Read more Confucius

07Jun16

What Do Millennial Students Really Need? More Confucius

Stop trying to find yourself. You’re a big bundle of contradictions. Instead, embrace rituals that will make you a better person.

That’s a taste of the contrarian wisdom found in The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (Simon & Schuster, 2016). The book grew out of a very popular course taught by Michael Puett, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, where it routinely attracts more than 700 students. The book is enjoying similar acclaim — it’s already made best-seller lists in the United States and elsewhere.

In the book, Puett and his co-author, Christine Gross-Loh, push back against dearly held Western ideas about sincerity, success, and the self. I spoke with Puett about how philosophy departments often exclude Chinese thought, about colleges’ moving away from “big-ideas courses,” and about why millennials, in particular, need to read more Confucius.

You write about how to form good habits, and I was thinking how that’s consistent with current findings in psychology like Daniel Kahneman’s theory of thinking fast and slow or Timothy Wilson’s ideas about how we transform ourselves by changing our narratives. It seems that Confucius anticipated what we’re learning now about the importance of the heart-mind connection and the stories we tell ourselves.

I think it’s exactly right. When you look at all of these experiments that are being done in psychology, they’re discovering the exact same things that these figures 2,000 years ago in China were talking about. It’s striking how similar they are.

What are some of the similarities that strike you?

We tend to have a false view of ourselves, we tend to think that at our best we are these free-acting individuals, using our free will to define what we want to do over the course of a day. All of these experiments are showing, on the contrary, that we are very messy creatures that are very drawn out in our moods and our dispositions by immediate things going on around us. Psychologists will also argue — and, again these philosophers from China would say the same thing — that these responses tend to fall into patterns and ruts that dominate our lives.

Often in philosophy departments in the United States, when you say the word “philosophy,” we’re talking about Western philosophy, even though there’s been an uptick in interest in Chinese thought. Should we be teaching Xunzi and Mencius alongside Aristotle and Wittgenstein?

Yes. I’m a strong advocate of this. The simple fact of the matter is that we have great philosophy classes, but with very few exceptions it’s mainly Western philosophy. It isn’t even being presented that way. It’s being presented as philosophy. I would love to see a future world, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future, where we would simply have philosophy classes where students would be thinking about and working with great ideas from all over the world, wherever they arose.

I think you would see surprising similarities and surprising differences. For example, you read Kant differently after you’ve read Confucius, and you see there’s more to Kant than we tend to notice.

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