Confession of a dilettante: Dr. Kumar and my intellectual fetish

May 18, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

I stumbled upon intellectual history because I felt impoverished and unattractive. Although my family belonged to the ranks of nouveau riche Gangnam elites in Korea, that sense of entitlement evaporated across the ocean and continent at Exeter and Penn.

Fresh off the boat, I searched for friends, who turned out to be mostly Asian. I had been colorblind during my early teens in New Zealand, but felt alienated in the chocolate and vanilla racial contours of America. Disillusioned with bougie Gangnam style, I wanted to be beautiful, but not by surgically Westernizing my face.

Unwittingly, my parents had converted financial capital into cultural and intellectual capital for their sons. As my folks didn’t have faith that I would guard their hard-earned family fortune, however, I studied business at Wharton, a trade school with a few tools, such as alumnus Mr. Trump. In between abacus classes I skipped, I found sanctuary in intellectual history, a love child of political philosophy and history.

The Western canon impacted my mind like meteoroids raining on the dark side of the moon. Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values emancipated my spirit from the manacles of my evangelical upbringing. “Double consciousness,” which DuBois elaborated as “the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” illuminated my racial condition. My budding radicalism with the outbreak of the Occupy movement was tempered by the not-G.O.P. conservatism of Burke and Hayak.

Although I encountered black and feminist thinkers in my studies, I graduated from my intellectual history program without a single rendezvous with a thinker from Asia, home of more than half of all Homo sapiens. Hence, I ventured west to study the East. Even in this golden garden of knowledge, however, I did not find Asians in the niche discipline I adore. East Asian literati and Asian American thinkers were brushed aside and left in religious studies and literature departments, while historians of Asia seemed to focus on politics and society.

It was at this juncture in my academic journey that I met the intellectual historian whose tenure denial spurred the non-violent student siege of the History Corner last week. I have only met Dr. Aishwary Kumar twice, and both times were in March before the ill-fated tenure decision. I am not his disciple nor an activist, but here is my experience.

I first visited him during his office hours to discuss the possibility of conducting an intellectual history of the Juche ideology of Kim Il Sung, the grandpa of the equally chubby dictator Kim Jong-Un. Dr. Kumar, who holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge and has a monograph with the Stanford University Press, took the middle school dropout seriously and guided me through his methodology.

To verify the word-of-mouth that elevated his seminar as the apogee of Stanford education, I visited his class this spring. The spellbinding Kumar inquired whether “concepts have the potential of conjoining, creating, or mediating a critical universalism that goes beyond the idea of territorial, racial, and historical difference.” Although our discussion of Arendt and Chakrabarty flew beyond my ken, I have never witnessed such delicately crafted prose flow from a tongue.

Whether or not the tenure decision can be reversed as over 500 of us who signed the petition hope, I have a dream that American universities will value intellectual history of Asia. More than 70 percent of our faculty are white, and more than 70 percent are male. Our incumbent and incoming presidents happen to be white males, and so were the nine preceding presidents. Although I am grateful to the three white male Penn professors who wrote my recommendations for grad school, I have learned more deeply about my Korean American heritage and identity from historians Dr. Moon and Dr. Chang here. South Asians should not be deprived of the opportunity to learn from a guru with matching dose of melanin by losing our sole historian of South Asia.

I have a dream that when my kids go to school in America, they’ll grow up reading Lu Xun, Soseki, and Yi Kwang-su, founding fathers of modern literature in China, Japan, and Korea. If I had a boy, that he would not feel “racial castration,” the title of a book a Penn English professor authored which is followed by the subtitle: “Managing Asian American masculinity.” If I had a daughter, that she would not be exoticized with yellow fever, which is flattering but flattening.

In the 19th century, some Americans called us “almond-eyed celestials.” I have a dream that before I am buried, I can gaze up at the heavens festooned with the brightest minds of my people shining alongside the pantheon of American and European minds. Stanford will try to claim Dr. Kumar as part of its constellation then, and I hope the leading scholar of Gandhi will show the grace to forgive the history department’s faux pas.

— JY Lee

Contact JY Lee at junyoub ‘at’

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