A recent article from the Duke Today highlights an experimental philosophy course that is connecting students from Hong Kong and America over a 12 ½ hour time difference. Eastern and Western Conceptions of Human Nature, Ethics and Politics, a class taught by Duke Professor Owen Flanagan, focuses on the international bridging of knowledge. Merging Eastern and Western concepts of philosophy together, students from the City University of Hong Kong and students from Duke University discuss Plato and Aristotle’s crossover with Confucius, Mozi, Mencius and many more. These seminars are taught in real time, 10:00 am EST U.S. time and 10:30 pm Hong Kong time, made possible by virtual technology, videoing in students, professors, and lecturers simultaneously.
But why go to all this expense and trouble? Does real-time lectures by faculty from “origin countries” of a subject give greater authenticity to student learning? What happens when cultural representatives from the place where distinct philosophies originate (be it thousands of years ago) come together in one classroom? Why is this meaningful?
Is there a symbiosis of new knowledge and understanding from this contemporary transnational interaction? Professor Flanagan teaches this bicultural philosophy course to bring together two differently historicized perspectives on how to conceptualize the world. “Western philosophy is only one source of philosophical reflection,” Flanagan said. “Asia, Africa, the Middle East are other great sources. We need for our students to have exposure to the philosophical foundations of these cultures.”
But does the virtual interaction of faculty and students from different geographic locations lead to greater philosophic knowledge? Maybe. But maybe not. Why do we assume that a faculty or student who lives in Hong Kong has a more authentic knowledge and/or deeper insight into eastern philosophies than a student or faculty member in Durham, North Carolina?
Extrapolating from this line of reasoning, I can’t help but wonder whether only female authors can write authentically about feminism. Or whether only artists of African decent can produce African American art. How is it that the identity and location of the author/artist trumps temporal proximity in how we measure the authenticity of knowledge? I was in Hong Kong when I learned about eastern philosophy and therefore I have a greater insight into the writings of Confucius, even though I visited the place 2500 years after he was there.
We seem to harbor implicit biases toward the way we acquire knowledge. The ideas of eastern and western philosophies originated on opposite sides of the world. But does it enhance our understanding of the work they produced in 500 B.C. (a religiously-biased date in and of itself) when we bring people from these cultures together virtually to talk about it in 2015? We are still a long way from unpacking implicit biases in why, where and how we best learn.