Area Studies and OU

Logo for the OU East Asian Studies courses depicting a star and vase.
Logo for the East Asian Studies courses offered at OU in the 1970s.

Following the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, "area studies" quickly became an accepted educational program at many of the leading universities in the United States. This academic area was a major force in creating the infrastructure necessary for the in-depth, systematic study of the major regions of the world, particularly outside of the West. It is not surprising that the areas receiving focus reflected what were considered important concerns of the country and the American government at the time, most notably communist countries including China and the USSR.  Enormous amounts of resources from both the public and private sectors were steered towards the development of these programs.

One specific event that helped spur the development of area studies programs was the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first earth satellite. The launch and associated fears that the Soviets were passing Americans by in education and technology spurred the quick passage by Congress of the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Under this act, area studies centers in the United States received aid for the next twenty years. Many have argued the programs were an instrument of the Cold War itself, both because they had relevance for the formation of foreign policy and because of involvement by some programs directly with the FBI, the CIA, and other military and intelligence agencies.

Oakland University was established in 1957 and opened its doors in 1959. The first president of the university, Woody Varner, said in a 1996 interview that Sputnik played a large role in the development of the institution and its curriculum. Varner even went as far as to say, "We owe it all to Sputnik, maybe." The University emphasized area studies and included Chinese studies from the beginning of its existence. In fact, OU was the first institution in the United States including a requirement of a one-year sequence of non-western area studies. Oakland’s very first catalog lists the requirement for taking area studies classes, “a program of studies dealing with non-Western cultures, specifically China and India.”

Included in that same catalog are the classes offered for the study of China. Among the offerings were Chinese Civilization, Modern China, and Chinese Language and Literature. Sheldon Appleton, one of the first professors of foreign studies at OU, stated that the focus on China was one of the factors that attracted him to the university. “China is the crucial thing, and here's a university that's going to require everybody to study this. I thought that was great.” By the time the planning was taking place for the Chinese table tennis team to visit the United States, Oakland University offered a whole host of Chinese Studies classes and there was a Major in Chinese Language and Civilization as well as a concentration in Chinese Studies. OU's focus on including education in foreign areas, including Chinese areas, is even mentioned in the materials given to the Chinese ping pong team and delegation upon their visit to Meadow Brook Hall.