Can Harvard’s most popular professor (and Confucius) radically change your life? | Harvard University - Education - The Guardian
|Photo: Tim Dowling|
|Professor Michael Puett: what we really are is ‘a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff’. |
Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
The School of Life’s Sunday sermons could be described as lectures for people who don’t believe in God but still like church. They sing secular songs before and after the sermon (when I arrive, the large congregation at Mary Ward House in London is on the second verse of A Spoonful of Sugar), and everybody seems to share an abiding faith in the power of open-mindedness.
On this particular Sunday, the sermon is to be delivered by Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, and is based on his book The Path, which applies the lessons of ancient Chinese philosophers to modern life. These philosophers may have done their best work 2,500 years ago, but they were trying to answer the same big questions we still ask. How do I live my life? How do I live my life well?
“I forewarn you,” Puett tells the congregation: “At first it’s gonna sound really bleak.”
The back cover of The Path describes Puett as “Harvard’s most popular professor”. It is unclear how this distinction is awarded, but the book grew out of a 2013 magazine article written by his co-author, Christine Gross-Loh, about the undergraduate course Puett teaches – classical Chinese ethical and political theory – said to be the third most popular class at Harvard.
“That’s still the case,” Puett says when I meet him. “No 1 and No 2 are the introduction to economics class and the introduction to computer science class.” Third biggest means his lectures are delivered to around 750 students. Puett exposes them to the writings of Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and Xunzi, among others, but he also promises that the course will do more than just fulfil Harvard’s required ethical reasoning module.
“I do give them a guarantee,” he says. “The guarantee I make is if they take these ideas seriously, by the end of the course, these ideas will have changed their lives.”
When he speaks publicly, Puett’s voice ranges between a low rumble and an enthusiastic squeak. At first it sounds almost muppet-like, but after a while it becomes a little incantatory – you can see why he is a popular lecturer. He doesn’t refer to notes, and he has no visual aids. His sermon, like his course, begins by shattering some commonly held preconceptions about the self: there is no self, he says. The idea that we should look within, discover our true nature and act accordingly is, according to Confucius, nonsense. What we really are, Puett says, is “a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff”, a collection of emotions and conditioned responses, with no guiding inner core. We think we are self-determined, but in reality we are so set in our patterns that Google exploits our predictability to sell us stuff without us noticing.
Puett’s School of Life audience is very open to this notion – I think most of us already figured as much – but apparently when he tells this to his students, it blows their minds. Is this, I wonder, a generational thing?
|The Path: |
A New Way to Think About Everything
Source: The Guardian