The Association of Christian Universities and Colleges in Asia (ACUCA) will hold its annual conference this week. Payap University in Chiang Mai is host. About 100 presidents, rectors and provosts and their representatives are expected from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. I am looking forward to meeting a few of the leaders I once served briefly as ACUCA General Secretary. The theme is the intersection of higher education, culture and religion. It is being conducted, coincidentally, in the context of the elaborate last days of preparation for the cremation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, which is the most extravagant Thai cultural event of this century (so far).
I expect the ACUCA conference to stay safely away from consideration of cultural challenges to freedom of expression, cultural experimentation by marginal ethnicities, and academic defiance. We do not anticipate the secret police to send observers to record our speakers, as they did at a conference a few weeks ago conducted at a university on the other side of the city. We would be shocked if any of our speakers were arrested, as was an eminent scholar earlier this week for remarks he made in a conference 2 years ago that invited academics to be willing to investigate and question the veracity of a legend from 500 years ago about a battle between two kings on elephants. I do not find any mention in the conference program of how wary Christians must be in Indonesia where any hint of criticism of the dominant culture can be interpreted as a blasphemous insult to Islam. Even in South Korea certain topics are taboo.
Harassment by cultural “police” is not out of the question even for a polite academic conference like the one we are planning. One of the keynote presentations is about how the Christian Communications Institute (CCI) of Payap University adapts Thai folk drama to convey Christian moral messages. CCI’s innovation being show-cased at the conference is how ลิเก (Thai folk melodrama) has been used for 30 years to re-narrate the story of the Prodigal Son. CCI has presented this model at international conferences, world evangelistic assemblies, and on tours throughout Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Uniform applause has not always been the response, however. After the first trip to the USA in the early 1980s, an incensed Thai observer in the USA wrote to the Thai Royal Palace that this Christian group was distorting and misrepresenting beloved Thai cultural heritage. Because the charge had been sent to the Palace, it had to be investigated. Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, president of Payap University, and members of the CCI staff hurried to Bangkok where a Princess, known for her love of traditional culture, presided at a meeting and declared that folk drama was an art that traditionally incorporated local and contemporary references, and the forms used by the CCI were neither insulting nor distorted.
One never knows when culture and religion will erupt into controversy and confrontation. In best cases, those eruptions can be converted into occasions for dialogue. That is what higher education is supposed to do well. But in times of conflict and threat, people may clamor for protection. These days, students may be intolerant of challenges and try to demand that their universities surround them with safety. The boundary between intellectual stimulation and intimidation may seem to disappear.
When higher education is hijacked for use as a cultural tool, it ceases to be, in any sense, “higher”. It has lost its purpose and no longer performs its basic service of holding culture accountable to core values and principles. “Culture” may be abstract, but its advocates have faces and names, and often have offices, ministries, functionaries, lawyers and connections with enforcement power. These people can be held accountable.
The topic of the ACUCA conference this coming weekend is not as far from the current battlefronts as the conference brochure may imply. If there is to be a third world war, it will begin by building walls between cultures and daring anyone to assault the walls. Cultural protectionism begins by ramping up fear and hate. University administrators may not want political issues to intrude on the smooth production of effective members of the labor pool, but if higher education refuses to hold culture accountable, who will?
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.