From the 1960s, Monmouth was briefly a center for Asian art, history and culture.
Founded in 1963, Monmouth College’s prestigious East Asian Studies program grew out of a faculty committee report passed by the college Senate, which concluded: “The study of people and cultures outside the Western world is a necessary dimension of liberal education .” A proposal was developed with funding from the Ford Foundation and the strong support of Dean Harry Manley, who envisioned Monmouth as an important center for Japanese studies.
The program was inspired both by the College’s historical interest in Egypt through its educational activities at Assiut College and the Cairo Girls School, and by its links with Asia, including a number of students from Japan beginning in the early 20th century. The idea of raising interest in East Asia was promoted by Takashi Komatsu, a 1910 Monmouth graduate who later earned a degree from Harvard and became a leading steamship manager in Japan. Katharine Phelps Boone, a 1930 Monmouth graduate, and her husband Gilbert, a naval commander, helped bring the proposal to fruition. The couple, who had been stationed in Japan for many years, retired to Monmouth in 1960 with an important collection of oriental art and artifacts they had amassed abroad.
The Boone Oriental Library and Fine Arts Collection, now housed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, contained more than 3,500 items from the 9th century through modern times, including paintings, sculptures, toys, dolls, and books. His pieces, carefully selected for their educational value, were used extensively by the Boones in teaching oriental art classes. Their legacy lives on in the Boone House, the museum-like home they built near the college where they held their seminars and now operates as a college retreat center.
The East Asia Studies program consisted of courses in Japanese language, philosophy, religion, government, history and sociology. The program brought in visiting faculty from across Asia to deliver seminar courses and lectures to other classes during two-month visits to the campus. Monmouth students were also given the opportunity to study at universities in Asian countries for a year.
Cecil Brett, an expert on Asian governments who had served two years with the British Army in Southeast Asia and China, was put in charge of managing the programme. Other full-time faculty who have developed additional expertise to teach in the program have included Doug Spitz, history; Stafford Weeks and Charles Speel, Religion; and Harlow Blum, art. These and other faculty members spent time in countries such as Japan, India, Iran and Ceylon.
One of the memorable highlights of the program was “Tamagawa in the USA,” an exchange program with Tamagawa Gakuen, a well-known high school in the Tokyo suburbs. The program first brought a group of 34 Japanese high school students to Monmouth in 1965 for 14 weeks of immersion studies. During their stay at Monmouth, the students learned the English language and experienced many aspects of American life, including field trips around the Midwest and a three-week “homestay” living in the homes of Monmouth families.
In the mid-1960s, Won Hurh, a native Korean and a graduate of Monmouth College, brought special expertise to the East Asian Studies program as Chair of the Sociology Department. When Dean Epley replaced his chair in 1970, a Malaysian dimension was added to the program. Epley, who had previously helped organize Malaysia’s health and education ministries, persuaded the Malaysian government to send a number of students to Monmouth.
The East Asian Studies Program would not survive the 1970s. Financial cuts caused by declining enrollment ended the guest lecturer program, while the Boones’ retirement and Epley’s sudden death severely limited its resources. Eventually, with the end of the Vietnam War, the nation’s attention shifted sharply away from the Asian continent to focus on domestic issues such as Watergate and its aftermath.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. A lifelong resident of Monmouth, he has been researching local history for more than three decades.