The Rise of China

Learning from the success of a Chinese philosophy class

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Principles of Economics. Introduction to Computer Science. Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory. What do these three courses have in common? They’re the three highest enrolled classes at Harvard this semester.

But, as they used to sing on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others.

Ethical Reasoning 18: “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” is Harvard’s third most popular class, with 532 students enrolled. This is a new record for the class, but it has been growing for some time. When I took ER 18 my sophomore year, we started in Yenching Auditorium, but unanticipated turnout required the class to move to Sanders Theater shortly after study card day. That semester, 416 students ended up taking the class—clearly far more than were expected, given that Yenching Auditorium has a capacity of 274.

All three of the most popular classes this semester fulfill General Education requirements, but that alone can’t explain their popularity. Quality of instruction is one factor, to be sure: Michael J. Puett, who teaches ER 18, is a famously lively and engaging lecturer. And China’s growing economic and political power may, at some level, play a role. Puett himself attributes the class’s success to its content: students “are looking for courses that help them think big,” he said in an interview.

Indeed, one crucial difference among these three courses relates to how students might think about their content. More specifically, both economics and computer science are, for many students, professional skill-building classes. Both can be exciting glimpses into new ways of thinking about the world with great intrinsic value, but they also point toward career paths that many Harvard students plan to take. The same just can’t be said about Chinese philosophy.

But what does it mean that 532 Harvard students are getting a thorough introduction to the great works of Chinese philosophy? Puett believes that the materials in his course offer startlingly relevant insights into how to think about making choices, including career choices, from a broad perspective that Harvard advising, which Puett describes as “very practical, sometimes to a fault,” does not usually address.

The ideas that he teaches in the class provide a provocative alternative to the model of setting a long-term career goal and planning out steps to attain it. Let’s call that model of good career advice “The Plan.” To Puett, this approach has serious flaws. First, it encourages us to be closed off from and even fearful of new experiences that do not fit into The Plan. Xunzi and Zhuangzi, two Chinese philosophers with wildly different systems of thought, would agree, Puett says, that this mentality makes us focus too narrowly on what we think we can predict rather than open-mindedly accepting what actually happens.

Buying into “The Plan” may in turn make us think too narrowly about our capabilities. Puett believes that “training” matters much more than “natural aptitude,” meaning that while we may be born with certain abilities, we have enormous capacity to develop new skills beyond our original endowments. As a result, if our natural aptitudes do not coincide with our interests, Puett hopes that the ideas in his class will empower students not to follow a path that doesn’t excite us, especially if our justifications are telling ourselves, “this is just what I’m good at,” or, “this is just who I am.”

These remarks on the impact of the class aren’t off the mark, at least according to some students in the class. Jonathan D. Reindollar ’14, an East Asian studies concentrator in ER 18 this semester, said that the class has helped him with “thinking about things holistically and challenging even the most basic preconceptions.”

Puett’s core ideas—that our interests should guide us more than our aptitudes and that training can overcome our natural endowments—are powerful and potentially liberating for students contemplating career choices. Many students I have interviewed for my column this semester told that they feel like their choices about what to do after college are, in certain ways, not their own. Some even say that they feel trapped in their decisions, that, in the words of one economics concentrator who reluctantly accepted her finance offer earlier this fall, it was “too late” to do anything else.

But the great works of Chinese philosophy offer another view. They teach us that “it’s never too late,” Puett said. “With training, you can be extraordinary at nearly anything you choose. The sky is the limit.”

Julian B. Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

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