An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 10 - July 5, 2019 ~ Honolulu, Hawai‘i ~ Hosted by Asian Studies Development Program
Colonialism Experiences and
Their Legacies in Southeast Asia
An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 10 to July 5, 2019 ~ Honolulu, Hawaii ~ Hosted by Asian Studies Development Program
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For more than two millennia, Southeast Asia has been a
circulatory nexus of indigenous, East Asian, South Asian and later European
practices and values. As such, it is a region particularly well suited to
understanding the historical circulation of, for example, goods, ideas,
artistic practices and religious practices, but also for critically engaging
such global historical phenomena as colonialism. Yet, apart from courses
addressing the Vietnam era, Southeast Asia remains comparatively understudied
in the American undergraduate classroom.
This relative neglect is in part because of the size and
inherent complexity of Southeast Asia as a region. From west to east, it
encompasses Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the
Philippines; and from the Asia mainland it stretches south and eastwards
through Malaysia and into the Indonesian archipelago, encompassing Indonesia,
Singapore, Brunei and East Timor. With a population of more than half a billion
people, about a thousand spoken languages, and a long history of interactions
with the Indic, Sinitic and European worlds, the cultural tapestry of Southeast
Asia is both extensive and intricately woven. In terms of religion, for
example, across the region there are some 240 million Muslims, 170 million
Buddhists, and 100 million Christians, with national populations ranging from
90-95% Buddhist (Burma, Cambodia and Thailand), to 70-90% Roman Catholic
(Philippines and East Timor), 40% animist (Laos), and 80-90% Muslim (Brunei and
Indonesia). In terms of ethnicity, Southeast Asia is home to more than 50 major
ethnic groups and all of the region’s national populations are multi-ethnic.
Moreover, in sharp contrast with China to the north and
India to the west, Southeast Asia has never been united under the rule of a
single nationality or ethnic group. Indeed, if there is a single term
characterizing the region, it is diversity. This poses particular problems for
undergraduate teachers working to infuse significant Southeast Asian content
into introductory humanities and social science courses. While India and China
are remarkably diverse in their own rights, they can be taught as relatively
coherent historical and cultural entities. This is not the case for Southeast
Asia. As a result, many teachers of the undergraduate core curriculum veer away
from teaching about the region at all.
Angle d'Une Cour Intérieure de la Grande Pagode; Emile Gsell (French, Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines 1838–1879 Vietnam); Photo Credit:The MET
A second challenge to undergraduate teaching about Southeast
Asia is the relative lack of accessible English-language scholarship on the
region. While teachers infusing Chinese or Indian content into their courses
might face the problem of selecting from among a number of good secondary
resources and primary texts in translation, those wanting to focus on Southeast
Asia have difficulty in locating pedagogically useful books and resources.
Because of the complexity of the region and the importance of oral and material
(rather than literate) cultural expressions, much of the publishing on
Southeast Asia has come out of field research. This presents particular
difficulties for the undergraduate teacher who must make broad, yet responsible
and valid regional comparisons in the space of a single course.
Drawing on years of experience, the Directors are confident
that the challenges of teaching colonialism in Southeast Asia can be met
effectively by focusing thematically on the creative and at times contested
process by means of which indigenous impulses and traditions—themselves highly
complex or syncretic—have accommodated, adopted and adapted outside influences.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or
recommendations expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the
National Endowment for the Humanities.