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Why a Chinese Philosophy Class is Most Sought After in Harvard

Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, hands out eclectic reading lists and uses Chinese philosophy and anecdotes from the "Analects of Confucius," to guide undergraduates to self-improvement.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   26-10-2015
Michael J. Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, uses Chinese philosophy as a way to give
undergraduates counter-intuitive and revolutionary ideas.

Think of him as highly-skilled and wise Master Shifu of the Jade Palace. Michael J. Puett, a tall, intense, bespectacled professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, trains hundreds of students to shed old mindsets by popularizing the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophies.

In 2006, Puett first began teaching his ancient Chinese philosophy course, Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory. The next year, so many students crowded into his classroom that they spilled out into the hallway. Harvard had no option, but to finally move Puett's class into Sanders Theater, the biggest venue on campus. It has since become the third most popular course at the university and routinely draws around 700 undergraduates. The only classes with higher enrollment are Principles of Economics and Introduction to Computer Science.

What is the best way to live a fuller and more ethical life? Concretely what should we do to begin to live in a more inspiring way? These questions are at the heart of philosophical debates in China. During his engaging lectures, Puett shows his students that the answers that classical Chinese thinkers developed to these soul-searching questions are among the most powerful in history.

Puett introduces his students to the works of Chinese philosopher Mencius, Confucius’ Analects and Daodejing, the fundamental text for Taoism which strongly influenced Chinese Buddhism.

Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History, contrasts these old Chinese texts with present-day Western philosophy. For starters, Eastern thought holds that decisions are made spontaneously from the heart. Western thought says humans are more analytical and rational, letting the brain drive decision-making. Puett cleverly shows how the Chinese word for “mind” and “heart” are the same. He then goes onto explain to his students that whenever they make decisions — big or small — they will make better ones when they intuitively integrate "heart and mind" and let their "rational and emotional sides" blend into one.

At the end of each class, Puett challenges his students to put the Chinese philosophy they have been learning into tangible practice in their everyday lives.

The surge of interest in studying ancient Chinese philosophy at Harvard ties in with philosophy itself becoming an increasingly popular course in British and American universities. It is often seen as a pre-law track because it emphasizes the verbal and logic skills prized by law schools.

It is being embraced by a new generation of college students, who say that what they learn in philosophy can translate into practical skills. Philosophy sets graduates up nicely for careers in journalism, advertising, law, politics, government and technology. There's a lot more to studying ancient Chinese or Greek philosophy than meets the eye. Interest in studying philosophy begins with the desire to ponder life’s biggest questions: finding the meaning of human existence, making sense of reality, giving systematic form to our ethical and political intuitions, and expounding the history of human ideas.

Read more about what you can do with a Philosophy Major on our Braingainmag website.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.


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