The Modern Tibetan Studies Program starts from the presupposition that being able to understand Tibet’s past is key to understanding contemporary Tibet, and vice versa – and both are critical to thinking through the challenges that lie ahead for Tibetan communities. As many of our former and current doctoral students testify, Columbia University was their preferred university because the MTSP does not view Tibetan history singularly through the lens of religious studies. Rather, Tibetan religion and society are explored primarily through historical and contemporary perspectives – from the role of the Dalai Lama since the seventeenth century to present concerns about his future incarnations, from the destruction of thousands of monasteries in the 1950s and 1960s to the present growth of massive monastic settlements in Kham, or from traditional ideas of sacred space to Tibetans transitioning to modern urbanized settings.
In the early years of Tibetan studies at Columbia University, Professor Robert Thurman’s class on Tibetan Buddhism was one of the largest classes on campus, with over 100 students each semester it was offered. In 2001, Mr. Robert Barnett began teaching adjunct courses in EALAC. Over the years, Columbia has offered over thirty different courses on Tibet, such as Space and Place in Urban Tibet, Tibetan Civilization, Rise of Modern Tibet: 1600-1911, and 20th Century Tibetan Literature, with the majority of classes now focused on modern Tibet. They attract a wide range of students from across disciplines: mainly History, Religion, and Anthropology as well as a wide range of undergraduates from all schools and departments who take the Global Core classes we offer.
Professor Gray Tuttle, a leading scholar in his field and passionate advocate for the study and appreciation of Tibetan culture, is now the senior Tibetan specialist at Columbia. In 2018, he was promoted to full professor and received the Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award for excellence in teaching and mentoring. The award is one of Columbia’s highest faculty honors and is a reflection of Professor Tuttle’s commitment to his students and research.
The Program also benefits from Dr. Eveline Washul’s dual training in Tibetan history and anthropology. In addition to leading the Program’s agenda as Director of the MTSP, Dr. Washul has taught a range of courses at Columbia, including Ethnographic Tibet, Early Tibetan History and its Relations with China, Space and Place in Urbanizing Tibet, and Examining Indigeneity in Tibetan Contexts. Dr. Washul’s approach is to teach classes that not only train students in research-based understandings of Tibet, but also in the broader context of Tibet’s relations with China and the Central Eurasian region.
MTSP courses aim to ground student learning in primary sources and emphasize the importance of critical thinking, analytical skills, and evidence-based thinking. Students are challenged to rigorously question common assumptions. The Program aims to impart students with a sense of responsibility to accurately represent information to the best of their abilities and to use knowledge in ways that meaningfully engage the communities to whom they owe their debt of knowledge.
At the undergraduate level, as part of the Columbia Core Curriculum requirement, all undergraduate students are required to take a non-Western civilization class. With several Global Core courses available on Tibet (including topics like Biographical Writing, Examining Indigeneity in Tibetan Contexts, and Sacred Geography) undergraduate students across Columbia and Barnard College have a rare opportunity to study the full range of Tibetan civilization.
At the graduate level, modern Tibetan studies can be chosen as a concentration within the MA degrees in East Asian Studies in EALAC, in Religion, at the School of International and Public Affairs, or in Regional Studies–East Asia. At the PhD level, students can specialize in modern Tibetan studies within the departments of History, East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALAC), and Religion.