THE DEATH OF AN AMERICAN
SCHOLAR OF EAST ASIA
Scholars and journalists don’t
always get along (right, call this Dept. of Understatement). But their need
for each other is endless and often deep, even when each side bull-headedly
refuses to admit it.
Let’s put the matter this way:
Journalists are generally scavenger
birds of the moment, tweeting their view of contemporary history
breathlessly and sometimes (alas) carelessly.
By contrast the true academic is
the whale of the knowledge kingdom, diving deep and displacing much when on
the hunt for knowledge. I am brazen enough to say that I may actually know
what I am talking about: over the decades I have been both an American
journalist and an American professor, often at the same time – as, for
I admit my view of great scholars
can trend toward the bucolic and completely ignore the large raft of
professorial deadheads, footnote trawlers and tenured mediocrities that
populate many universities. In part this positive blindness is because I
pointedly avoid the loathsome academic bureaucrats who make you want to tear
your hair out and instead invest my time with the greats who inspire you to
do better and think more grandly.
This brings me to one professor who
by universal acclaim belonged in this special latter category. That was
Robert A. Scalapino. Indeed, now that he is no longer with us – he died at
92 last week – I can tell you what I really thought of him. I thought he was
Professor Scalapino worked out of
the thrilling fields of the University of California at Berkeley. That alone
should tell you something. Okay, so not every professor there is terrific
and maybe it’s not inarguably the case that it deserves to be called the
greatest American university, as I believe it may well be (I know… there’s
Harvard, and my alma mater Princeton … and Stanford…and so on). But at the
very least it’s a very special world with special people. And, until Nov. 1,
Scalapino was one of them.
His expertise as a scholar of Japan
politics was widely acclaimed and even attracted the attention of a handful
of advice-hungry U.S. presidents who had found his views helpful indeed. His
energies were those of legend – and produced some 40 books and more than 500
scholarly or policy articles. And his reputation for scholarly quality was
of the highest order. Most importantly of all, Scalapino cared deeply about
Asia – and about helping Americans understand it well enough to be able to
relate to it intelligently.
Scalapino’s radar went beyond
Japan, of course. All of East Asia came within his ken. He had so much to
say about the Korean Peninsula. And long before America recognized that
China was rising and had all but shed Communist economics, Bob was running
up the frequent-flier mileage to Beijing. His balanced views of what was
happening on the mainland often stood in embarrassing contrast to either the
blind Cold War hawks who could see only evil or blindfolded romantic
leftists who couldn’t see any.
Alas, I did not know Bob nearly as
well as I would have liked. But I shared the dais from time to time, and
invaded some of his privileged professorial circles in my prior 15-year run
at a sister institution – the University of California in Los Angeles --- so
as to catch a glimpse of him.
He had special stature because he
was an inspirational figure. Instead of filling an audience with fatigue
(personally, I never once saw him use narcolepsy-inducing PowerPoint), he
invariably left it wanting more. Instead of inspiring students to take the
safe road, he taught them to reach high.
Mentoring students, at which
Scalapino excelled, often comes as a second thought in academic circles and
is rarely a formal part of the professorial evaluation procedure at major
research universities. But if you think of Socrates and his student Plato,
or of Plato and his greatest student Aristotle, and etcetera, etcetera – you
might imagine that mentoring the next generation of great scholars and
thinkers could prove a scholar’s greatest possible legacy.
To be sure, it’s silly to believe
that only the wise and deserving get to live a long rich life. But that, at
the age of 92, was to be Scalapino’s fate, and so I will think it the case
in this particular circumstance. I will also insist on my view that about
Berkeley a certain reverence of appreciation needs to be paid. Scalapino’s
life of distinction is an obvious data point. May this giant of American
academe indeed rest in peace.