CHIANG MAI, Thailand– The complex cultures of Asia have always attracted the interest of Western scholars. This is the origin of what came to be later known as “Learned Societies,” institutions based on intellectual curiosity and a deep-rooted volunteer spirit.

The first among many “Asiatic Societies” was established in Calcutta in 1784, by an enlightened British High Court judge, Sir William Jones, who was wholeheartedly dedicated to Asian research. This was the famous Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. In time, several other such centers emerged in Malaysia, Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

The bulk of the pioneers consisted of diplomats, teachers and missionaries, mostly British but soon from many other countries, who wished to conduct research on cultural topics in the countries of their assignment. Thirst for knowledge, independent of academic structures and degrees, was their main motivation.

As this knowledge started to be disseminated, fundamental functions and duties became inevitable: councils and committees to coordinate activities, bulletins and publications, open lectures, fundraising, and the like. It has to be stressed that in all these societies such needs have always been addressed in an absolutely voluntary spirit. This is very important and it distinguishes learned societies from other centers of learning.

A further point in this connection is that, quite often, educated and intellectually curious people from Asian countries joined such societies, making considerable contributions as lecturers, council members or donors. It would be erroneous to think that such initiatives were the “exclusive” domain of foreign members.

Moreover, people from every walk of life — journalists, businessmen, bankers, artists, students — could join if they had convergent interests.

In addition, in some cases societies benefit from the prestige of being “under the patronage” of members of the royal family (Siam Society) or Imperial family (Asiatic Society of Japan). Finally, it has to be stressed that study and research are not conducted in a strict “country by country” framework but often in a broader perspective where regional influences and interrelations are taken into account.

But now, new challenges appear on the horizon. The main one — apart from scarcity of funds — is a kind of “benevolent antagonism” from other centers of learning, better-organized and better-financed. In the old days, there were only universities — the mainstream academic avenues — and the societies that operated in the context I have just described.

Today, universities are undergoing monumental changes in as a result of the information revolution. The problem is not seeking knowledge and sources of information, but “screening” the abundance of the latter. Second, there are many other centers of study: think tanks with a rich variety of orientations, autonomous or semi-autonomous academic institutes, cultural institutes run by various countries, new and multiform academic publications, seminars, colloquies, a plethora of media for academic pursuit. It is only natural that the new environment reduces the traditional streams of societies’ membership at large, their basic pillar of existence.

This state of affairs creates waves within various societies. Two currents emerge, both originating in genuine concern about the future. One school of thought is to follow the times and the new tendencies: to “modernize” and abandon “dry old scholarship,” to bring lectures and publications more into line with present needs and to modify social activities in the same spirit.

The second school, the “traditionalist” one, insists that the unique value of societies is following the old path, showing continuous respect for time-tested models of scholarship, maintaining the quality and spirit of lectures and publications as generations have in the past. A change of character, they maintain, would be a death blow to the very concept of societies themselves.

The parting of ways between modernism and traditionalism has characterized many areas of human activity. Once again, it seems that a middle way is the best recipe to assure true learning.

At the same time, the original “essence” of such experiments with learning should be preserved. How the correct analogies will be applied depends on the judgment of present and future intellectual leaders.

Learned societies in Asia and their sister societies elsewhere have played a great role in bridging ideas between East and West. As they symbolize knowledge-seeking in its purest form, they constitute an all-important pillar in the temple of learning and they should survive, not as cultural relics but as dynamos of culture.

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