The Chronicle Review

What Do Millennial Students Really Need? More Confucius

June 05, 2016

Simon And Schuster
Michael Puett’s best-selling book on Chinese philosophy is based on his popular course at Harvard.

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.

How much hostility do you encounter when you float such ideas?

There’s a lot of resistance. There’s still a latent view, very rarely articulated but still clearly there, that philosophy really is the Western tradition. And sometimes you’ll have an admission that we should have something that they will call a "non-Western component." And so you’ll take a philosophy curriculum on Western thinkers, and then you’ll have a little non-Western component. Even that’s dangerous, because you have a Western tradition, and you have a little block for everything else that’s been thought in the world.

Is it dangerous because it seems tangential to the main thrust of philosophy?

Precisely. One of the things I try to combat are all of the categories that lead us to not really take these ideas [from Chinese philosophy] seriously. A non-Western component sounds like, OK, well, to be good and multicultural we’ll give a week or two to non-Western thinkers.

You’ve written a couple of academic books. The Path is intended to reach -- and is already reaching -- a much wider, and different audience. It’s the sort of book you pick up at the airport or Barnes & Noble. I’m curious how you navigated writing for a wider audience while trying to also be true to the scholarship.

This is something I think academics do way too little of, because it’s incomparably easier to always write to an academic audience that’s steeped in the same texts that you’re steeped in. But the result is, sadly, that you’ve got texts that are clearly trying to raise large issues about how we live our lives, how we should think about the self, and they’re being discussed almost exclusively in academic contexts. The hope of this book is to try to bring what we’re discovering about these texts to a larger audience.

Would it be fair to call what this book does self-help?

Or even anti-self help. To make a broad generalization, pretty much the entire genre of self-help is based on this notion that we have a single self. The self-help literature is saying, "Love yourself for who you really are." Among the many things that’s intriguing about these [Chinese] texts is that they reject that vision across the board. They would say that it’s a dangerous notion, that you’re trying to embrace these patterns you fall into. So taking these ideas seriously pushes against most of what the self-help genre tells us we should do.

“A lot of courses don't address these big questions anymore, and students find that they need to go elsewhere to ask the big questions.”
Your class is very popular. And the "Justice" course taught by your colleague Michael Sandel is also very popular. There are obviously differences between the classes, but they both deal broadly with how one should live. Do you think colleges need to do more to address what is clearly a hunger among students to think about these kinds of questions?

There’s been a danger recently that we’ve turned against the big-ideas classes. There’s a view that we shouldn’t deal with big ideas in classrooms — and classes have a tendency to get more and more specialized. The result is that a lot of courses don’t address these big questions anymore, and students find that they need to go elsewhere to ask the big questions. So they’ll do it in all-night bull sessions with friends. But it’s not something they’re doing in classrooms, and I think that’s very sad.

I think that’s particularly true in this generation that has been raised with an ideology of trying to look inside and find oneself, that now they’re ready to experiment with the possibility that the ideas they were raised in should be rethought.

Do you think that’s because they’re living lives that really don’t comport with this kind of thinking?

This is the generation that was raised with the vision of the self as an absolute assumption. This is a generation that’s told, yes, we understand how the self works, and how the world works, and you should strive to find yourself, look within, be true to yourself. I think it’s a generation that’s finding that the ideas aren’t working, and they’re looking for something else.

So what is the feedback that you’re getting from students?

When you offer some of these different ideas, they really turn to them. They realize that basic things — like what courses to take — implicitly, even unintentionally, they’re guided by who they thought they were or might be or what their strengths were. And it’s very powerful to be told that maybe the whole vision of the self is wrong and maybe the way you’re guiding your life at the moment is limiting and begin to actively shift those.

And these are millennials at Harvard. It seems like that might exacerbate some of those issues.

They’ve gotten really good at saying "Here’s who I am, and here are all the activities that show that this is who I really am and shows what an extraordinary human I can be." I think it makes them all the more ready to be challenged and told to maybe rethink some of the things you’ve thrown yourself into so hard for so many years.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl. This interview has been edited and condensed.