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Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy? (theatlantic.com)
106 points by w1ntermute on Oct 13, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 100 comments

I can offer you an alternative, rather more cynical, explanation as to why it's such a popular class: it's rated as one of the easiest.

Not only, as the article mentions, does it fulfill a core requirement, but it's also rated as one of the easiest courses going in the student evaluations. It scores a 1.58/5 for workload, and a 2.43/5 for difficulty, both below the benchmark for the Gen Ed department (which itself is pretty low).

I'm sure many people taking the class have a genuine interest, but from my experience a significant number of students spend a lot of time finding core/gen-ed classes that are light on work (this is especially true if you've left your requirement to the last minute to complete).

(I'd link to the evaluation data, but you need a harvard.edu login, so you'll have to take my word for it).

Edit: Turns out the student paper backs this theory up - http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/10/9/hey-atlantic-5-r...

I took the class because it was supposed to be easy and satisfied (then-core) requirements. But I still regularly consider Confucian, Mohist, and, heck, even Han Feizi(an?) philosophy and their applications to daily life.

Chinese philosophy nails the importance of the quotidian (to quote the article) in shaping one's world view. It's akin to PG arguing that what you think about in the shower matters or that living with your cofounders is optimal. I found it enriching.

In the end, isn't the point of a good education—to get you to see the world differently, even if it's more superficial lures that draw you in?

Be honest. Are you actually going to use those diluted feel-good aphorisms to shape your life?

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.” -- Jack Handy.

thanks for the casual dismissal of an advanced culture's millennia of thought...sort of like someone from the East asking their kid why they're studying Socrates...are you really going to use those non-elder-respecting boy-loving selfish hedonistic dialogues to shape your life?

I'm not dismissing Eastern thought. On the contrary, I am dismissing a course which apparently makes a pleasant sounding mishmash of the entire output of an advanced civilization.

guess I missed that part of TFA.

"He requires his students to closely read original texts (in translation) such as Confucius’s Analects, the Mencius, and the Daodejing and then actively put the teachings into practice in their daily lives."

"One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself"

You can shape an awesome life for you and others using this "diluted feel-good aphorism".

That's not a feel-good aphorism. That's a principle that is at the core of religions and philosophies practiced by billions. It's not universally applied, but people are actively trying to teach it.

So what is an example of a feel-good aphorism in this context?

"When three men are walking together, there is one who can be my teacher."

If those aphorisms are diluted and feel-good (implying shallow, superficial, and falsely enthusiastic), that has less to do with the course, and more to do with the person applying it into their life. No teacher, parent, or authority figure can make you more mindful of the little things. Filtered from the article, it may seem diluted, but the point is for the student to look beyond their immediate, tunnel vision.

Downvoted. This is exactly the anti-intellectualism that makes me sick.

Every university has terrible students, pre-bankers and pre-consultants who just want a cake walk, and I'm sure there are many who take the course just for the easy A. I also believe there are others who get a lot out of it. Education is, largely, what you make of it.

But this idea that Chinese philosophy is "feel-good aphorisms" is the sickening anti-intellectualism that I fucking hate about business and, increasingly, the tech industry. If the only thing you get out of your study is the superficial, that's on you, not the material.


It's fine to think that of him, but at least have the balls to say it from your normal account.

Here's another theory (not saying yours isn't possibly right): the Chinese government has an agenda involving more and more people studying Chinese language, culture, and traditions. I'm not insinuating any malicious intent here; as any sensible country would they want to promote trade with other nations, and trade goes a lot smoothly if the other party speaks your language/knows your culture/has a connection.

One manifestation of this agenda is the Confucius Institutes that have spawned hundreds of branches around the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucius_Institute). They're pretty nice organizations: they run programs, give funding for projects, give scholarships (heck, my web development job during college was paid partly through the local CI). All in all promote Chinese language/culture, though all pretty much funded by the PRC.

One advantage of this policy for foreigners is that it's remarkably easy to get into the best Chinese universities (even Tsinghua) compared to the effort the average chinese student has to expend to achieve the same goal.

Source: a visiting professor from China

There's no shortage of Chinese overseas students at Western universities, many of which have a strong financial incentive to accept more overseas students (they can usually charge higher fees) even if their ability to read and write English lags behind the average European student.

The resulting cultural cross-pollination is usually likely to be a good thing...

It makes sense. They have dominated the culinary world by making their food ubiquitous! Now they want to dominate the philosophical world. The fiends. I knew it! Palpatine's behind it all.

Despite the cynical nature of that assertion, the basic argument holds true. The Chinese had several thousand years of practice at assimilating (as in Borg-assimilation) of foreign culture, and they did it by standardizing on language and culture.

Even today, if you go China or Taiwan and you start asking about how to say things in Chinese, people start treating you as a candidate for a civilized person, rather than a foreign barbarian.

Having said that, the cynicism obscures a deeper truth. The core teachings of all religions are essentially the same, and for the people who got deep enough to do that, they know that language and culture are "local flavor". They are genuinely trying to help people get in touch with themselves, regardless of age, race, sex, culture, religious affiliations, political philosophy, caste, likes and dislikes, and the wrongs you have done or have been done to you in the past. None of those things are who you are.

If these activities are funded by Chinese government, I would suggest you make good use of them. The ancient China (around 600BC-200BC) is the golden age of Chinese culture. If you can learn from Rome people, you will benefit from China history and philosophers.

25 years ago you would have written the above, but with simply replacing Chinese with Japanese. Lets fast forward to now and see how that worked out.

Nope, still speaking English.

Huh? If he had said "everyone should learn Chinese because it is going to be the most important language," then your response would make sense; as it is, it just sounds like a canned reassurance. Where in his comment does he even say that people should learn Chinese, let alone that they should stop speaking English?

When I was in college, I noticed that I was allowed to use 3 credits of physical education towards my elective credits. However, none were offered at the school, so I took yoga at a community college and transferred the credits in.

Turns out I discovered I really like yoga. :)

I did the same thing. I could take Chicano studies, Asian American studies, African American Studies, or three Karate classes to fulfill a requirement. The first three options were known to be difficult but not particularly deep and students alleged that you would get a bad grade if your political views didn't match the professors' views. I took the latter most option and had way more fun.

Why would someone kill themselves in order to get into Harvard only to slack their way through it doing the easiest rated classes?

Because Harvard awards degrees based on a GPA cut-off that ensures only 50% of the graduating class get Latin honors.

So if you were a Harvard student who wanted to get Latin honors (...of which there are more than a few) it's in your best interests to take the easiest general-education (core) courses to ensure you have more breathing space for studies in your major.

I Head TA'd a core curriculum class at Harvard, and you would be amazed at the number of seniors who e-mailed me once grades came out begging to be bumped up as it meant their GPA would be pushed over the honors cut-off.

This was one reason why the Harvard cheating scandal last year was so widespread: the course fulfilled a core requirement, and it had a reputation for being very easy, hence hundreds of people took it.

also, answering the grandparent post and expanding on the parent answer... the fact that person is in Harvard already proves he/she understands how to play with grade averages to begin with.

gpa is not always directly proportional to hard work.

Not really, high school GPA means taking all the AP/advanced classes -- not the easiest ones, ALL the ones.

not saying it is the same rules as university, but it is the same game. ironically university is easier.

The cut off is actually closer to 75%. Source: I have one and I was not top 50% (which BTW is A- at Harvard!)

Correction: it is 50%. I didn't learn my actual rank, I learned my rank among law school applicants, who I now see are a higher GPA cohort.



Because then you graduate with Harvard University on your resume and can slack your way through management consulting or hedge fund jobs, racking up a nice nest egg in the process. There is a stark difference in workload between studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy vs. Quantum Mechanics.

Harvard students are not stupid, and quite rationally choose the path that gives them the greatest returns for the lowest effort.

No, Physics majors take the Philosophy class for gen ed distribution requirement.

Quite a few people believe that general education requirements are a waste of time. Therefore, they pick easy classes for the things that have nothing to do with their major.

Have you ever been 18?

Because in light of the recession, Goldman Sachs has become snootier about GPAs.

They are in Harvard. Next step would be landing a job on Wall St., not taking the hard courses that might prevent them from graduating.

I don't go to Harvard but isn't that what a lot of people are hoping to get out of a university degree? The ability to land a good job.

Some are lazy. Some don't care. Some are taking them because they want to be able to focus more of their efforts on other, more challenging courses that are more related to their field of study/actual interest while also maintaining some sort of life.

Didn't they just have a huge cheating scandal? I mean why kind of journo is on the prowl (of his own volition) poking around these kind of corners in a university?

If the body leads, the mind will follow.

The smallest actions have the most profound ramifications.

Decisions are made from the heart.

Seeing how they just launched another $6B fundraiser...perhaps they were getting pushback from the type of students that were making the press for all the wrong reasons.

How is that a cynical explanation? Gen-Ed requirements are stupid, particularly in the way they require you to take low-level survey courses marked explicitly as Gen-Eds rather than more in-depth courses. They create people with shallow educations excepting one (maybe two) topics of "in-major" depth rather than graduates with a broad polymathic education.

Excellent example of Occam's razor.

It definitely wasn't an application of Occam's razor. Sigh, what is everyone's obsessions with retrofitting a small amount of logical tools everywhere?

My understanding of Occam's razor is "use the simplest explanation that fits the facts."

The implied question is "Why do Harvard students take this class?"

Rather than resort to philosophical mumbo-jumbo (as the article does) about Harvard students feeling a yearning to improve their overprivileged existence, the simplest explanation is that students take the class because it offers an easy A.


Isn't "this course will change your life" just as simple? They don't learn the 'mumbo-jumbo' until they attend the class.

> Sigh, what is everyone's obsessions with retrofitting a small amount of logical tools everywhere?

It makes them feel smart. I'm going to put my head through a wall next time I see someone type 'fallacy.'

Wow, what's up with the ad hominem, bro?

Not ad hominem, they didn't say they were wrong because they feel smart.


Confirmation bias?

I see what you did there.

>Sigh, what is everyone's obsessions with retrofitting a small amount of logical tools everywhere?

Most people don't like thinking. Even the people who do like thinking only have a finite capacity for it, and don't like spending their/our thought-power on things they/we don't really care about.

While that is more likely the correct answer to the question posed in the headline, the article itself is more about what the students learn and how it affects them. Putting The Analects into practice is pretty remarkable, but a more honest headline would not be as "clicky".

There are different schools of Chinese philosophy that have differing approaches and conclusions, and even then sub-schools with differing beliefs within them (e.g. the Confucianist scholars Xun Zi and Mencius on the innate goodness of human nature). Saying that students should apply something as broadly and uselessly defined as "Chinese philosophy" into their lives is not particularly helpful, and sort of implicitly reinforces the stereotype that Chinese (or East Asian) people all adhere to this rigid, alien way of thinking.

Also, it's sort of condescending. No Western professor teaches Heidegger or Schopenhauer by breaking them up into easy-to-digest, feel-good aphorisms for better living.

> No Western professor teaches Heidegger or Schopenhauer by breaking them up into easy-to-digest, feel-good aphorisms for better living.

This is true, but there is comparable treatment in early Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, with multiple schools arguing very different things getting lumped together as if they are the same.

Not in my experience. My classical philosophy classes gave a little bit of mention to the pre-Socratics (with a chuckle at how crazy Pythagoras was) then it was on to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. We spent quite some time trying to suss out where Socrates ended and Plato began, and why he felt it necessary to use Socrates as his mouthpiece. We then looked at Aristotle's radical departure from Plato and tried to understand what motivated that.

We spent four months on that. Granted, it was a lower-level course, but I don't think I could say all Hellenistic philosophy gets lumped together when we spent so long just trying to pry the Socratics apart.

Hellenistic philosophy came after those guys; IIRC the biggest schools were the stoics and epicureans, with the peripatetics (following Aristotle) in third place. Plato got more influential in the later Roman empire, after Hellenistic times. So your comment kind of supports the grandparent's point (your "little bit of pre-Socratics" means the "early Greek" GP mentioned).

A cute bit for us computer nerds: Chrysippus pretty much invented boolean logic (in the Hellenistic period) and was considered the Father of Logic in antiquity. My intro philosophy course with a heavy emphasis on formal logic never mentioned any of this.

AFAIK, this is the reason for this - Plato established the academy, so his school became quite dominant. And since his works were effectively the textbook, they survived. After Plato, everyone's positions were defined relative to Plato's school, so it's easy to think that it's all based on Plato (and his teacher Socrates, and his student Aristotle).

It's like saying all Chinese philosophy is based on Confucius, (and to a lessor extent Daoism, and Chinese Buddhism). They became the official schools, so everyone thought of other philosophers as being relative to Confucius.

One of the interesting aspects of the Stoics though is that they were generally thought to derive from Spartan rather than Athenian tradition, which makes Plato as an apologist for Sparta (in Republic particularly) all the more interesting.

Also, it's sort of condescending. No Western professor teaches Heidegger or Schopenhauer by breaking them up into easy-to-digest, feel-good aphorisms for better living.

That might explain Hegel's obscurity.

Presumably this intro level course does a survey of major belief systems.

That doesn't seem like a reasonable presumption to me. You can't do justice to major belief systems even at a high level if you squeeze it into part of a course on a different topic.

I don't know why these students are taking it, but reading Zhuangzi in college was an eye opener, as the philosophy contained within runs almost paradoxical to traditional Western thought. Those reading are very short and contain many fascinating insights http://www.amazon.com/Chuang-Tzu-Writings-Burton-Watson/dp/0...

I studied the Dao in a Chinese History course only briefly and one of the statements that I particularly like is wrapped up nicely here: http://www.myrkothum.com/the-meaning-of-the-finger-pointing-...

It's almost obvious when you think about it that abstraction necessitates containers like memory pointers and that referencing the abstractions is more efficient, but in the magic of our minds, the underlying truth is not guaranteed to still be there.

Another quality of what I read in Daodejing is that it basically proclaims itself to only be such a pointer, and that the truth can't be contained and still have a word to call it by. How many other philosophies and religions do you know that try to explain all and -do- claim to have all the answers or have proponents who claim that every truth can be found within their corpus? I did come away believing that Laozi had captured the fact that any all-inclusive truth is ineffable, something that can be logically reinforced by studying paradoxes such as Russel's paradox and self-reference.

To sum up the paradox. Define a set of all sets. The set itself is a set, so in order to be the set of all sets, it has to contain itself. Writing a program to create this set will obviously never terminate because any result must be put inside the result, so there can be no final result. Cool resolutions to many problems of natural thought that would otherwise spiral off into infinity. Teaches you to recognize them and terminate the process, freeing memory and mental cycles for other things.

I shall now interpret the opening sentence to mean "any Dao whose rules can be enumerated is either inconsistent or incomplete." Thanks, that's a fun connection.

I read the Analects of Confucius. It's a good one because like Gilgamesh it was created outside of the constant necessary glorified warfare world of the Old Testament and the Iliad and the Odyssey. There's so much conflict and war culture interwoven into everything in the west it's hard to figure out that that's not all there is to public life. Eastern religion, even Confucius who is seen as more conservative and hierarchical, is far more serene.

I don't understand the remark about Gilgamesh (or really, about the analects...).

The epic of gilgamesh came from mesopotamia, the land of a hundred city-kings perpetually at war with each other. Look at what Sargon is famous for. All of our records of mesopotamia come from their clay tablets. Clay will last a long time if you fire it, which the people of the time did not do. Generally, the reason we have a tablet is that it was accidentally fired when a conquering king burned its city to the ground. How does all this say "outside of the world of constant necessary warfare" to you?

Similarly, Chinese history records orderly transitions from one dynasty to the next for political reasons. If you count it up, I believe China spent nearly as much time in a state of several-conflicting-governments as it did under a unified one, up until the modern period.

Ignoring the fact that China was at a near continuous state of war during the time of Confucius, with many huge and bloody battles as the various Chinese states tried to conquer each other.

Still the warfare in ancient China didn't result in Chinese thinkers creating "jealous rules-giving God" but something called


Put that in that western "we invented the resistance to the unjust government" pipe.

> Still the warfare in ancient China didn't result in Chinese thinkers creating "jealous rules-giving God"

I would suggest that what they did create to successfully end the constant warfare (which Confucianism failed to do), Legalism, was even more horrifying than any monotheism. Have you ever read, say, the Book of Lord Shang?

I haven't but I've checked:


Apparently the times of legalism were around 3rd century BCE, and then "In later dynasties, Legalism was discredited and ceased to be an independent school of thought."

I don't claim that it was all rosy afterwards, but let's also not forget that it were the British that were literally drug dealers to the Chinese, that even started the war once the Chinese weren't ready to accept it anymore:


> Apparently the times of legalism were around 3rd century BCE, and then "In later dynasties, Legalism was discredited and ceased to be an independent school of thought."

Thankfully. Once the empire was united, there wasn't as much need for Legalism and it was beaten out by the much nicer Confucianism.

> I don't claim that it was all rosy afterwards, but let's also not forget that it were the British that were literally drug dealers to the Chinese

I don't see how that's relevant. The British didn't invent opium because they were monotheists, they did it for economic reasons.

I can relate, having studied by myself Chinese philosophy. But too points in the article sounded untrue: Chinese thought is not abstruse, it is often flat and obvious, once you get it. Also, the things about decision and spontaneity are just a very small superficial part of it. I would add:

Founding moral rules without recurrences to a god.

The fecundity and importance of emptiness.

The non non contradiction: A and not A, yin and yang, etc.

The refusal to let words drive thoughts.

> $PHILOSOPHY thought is not abstruse, it is often flat and obvious, once you get it.

I've found this to be very true in general. That journey can often be difficult, though.

Could you explain what the importance of emptiness is? It sounds mysterious and interesting.

A bottle is useful because it is empty, no?

Resolution requires contrast

If you really want to learn something, learn Ancient Indian culture (not the one distorted by stupid American professors).

> For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard's more challenging core requirements, Ethical Reasoning.

According to http://www.registrar.fas.harvard.edu/courses-exams/courses-i... so does Michael Sandel's Justice course, which can be viewed here: http://www.justiceharvard.org/

It's one of the most amazing lecture series I've seen. I can't see how the one given by Puett could possibly be any better... But then again, Harvard is supposed to be one of the best schools in the world, maybe Puett really offers a better course...

Because they are all Chinese?

The courses which changed my life the most were those which covered history, literature, and philosophy. The courses may have been easy in many ways, but they left a profound mark on me.

Oh well, it is an easy course.

My few cents is that it helps improve your life, taking such a course. At my university, we had an "easy" philosophy course, focusing on Sartre and Kierkegaard, existensialism. The course itself, opened up whole new perspectives to me, and way of perceptions. Maybe this is the one greatest enhancement as a person I gained from my years at the University.

I'd say such philosphy courses should really be mandatory for everybody. Not the usual Examen Philosophicum, but the mind-bending ones.

I'm from China and lived in the US for years. I think that Chinese people are way more practical and result driven, and instead Americans tend to follow their hearts more. I agree that there are many different ways to interpret ancient Chinsese philosophy that can lead to totally different conclusions. I disagree that this has anything to do with Chinese government or the increasing amount of Chinese students.

Is there a way to get the reading list for this course?

Shameless plug: search wengu, you'll get a site with Chinese texts ands translations.

Link: http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php (right?)

It's fine to link to your stuff especially if it's useful/educational/etc.

Yes, thanks.

If anyone wants access to some of the content, I've found quite a large collection of notes for the course, here: http://karmanotes.org/harvard/ethical-reasoning-18-classical...

Intro to CS is a top 3 class. Good news and my major takeaway from the article.

Based on my experiences of being an undergrad during the first tech boom, the reasoning runs as follows:

    You know what's cool? A billion dollars.

Google: David j malan cs50.

Cs50 collapsed in the first tech boom, and then Malan reinvented the course in 2007, drastically increasing enrollment (including women, relatively) ahead of the current/recent boom

Thanks, looks like they did some great work.

That said, lots of schools saw enrolments climbing again in the late 2000s as the boom reached its onramp.

Because they have money and want to explore something unique. You don't have to major in CS and believe it or not not everyone needs to know how to code.

The word for mind and heart are not the same in Chinese...

Yeah, I was just about to post this. That's some Grade-A orientalist bullshit there, The Atlantic. In Chinese, heart is used in the same metaphorical sense as it is in English, as a center of emotional thought, as opposed to the brain, which is the center of rational thought.

they want to know what their future boss's next move will be

thanks for the lel


the wrong math is what bothers me the most about these spam posts.

Presumably the claim is that $72 is the minimum but sometimes it can be more?

What bothers me more is the logic of spamming HN, which I would imagine must be one of the places least likely to have people falling for that sort of shit.

Someone's probably paid per link they create, independent of the value of that link.

Perhaps spam generation could be disrupted... :-)

does anybody actually give a shit?

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