Profile: Alan Epstein

Jessica Leydet, Staff Intern

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Epstein grew up on the southwest side of Flint in a mixed, working class neighborhood. And he earned his undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan, Flint.

“Given the extraordinary degree of diversity in southeast Michigan, having a measure of basic religious literacy is both a sound career move and, arguably, a prerequisite for successfully navigating an increasingly diverse society,” he said.

Alan Epstein is a professor of political science and the director of the Religious Studies program at Oakland University.

“My experience as an undergraduate was transformative,” he said. “I was exposed to such matters as international political, economy, colonialism, absurdist literature and contemporary Chinese political history. The world suddenly grew far more complex, interesting and fathomable.”

Epstein said understanding how information is both selectively transmitted and marginalized was a revelation for him. It also stimulated his interest in becoming a university teacher.

He earned his Ph.D. from Cornell, where he majored in Comparative Government with a focus on China.

“After soon arriving, the person I intended to study with left to become the head of Coca Cola China,” he said. “As an immediate consequence, I became a research assistant for the then-unofficial dean of Southeast Asian Studies in the U.S., George McT. Kahin. Under his guidance, I learned to read declassified U.S. government documents, mainly about U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and assisted in his second major study on the conflict.”

Eventually he returned to focusing on China, and he would spend some seven years living in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland, polishing his language skills and researching his doctoral dissertation.  

His initial time in China was during the early stages of its reform and opening program and at a time when Americans were held in unqualified high regard by ordinary people. He said this has changed, and so has China.  

“My expectations about the country, based on what I had been studying, clashed with on-the-ground realities that greeted me, but knowing some Mandarin opened passageways into the culture I hadn’t been previously exposed to and revealed sharper edges and a host of grievances and aspirations among the people I encountered,” he said. “It was a sobering experience that made me appreciate the importance of field work.”

He travels less regularly now, but has enjoyed taking several contingents of OU students as part of the Beijing in Spring program, which he recommends to anyone with an interest in China.  

Epstein also shared his teaching philosophy—there are many ways to teach, and an equal number of ways to learn.  

“If I have a philosophy of teaching, it is nothing out of the ordinary. I simply try to engage students in ways that are relevant to their interests and concerns and by providing perspectives on aspects of reality they may not have considered,” he said. 

He said looking at the animating, and often lightly explored, premises of conventional wisdom is also a favored approach of his. 

“I very much feel at home in the endeavor to stimulate critical thinking among students and to enable them to be informed formulators of knowledge not just indiscriminate, passive recipients of it,” he said.

As for his hopes for the world in regards to today’s political climate, Epstein remains optimistic.

“One is that there will be a rekindling of sustained compassion for the other, without which little can consciously be done to address the dehumanizing burdens shouldered by too many,” he said. “Among the other ambitions, is the related hope that people will eventually learn the necessity of demanding forms of economic democracy, without which genuine political democracy remains but an aspiration.”