Dr. Ruth Hayhoe has won awards from both Eastern and Western academies, worked in the world of comparative education in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Canada. She has written numerous books and her extensive research has implications for educational institutions all over the world. She is now serving on the board of Global Scholars Canada and her faith in the gospel and its implications for academic life are a testimony of the best kind of work we seek to do. Her vocation has taken her into the heart of the cold war’s deepest debate: communism vs the West. Some might say the divide is too great, not just between communism and the West, but between China and Canada. But Ruth’s life and faith offers a response that upsets the simple binary of the clash of civilizations.
I interviewed Ruth over Zoom last December 2020. Some supplementary material, including some photographs, come from her memoir Full Circle and W. James Jacob “Profile of a Comparative and International Education Leader: Ruth Hayhoe” (forthcoming in 2021 in Global Comparative Education: Journal of the WCCES, Vol. 5).
Ruth was born at the end of World War II in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the daughter of a Canadian Navy officer and the third of eight children. “I sometimes think to myself that I was born facing Asia,” she has said, reflecting on her West Coast origins. Like her Biblical namesake Ruth, she was destined to leave home. An unpredictably rich cosmopolitan future awaited her, but she first needed some foundations on which that vocation of study and service could be built.
Ruth at age 13 with her family in front of their home in Toronto, ca. 1958. Back row, L-to-R: Elizabeth, Richard, Emilie, baby Louise, Ruth, and Doris; front row (L-to-R): Alice, Suzanne, Cecil and Douglas. Photo courtesy of Ruth Hayhoe.
Ruth seemed destined for the academy. Her mother was well-educated and encouraged learning in her children, and Ruth was bred to be a quick study. Driven by “the thirst to know,” she taught herself how to read with some coaching from her mother. A further indication of her genes and upbringing, her brother Douglas became a physics teacher and one of his daughters, named Katharine Hayhoe, in turn is now a well-known climate change scientist and evangelical Christian at Texas Tech University (who I, incidentally, went to Beacon Bible Camp with!). I mention Ruth’s sister Suzanne’s intellectual pursuits later in the story. In sum, Ruth’s home was both educationally gifted and grounded in Christian faith.
As for the large family, Ruth writes, “My mother often commented that ‘the secret of bringing up eight children lay in having the older half bring up the younger half.’” Daughter Ruth often helped her mother, and it wasn’t just dreary housework. When they worked together, they were able to “achieve amazing feats of bread making, preserve, pickle and jam making, curtain making, rug making, quilt making, furniture re-upholstery, and mind-bogglingly complex knitting projects, all achievements that made housekeeping a high art rather than simply a selfless duty” (Full Circle).
British Columbia was not to be her home, however. Inspired with post-war dreams, the family moved back to Toronto to operate an ice cream dairy (Maypole Dairy), every kid’s fantasy. But along with ice cream came the rather severe doctrines of her exclusive Plymouth Brethren assembly, what she calls her “second home.” It was a tight community that championed the gospel, mutual accountability and care: “I knew I could turn to any one for help, love or encouragement,” wrote Ruth. But the group was also tight in a less endearing way. It was all she had ever known of church, yet something unsettled her about the idea of closed communion, as if their small community were the remnant of faithfulness in the world and all others were bound for eternal hellfire. Additionally, leadership roles for women were limited, and the expectation for women was an early marriage and raising a family.
The horizon started to widen when she met Grace Irwin, her high school Latin and Greek teacher and a well-known Canadian evangelical writer (for example, her biography of John Newton, the writer of “Amazing Grace” entitled Servant of Slaves was published in 1961). The intuition that God’s grace stretched wider than her assembly was affirmed by this kind of relationship; and from high school she went to the imposing architecture of the University of Toronto, majoring in Greek and Latin (Classics), and picking up French and some German along the way.
This feeling of needing to stretch her horizons only grew. “I didn’t want to be the rebel,” she said, “but I did want the space to find my own future in a wider world.” The tension between church and academy troubled her soul, and there were times when she almost quit her degree to pursue ministry in the church, along with marriage and family. But with encouragement from Grace Irwin, she not only endured her studies, she excelled in spectacular ways. She knew deep down that the world offered culturally diverse and deeply rich universes to explore, and through which she could grow in wisdom and service.
She could not have found a place to explore farther away from Toronto. It was 1967, and at age 21, she graduated, packed her bags, grabbed a train to Vancouver and set off for Hong Kong with her family’s blessing. Incidentally, the name “Hayhoe” was made up when her Huguenot ancestors fled to England after the St. Bartholomew Massacre in 1572. The original family name was French and was spelled “Pierpont” meaning “stone bridge.” The meaning is apt given how her vocation unfolded from here, and the metaphor runs as a theme through her travels and profession in comparative education.
Now in Hong Kong, she wanted to help at an elementary school established by her missionary cousin, Marjorie Hayhoe, but she ended up working at a local Anglican secondary school instead. “I became really fascinated by the Chinese language and culture,” she recalls, and her one year abroad stretched into 11 years of immersion, as she moved in with an older Chinese lady who became her “Chinese mother.” In the evenings after teaching, Ruth was tutored in Cantonese and eventually Mandarin—speaking fluently, as well as reading and writing. Then at home, Chinese was the household language.
The rich cultural experience didn’t end at language and culture, either; politics loomed large in the newspapers. “This was the time of the cultural revolution,” says Ruth. “My parents thought it was dangerous; there was a possible invasion from the mainland.” She did see some bombs go off and some civil unrest at the time. Thankfully, the invasion never happened, and her Chinese lessons continued through the years that followed.
Ruth’s original family name was “Pierpont” meaning “stone bridge.” Coincidentally, this glass painting by Thomas Kincade entitled “Bridge of Faith” sits in her living room in Florida, given to her by a prayer partner who passed away in October of 2019. The connection between the painting and her name only came to mind as this biography was being written.
Weaving a Bridge Across the Pacific
Ruth didn’t just teach school subjects all day. She organized extra-curricular Bible classes, mentored her students in visiting hospitals as well as a leprosy and TB asylum, and engaged “juvenile delinquents” at the local reform school, including those in the city involved in drugs and prostitution. She grew to love these people dearly, and her childhood church visions of eternal conscious torment in hell haunted her. In her memoir Full Circle, she notes that she wrote to her mother in 1969: “I’ve just been haunted by thoughts of hell and the everlasting burning – I can’t bear to think about it.” She was changing, “no longer so confident of the verities I had earnestly sought to teach in the early years, but already launched on a search for understanding.”
Her vision was deep and broad. She wanted to understand her students better and dig deeper into the vocation of teaching. She took courses toward a Certificate of Education at the University of Hong Kong from 1975-1977. She writes: “I wanted to understand Christianity more deeply,” and so she took theology courses through the University of London and the London Bible College around this same time. These courses still were not enough for this aspiring, young, and intellectually gifted woman. Her sights were set still wider: “Above all I wanted to understand China – the pursuit that would come to dominate my thoughts and dreams.”
In 1976 China began to open up its borders after the death of Mao Zedong. Travel was suddenly possible, and so in 1976 she went to Shanghai and Beijing. She was surprised to find churches there, assemblies that persisted even through the severe repression of the cultural revolution. “Through all these years I never let go of the Christian faith,” she explained. “It wasn’t my primary focus but seeing the devotion of the missionaries and indigenous Christians stuck with me. I was always inspired and encouraged by these Christians who survived the pressures of the Communist regime.”
She had a vision for what she could do in Hong Kong and China, and that required further education. So, she went to the University of London Institute of Education in 1978 and in two years got herself a graduate degree in comparative education. She came back to China to teach at Fudan University in Shanghai, teaching some of the brightest higher education students in China. Inspired, she returned to the U.K. in 1982 to the University of London to get a PhD in education. Her thesis’s focus question: given the new relationship between China and the West, how can educational theory contextualize to Chinese culture so China can develop its own indigenous pedagogical models?
Two Chinese students visiting with Ruth in her hotel room where she lived 1980-1982 while teaching at Fudan University in Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Ruth Hayhoe.
By 1984 she had a post-doctoral position at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at her alma mater University of Toronto, and by 1986 was promoted to assistant professor. But she didn’t settle down as a tenured professor in the big city. From 1989 to 1991 she was asked to work as a cultural attaché in China at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, as the First Secretary for Education, Science and Culture, and this took her back to China. She travelled all around the country, establishing Canadian Studies Centers, introducing movies, and organizing various cultural events. This is rather remarkable, given this was a volatile moment in China’s history, as the massacre at Tiananmen Square happened just before she arrived back on the mainland (June 4th, 1989). “Relations with the West were tumultuous at best,” she recalls. Canada was one of the few nations to be actively involved in relations with China.
Ambassador Earl Drake and wife (center), Vice Minister of Culture Ying Ruocheng (3rd from left), Famous Writer Xiao Qian (5th from right) and wife (2nd from left), Ruth (4th from right) at the Ambassador’s residence, spring 1990. Photo courtesy of Ruth Hayhoe.
She returned to Toronto to teach and write at the University of Toronto. Finally, somewhat settled, her life took another major turn, although this time not in terms of her career or travel. In 1996, at age 50, she writes that she “finally found time for marriage” and married Walter Linde. He had five older children and his wife had recently died of cancer; he had been nursing her in their home for a year. He was retired at the time of his marriage to Ruth (from running the subsidiary of a family-related German firm in New York) and thus was able to move with her to Hong Kong where she became Director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education in 1997, with the mandate to upgrade it to university status.
Ruth with Walter on his 90th birthday celebration, Delray Beach, Florida, 28 April 2018. Photo courtesy of Ruth Hayhoe.
In James Jacob’s biography of Ruth, she comments on this moment in her life: “After starting my career in Hong Kong so many years ago, and then having an opportunity to work in China, and now with this opportunity to return after so many years, it felt like a full circle.” Those last two words would become the title of her memoir.
If every time Ruth flew across the Pacific Ocean to China she strung an imaginary rope, after these three decades of return she had woven a swinging bridge of understanding. It was swinging, as it was precarious politically and culturally, but it was a bridge of ever-increasing appreciation and institutional cooperation. Much of intellectual labour is the identification of distinctions and differences; its equal and complementary task is that of making connections, networks, and reconciling where possible. Ruth has done this across some of the greatest chasms of language, geography, politics, and religion.
Ruth was president of her primary guild of Comparative and International Education (CIE) and its Society (CIES) from 1999-2000, and it was at the time still a growing field. Of late, their annual conferences draw upwards of 4,000 scholars. The field is now flourishing, notwithstanding the limitations that COVID-19 has brought.
No Education is “Value-Free”
Ruth’s Christian faith implicitly controlled her academic discernment. At the time of her dissertation, there were only two paradigms on offer: a secular “value-free” theory of modernization and the neo-Marxist approach. The first, exemplified by Max Weber, argued that bringing values into academic work ended up biasing the scholarship and teaching, cheapening it, decreasing its rigour and universality. Besides, many in the West believed that increased modernization led inevitably to increased secularization, and religious commitments would crumble and fade. So education was to be “scientific”—based only on social evolutionary models, theories that insisted religion was a purely private matter.
The second option—the communist one—similarly believed that religion, like an opiate for an oppressed class, would no longer be necessary in a utopian socialist future. Science, and in particular an economic theory of class struggle, would be the driving force of development and social change. From feudal society to capitalism to socialism—the succession was clear and so education needed to be “value determining.” This meant valuing a planned economy, state-run education, and inculcating strict communist principles in students. This paradigm operated within world system theory and dependency theory, which was mainly developed in Latin America. “These frameworks were not comfortable for me,” says Ruth, “but they are dominant and influential even today.”
There is such a thing as “Christian sensibilities”—predilections that operate through our heart and mind as we sift through our academic work, and it makes certain approaches resonate more with us than others. Ruth’s own theoretical commitments found affinity at India’s Center for Developing Societies where an approach called “World Order Models” was fomenting in the 1970s. She explained the model in this way:
We need to identify values of a relevant utopia, or preferred future we can all agree on and then do research to see how particular movements and phenomena we want to understand are moving towards or away from those values. This makes values explicit, especially the key values of equity, autonomy, solidarity and participation. I looked at China’s interaction with the West, and how they had suffered from imperialism—including from the Soviets. How can they reform in a way that doesn’t put them in the same dependency relation?
In this model, Chinese leaders make the final decisions, not Western organizations. The relationship is understood in terms of mutuality—as an exchange of cultural goods rather than as a one-way paternalistic development program. Implicit in this is the conviction that no educational model is “value-free” or “value-neutral.” They all come from somewhere, with particular goals in a particular language, and the best education puts them all in constructive dialogue.
One’s Christian faith may not always be explicitly stated in one’s chemistry research, artistic endeavours, or in this case, educational model. Still, having deep roots in God’s providence gave Ruth a reference point from which she could adapt paradigms. She testified that:
People thought China was a crazy country destroying its own people through revolution. But it was a deep and rich civilization. My Christian values allowed me to do my own research rather than representing Western interests like World Bank, and although I did work with them, and such officials, over time they started to see that we can learn from the Chinese rather than just tell them how to advance. The old claim that they are a backwards people–that changed.
In other words, there is something in the Chinese people—God’s image reflecting in their culture—that deserves attention and respect.
One way to understand Ruth’s intellectual and spiritual journey here is to see a shift from seeing Chinese culture only through the lens of contrast and conflict and instead seeing it through the lens of appreciation and enrichment. Confucianism is one example of this. Confucianism isn’t a revealed religion like Christianity. It is more like a philosophy of virtue and personal relations, intended to cultivate social harmony. Says Ruth: “The emphasis on family and social responsibility, and on knowledge expressed in action and not just theories that prove things, these things all have resonance with the message of Christ and the Christian gospel.” She wanted to be a bridge-builder and cultivate cultural exchange rather than continue old colonial practises. Such Catholic and Protestant missionaries to the Chinese as Matteo Ricci and Timothy Richard, are two of her guides. They translated Chinese texts into Latin and English, and Latin and English texts into Chinese. They saw their mission as a gift exchange rather than an annexation.
Comparative Education and World Religions
Ruth has also quite explicitly advocated for a deeper understanding of religion and comparative education. In her co-edited volume Knowledge Across Cultures: A Contribution to Dialogue Among Civilizations (CREC Hong Kong 2001) Ruth promotes the role of education, culture, and spirituality in globalizing movements. In contrast to Huntington’s pessimistic inevitable “clash of civilizations” thesis, she promotes mutual respect and an openness to mutual enrichment that includes attention to the role of religion in fostering “desired future directions for the human family.” Key in this process is understanding the role of modernity in transnational relationships, and “redeeming modernity from a Judaeo-Christian perspective, humanizing it from a Confucian perspective, of harmonizing it from a Buddhist perspective, or yet other ways within other narratives” (20). (See her article “Redeeming Modernity” in CER,44:4 2000). Rather than orienting ourselves only through self-interested motives for our own identity group, Ruth commends a cross-cultural inter-faith dialogue that rewards with “a rich and nuanced appreciation of [one’s] own faith, as well as an understanding of the common ground shared with these other faiths on which the future may be built” (21).
Similarly, and even more specifically in her co-edited book Religion and Education: Comparative and International Perspectives (Symposium 2018) she proposes that “it is both timely and imperative to consider the role that religion, religious education and religious bodies may play in shaping both the policy and the political discourse” (18). Religion, when at its best, can be a catalyst for peace, promoting global citizenship, an appreciation of cultural diversity, and sustainable development. Neglecting the important role of religion in socialization can weaken the moral fibre of a nation and may even create a secularized moral vacuum. She contends that there is a natural affinity between religion and education, and that there is an important spiritual dimension to teaching and learning that suggests religion should be considered a core competency in global education. There are some normative filters still at work here: we need to be wary of religious practises that may promote unhealthy conflict and others that could be exploited by state interests; nevertheless, there are religious beliefs, attitudes and practises that foster the respect and dialogue that is essential to education in our increasingly pluralistic society.
Ruth spends her winters in Florida now, and her bridge building continues in other directions. She has lead inter-faith classes and hosted inter-faith meetings at her home church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, “building a bridge of love and understanding” states the church newsletter. Her world religions classes since 2005 have covered Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Indigenous religions. She has worked with Kamy Moghbeli, an Iranian covert from Islam to Christianity, in facilitating dialogue and a visit to a local mosque.
Ruth facilitating Jewish-Christian dialogue in her winter home church in Florida. Rabbi Aviva Bass (L) with Dr. Ruth Hayhoe (R)
Profits, Prophets, and Postmodern Prospects
Ruth is not generically “religious” however. I asked Ruth why she joined the board of Global Scholars Canada, and what she said is revealing about much of the academic world. She talked about the stress of academic life and the pressures to climb the ladder of academic success. How through those endeavours she fumbled with the integration of her deeply-held Christian faith and her scholarly life. She elaborates on her first encounter with GSC:
Oh, I thought, here’s an academic organization that wants to do that, to help connect academics with a Christian commitment and to be a little more explicit about it, to articulate it well. I certainly had a long search to connect the faith I inherited from my family with the academic world I needed to survive in. How do we integrate faith and scholarship? It’s a demanding task, so what a wonderful thing that this organization wants to do that.
Ruth’s journey equips her well for speaking into the cross-pressured lives of faith-filled scholars. She says that now, later in her career, she’s become more upfront and explicit about her faith.
She is quick to add, however, that the academy is not just a world of “publish or perish” that shuns dialogue about faith commitments. At its best, it’s a marketplace of ideas, of dialogue and exchange, where we are counselors and critics to each other. Says Ruth:
I have to say the academic world was also a wonderful place of openness and liberation to me, in terms of exploring new ideas and not feeling constrained. Also, in the face of neo-liberal pressures, the university nurtures and protects a critical voice. Universities arose out of the Christian faith, and they have been a place to ask questions, even against the authorities.
The pressure toward profits and increased enrollments has been great in the last decades, but we need to see our universities as a place to question the sacredness of economic imperatives. Profits must be engaged by prophets—those who see the need for infrastructure and stewardship, but cry out against the idolatry of money, endowments and “bigger is always better.”
Ruth perceives even the old secularist anti-religious attitudes are shifting to recognize the value that different religious voices bring to the halls of the university. Some have called this the postmodern shift, others the new spiritual revolution or even the “turn to religion.” Ruth has witnessed this transformation on campus:
The dominant paradigms have changed in recent years: the dialogue of civilizations; the end of the cold war; the end of the period when everyone was either capitalist or communist—this change has created a space, a recognition of a certain legitimacy, not just of religion as an individual choice but also religion as a communal expression of the spiritual character of humanity. That’s now recognized way more in the university than it was decades before under Marxist or social evolutionary trajectories towards a modernized future. And Christianity is a key voice; as you know we have a legacy in the history of various forms of oppression that we have to acknowledge—you know, we can’t escape that, and yet at the same time we have the amazing example of the life of Christ and the amazing offering of his sacrifice of himself. So we can express that. There is more space for that now than there was 25 years ago, at least in public universities that I’ve been affiliated with, and I think that results from the end of the cold war.
This is a very hopeful assessment of the current state of the academy. It may not be true for every department or every campus, but if Nicolas Wolterstorff’s book Religion in the University (Yale 2019) is any indication, the exclusive establishment of secularist scholarship was a relatively short detour, and the dialogue of religions, including the religion of atheism, can resume in a robust way in the halls of the university in this new academic season.
No Bridge is Ever Too Far to Build
Ruth’s decision to join Global Scholars Canada’s board is an additional way in which she has come “full circle” if one considers how she was spiritually formed in her youth and this returns her to an explicitly Christian institution. It is not that she ever left her deep trust in God: the “there and back again” of Ruth’s travels from Canada and the U.K. to China can seem a complicated chronicle, but the passion that drove her to criss-cross the planet so many times was the desire to “bridge the educational worlds of China and the West.” Reconciliation, loving the stranger, following the Spirit—these have been constants in her circling of the globe, virtues she ties in with the idea of a “listening intellect.”
James Jacobs recounts Ruth’s advice for younger scholars: “My belief is there are many careers in government, NGOs, development, and in industry that need good people with a deep understanding of education and other cultures. How to explore and research and respect other cultures. How to see the possibilities for dialogue and interaction, as compared to conflict.” She also offers this to emerging scholars: “keep your focus but be flexible… be willing to keep your eyes open to unexpected opportunities.” This is how the Spirit can lead. “God surprises us with what He has in store for us, that may or may not be what we had initially envisioned or planned. I never expected to be a diplomat! That was not in my life’s plan… I never expected to be a university president! That was not part of my life plan. But the opportunity came, and I accepted it.”
There are other worlds she has sought to reconcile beyond China. Her sister, Suzanne McCarthy, was diagnosed with breast cancer again in 2013 after having warded it off the year before. Her husband, Jay Frankel, Ruth and Ruth’s niece Christy worked to ensure the publication of the book Suzanne had finished just before she passed away. This book had been percolating in her and through her blog for years: Valiant or Virtuous? Gender Bias in Bible Translation (Wipf and Stock 2019). The book is an argument that conservative interpretation, including certain Bible translations have been biased in their word choices, exaggerating the differences between men and women and emphasizing female submission to male leadership. The book champions an egalitarian, rather than complementarian gender relations perspective, maintaining that women’s expanding leadership roles in society can have Biblical support. In a way, Ruth’s life has been an affirmation of her sister’s thesis: God’s Spirit may lead women to leadership roles, not just in prayer groups and grade school teaching, but in international academic research, university management, and political diplomacy in a time of great tension.
It is not that Ruth was trying to prove something about her gender, however. “Faith seeks understanding,” said St. Anselm. Ruth—already as a young student in Ontario—was driven more by the desire to understand, and even deeper as she grew up, to cultivate a love for the Chinese people and their rich cultural history, and to see cooperative connections with the Western world. Hers was a faith deeply moved; moved across oceans, cultures and politics. To reconcile two estranged entities, whether two countries, two paradigms, or two genders, this has been her vocation. Ruth’s own education over the decades has been one steeped in an epistemology of love, love for Canada’s farthest geographical neighbour, but as she says in her essay on St. Paul and Confucius entitled “A Bridge Too Far?”, a neighbour whose foreign ways may be a complement and not just a contrast to our own. There is no place too far to which we cannot build a bridge of understanding, for the purpose of mutual exchange and enrichment—including the gift of the gospel.
For anyone who has met Ruth for even a brief moment, they will see a glow of kindness and gentleness laced with a depth of wisdom and experience. She has always been an academic, but also someone with a heart shaped for care and ministry in the broadest—even global—sense. Early in her years in Hong Kong, with some help, she devised a Chinese name, Mei Dak, pronounced Mei De in Mandarin, a name related to the English name Ruth that literally means “Beautiful Virtue.”
A festschrift was put together by some students on the occasion of her official retirement from OISE in 2010 entitled Education and Global Cultural Dialogue: A Tribute to Ruth Hayhoe (Palgrave 2012). Here students describe her as “a deeply loved and trusted colleague, mentor, advisor, and teacher in our field” with a “unique ability to combine humility, expertise, wisdom and curiosity into a prompting and propelling call” for research. She enjoys a “legendary reputation” around the world “for her brilliance, warmth, sensitivity, and generosity.” Surely there is no greater reward for a life of public service than these sorts of commendations from one’s successors.
I will end with a note placed in front of a Jerusalem Bible that was given as a farewell gift to Ruth upon her graduation from the University of Toronto by some Catholic friends. They knew she was travelling across the ocean to the Far East, and they appropriately picked a verse from the Book of Ruth (2:11,12): “All that you have done…. has been fully told me, how you left your father and mother and your native land, and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”