Harvard Professor Michael Puett and author Christine Gross-Loh have written New York Times Bestseller The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. We were fortunate to interview them about what makes his class so wildly popular and what advice the Chinese philosophers can offer college freshmen, recent grads and parents, as well.
1.Michael, your class is the third most popular one on Harvard’s campus. Obviously, strong teaching is always a big reason why students sign up. But what is it that attracts students to this subject matter?
I think students find the ideas of these Chinese philosophers to be challenging in a very exciting way. Many students today grew up in a world where they were encouraged to “look within,” “find your true self,” and “follow your true calling.” But this sort of advice can in practice be very confining. That’s why, I think, students get so excited by ideas that offer a fundamental challenge to these and other assumptions.
The ideas, developed in Chinese philosophy, in particular, offer a very powerful alternative vision to the ideas we hold dear in our society. Students’ interest reflects the fact that this generation seems really open to thinking about their purpose in the world, about big ideas, and about rethinking everything they’ve taken for granted.
2. Freshman year in college is a major time of transition for kids and some struggle more than others. What advice or lessons from Chinese philosophers would be particularly helpful to this age group?
The ideas have inspired many students to change their lives. Tellingly, the changes are not of the “grand” sort – like suddenly running off and trying to do something radically different with their lives. Such seemingly grand changes usually do not, in the long run, actually affect how one lives one’s everyday life and thus, do not actually result in change. Because after such a “big change,” one risks simply reverting back to the usual ruts that can dominate our ordinary lives: their typical ways of dealing with people, with their interests, with their own emotions, and so forth.
4. College graduates who are in first jobs and, perhaps, in new and unfamiliar cities are also in a transition stage. Are there lessons from Chinese philosophers that might guide these young adults as they start their careers? If so, can you give us an example?
Often, it is precisely at this stage that we think we need to develop a life plan for how to guide our careers. But perhaps this is counter-productive. Life plans are often based on first deciding who we are and then deciding, given who we are, how we can most successfully fit into the world. But if we are messy, ever-changing beings – as our Chinese philosophers held – this can be a dangerous, restraining approach. By thinking of ourselves as monolithic and fixed, we end up boxing ourselves in.