Davis notes, "the operative image" of the project "was that of "crossing": crossing disciplinary boundaries, cross-cultural studies, cross fertilization of ideas" (1985: 35). In its early years, the Comparative Civilizations Project concentrated on Chinese, European and Islamic civilizations, an emphasis reflecting the presence at Chicago of scholars already working on these cultures.

A passage to India

In its later years, from 1955 to 1961, Redfield's project began to concentrate on the study of Indian civilization. This was partly at the instigation of Redfield's associate, Milton Singer, who had spent six months in India in 1954-55, and believed India to be "the best place to study the interaction of little and great traditions..." and partly because of the availability of anthropologists who had recently completed Indian village studies.

A number of other Chicago faculty had also embarked on their own passages to Southern Asia. They included among others Edward Shils (Sociology), Richard McKeon (Philosophy), Donald Lach (History), Fred Eggan (Anthropology) and Bert Hoselitz (Economic History). Although lacking formal doctoral training in these areas of the world, their interest took them to India, Indonesia and other countries of Asia's southern rim. On their return to Chicago, they formed a core group of faculty interested in and supportive of the study of Southern Asia, and eventually became the nucleus of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS).

Redfield himself had made preparations to carry out fieldwork in a village in Orissa, but on arrival in Calcutta in 1955 he fell sick and was forced to return home. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died of the disease three years later.

Apart from the Comparison of Cultures seminar (which Singer continued after Redfield's death in modified form) the Redfield Project accomplished several things. It was a source of funding for scholars both American and foreign (mainly Indian). Numerous seminars and conferences were held, and a comprehensive listing of personnel, organizations and research in the field of intercultural studies was compiled. Redfield and Singer jointly edited a monograph series under the aegis of the Project, called "Comparative Studies of Cultures and Civilizations." Eight volumes were published by the University of Chicago Press; others were published by the American Anthropological Association in its Memoir series. It provided the stimulus for Chicago's "Non-Western Civilizations" courses and although Redfield himself never worked in South Asia, it gave intellectual direction to the development of South Asian Studies at Chicago. More importantly, all this activity made the study of the world outside Europe and North America a significant and growing part of the intellectual life of the University.

The Comparative Civilizations Project never fulfilled many of the goals that Redfield had envisioned for it, largely because of Redfield's illness and lack of funding. It's unfinished agenda was taken up by the newly established Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS) and by the year-long courses in non-Western Civilizations in the College, established in 1956.

Institutionalizing the study of Southern Asia

COSAS was formally created in 1955 to develop and coordinate research and teaching activities on Southern Asia in the university, and to maintain relations with scholars and learned societies in the region. It was a cooperative enterprise among faculty drawn from 12 departments and the Divinity School, whose goal was to make the study of South and Southeast Asia a permanent part of university's academic and administrative structure. It was not, however, unlike certain other University committees that fostered interdisciplinary work, authorized to grant degrees.

The work of COSAS was supported in its early years with grants from the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. Because of the exigencies of the Cold War, money later became available under the National Defense Education Act for the establishment of a Language and Area Studies Center at the university in 1959. This phase of growth culminated in 1965 when the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations was established.

Chicago and the study of "Non-Western Civilizations"

In 1944, Redfield had proposed to the Social Science Research Council that area studies be reorganized after the war to "combine the study of books and texts with field study of the people living in the area today." He considered the proper object of study to be civilizations conceived as a whole and not simply discrete regions of the world. Chicago proved to be the most fertile ground for his ideas, which found expression in the undergraduate curriculum through year long courses on different civilizations of the world instituted in 1956. These courses, initially covering the civilizations of India, China and Islam, were funded by a three-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The Redfield Project also supported the teaching of these new courses by providing some of the funds to hire the lecturers required to teach them. In time, these courses developed to become graduate and bachelor's programs in their respective areas.

In 1957, a conference on "Introducing India in Liberal Education" was held at the University to compare alternative approaches to the study of Indian civilization in the United States and abroad. Redfield's contribution, 'Thinking about a Civilization" was to influence the way the first three non-Western Civilization courses were organized, and was often used as the initial reading for the course on Indian Civilization. However, the subsequent proliferation of similar courses dealing with other civilizations did not always follow the model proposed by Redfield, which was comparative and interdisciplinary in its content. But as Milton Singer observed in his preface to the published papers of the conference, "the significance of the current effort in American universities and colleges to give greater attention to Asia is to be measured not so much by the effects of a particular kind of course on a particular body of students, or, indeed, by the proliferation of courses on Asia, but rather by the change in intellectual climate which this effort indirectly brings to the universities, and by the redirection of interest and work among its faculties" (Singer, 1957: ix).

-Arjun Guneratne

References cited

Davis, Richard, 1985. South Asia at Chicago: a history. Committee on Southern Asian Studies, University of Chicago.

de Kiewiet, C.W., 1953. "Let's globalize our universities." Saturday Review, September 12, pp. 13-14, 70.

Kolko, Gabriel, 1988. Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-198O. New York: Pantheon Books.

McCaughey, Robert A., 1980. "In the land of the blind: international studies in the 1930s." Annals of AAPSS 449:1-16.

Redfield, Robert, 1953. "Does America need a hearing aid?" Saturday Review, September 26, 1953.

Singer, Milton, 1976. "Robert Redfield's Development of a Social Anthropology of Civilizations" in J. Murra, ed., American Anthropology: the early years. St. Paul: West Publishing Company.

Singer, Milton, ed., 1957. Introducing India in Liberal Education. The University of Chicago.

Stocking, George W., 1979. Anthropology at Chicago: Tradition, Discipline, Department. The University of Chicago Library.

Ó 1992 by Arjun Guneratne

Published by the University of Chicago Library