Chinese philosophy: The wild goose gradually draws near the tree

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:53 pm

Update-The wild goose is getting closer to the tree

Apparently we are experiencing a Chinese Philosophy Fever. The Atlantic has an article up on Michael Puett’s Harvard class on Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, as described at Warp, Weft, and Way.

In general I would agree with WWW commenter Bill Haines that “I think it makes sense that a course taught this way would be taught by a historian rather than a philosophy prof.” In part this is because I am a historian, but also because I think it fits better with reasons for kids to come to a class like this. A while back I read something (Chronicle?) about a Renaissance history guy who was ordered to come up with some sort of mass-market class that drew on his period. He came up with something like “How to be a corporate toady and suck-up: Kissing the asses of the rich and powerful in a profoundly unequal society” drawing primarily on Michel de Montaigne

Needless to say the class was a huge hit, and he was horrified by both how many students wanted to take it and how many sections of it the administration wanted him to teach and how useful the class was for student who wanted to find a place in our society.

I don’t think Puett created this class out of spite, but I do think  a historian is in a good place to help students understand how philosophical or self-help texts1 help those who are reading them figure out how they fit into society. The society of Warring States China is a good analogue for ours today, where we like to talk about how the old rules no longer apply, but are still worth thinking about.2 Harvard students in particular are shi, members of the elite who can’t go wrong (in the sense of starving) whatever they do. Plus there are books like Finnegrete’s Secular as Sacred that may not be very strong as sinology or philosophy,3 but do help you make the connection.

So my point here is that if you want to teach a class like Puett’s, which uses examples from the past to explain how you should fit into society now (i.e. get a liberal education) then Warring States China is a good place to look, and a historian is an excellent guide.


Old post

I may eventually post more on this, but better than anything I might add, you should go read this article on Chinese Philosophy in the U.S. (from the Chronicle)

The thing that struck me is that the academic study of Philosophy seems to be broadening out in a way that Religious Studies (which they mention) did a long time ago, as did History. I don’t know of any nice short introductions to the struggle to get Chinese history accepted as history in American colleges, but maybe someone else does. The process seems somewhat different in Philosophy, but there are a lot of parallels.

Via Warp, Weft, and Way

  1. Analects, Zhuangzi, and most of the classical texts are self-help books that really belong on the shelf with Dr. Phil []
  2. I’m not sure how unique this really is, but  undergrads like believing that we live in an unprecedented age of change. []
  3. I am neither a philosopher or a ancient China person, so I can’t say for sure []


Why go to college?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:32 am

Tea Leaf Nation has a post up on a micro-trend of Chinese kids not going to college, or at least one parent not being willing to pay for it, on the grounds that “Today, even peddlers who collect garbage…make more money than many graduates.” This is also something of a trend in the U.S., where some rich people also think that college may be a waste of time.

College is of course not a universal of all human societies. Even in America lots of people have happy, productive lives without ever going there. Most of the Americans saying that you should not go to college seem to be among the 1% who are extremely wealthy, and for them there is a point in not going. Why beat your brains out getting a degree if all it gets you is a shot at a $100,000 a year job? Great, that will keep you in toilet paper, but as a child of privilege why bother?1 College used to be one of the tickets to the middle class, but as the U.S. abandons the model of the universal middle class society college attainment may shrink. A lot. If the only life choices are Wal-mart greeter vs. Wal-mart greeter with college debt, OR idle rich vs. idle rich who used to write term papers and shared a bathroom why go to college?

China is trying to create a universal middle class society 小康,2 but college there has, until recently, been something to mark out an elite, not define a middle class. As Tea Leaf Nation points out, Chinese colleges have been expanding exponentially in recent years, and there is no way that you can fully maintain standards which that much expansion. Nor does just going to college make you a member of an elite nowadays, as much as the hordes of entrance-exam takers may hope it will.

In the last years of the Qing, when Western-style education was expanding far more rapidly than you could find qualified teachers, everybody who could get it wanted a degree, since it marked you as a member of an elite, even if you had not learned much. By the 1920’s the figure of the semi-employed college grad became more common. Just having been to college no longer guaranteed a job or elite status.

I suspect China is going through a similar transition now. The Chengdu dad in the TLN story may well be right about college. If Dad has pulled in enough cash to be one of China’s new rich,and the kid did not get into Beida or Oxford, (which would give her elite status) what exactly does she need to go to college for? You can start your own business or get on the corporate ladder in China without a degree, so it is not an entry ticket for the middle class. It’s not as subsidized by the state as it used to be either. You can spend some serious money on college. If your career goal is to or schmooze your Daddy’s rich friends, China does not have a proper set of ‘playground for rich kids’ schools as of yet.

Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor, grew up in the town my college is in. He went to Princeton, which was a school for the wealthy, or like him the well-off. My school was here then, but it was called a Normal school because it was intended to educate teachers, one of the few classes of people besides rich kids who were felt to need to go to college. The vast middle range of modern American higher ed did not exist then, and I suspect the U.S. is moving back towards that model. In China the process of sorting out universities into different categories is a lot less advanced, but I suspect the trend will continue (it did in the 1930’s) They even have a bit of anti-intellectualism, Red in the Chinese case rather than Red, White and Blue, to push the trend along.


  1. Yes, beer and sex, but what else? []
  2. They apparently don’t realize that public education and free health care will lead to ..Socialism! []


Going Native

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:11 am

Here is something from Edward V. Gulick Teaching in Wartime China: A Photo-Memoir, 1937-1939. ((University of Massachusetts, 1995)) When Gulick came to China he was a young, idealistic part of the wealthy, idealistic Yale in China program. He went on to have a career as a historian of international relations and of China, but at this point he was a young  Christian from a missionary family (although he ‘disliked old-fashioned missionary evangelism’1 ) who knew no Chinese and little about China. Still, he took to the place, and he learned a lot, much of it through meeting up with various missionaries, China hands and others. The one who interested me most was Gerald.

The exotic qualities of the hotel were enhanced by our linking up with someone I will call Gerald, a young English Buddhist who was on his way to Kunming and who had also come on the S.S. Canton from Hong Kong. Gerald identified himself as a dropout from Cambridge University and as a member of a prominent English family. He had lived several years in South China and several more in Peiping, attaining fluency in both Cantonese and Mandarin, and becoming a Buddhist convert. That was interesting enough, but I was astonished to learn that this tall, handsome and self-assured man had an opium habit, and then fascinated  to be invited to watch him smoke. He was articulate, loved to talk, and relished having an interested audience as he lay on his side and prepared his opium for smoking. That ritual consisted of dipping a blunt needle into a viscous fluid like molasses; the tip of the needle with its adhering drop was held briefly over the concentrated heat of a squat opium lamp. He turned the drop as it bubbled and then shaped it on the flat surface near the bowl of the pipe, before dipping the needle tip wth its cooled droplet into the “molasses” once again, the cycle being repeated slowly and peacefully six or eight times. The finished pellet was finally pushed off the needle into the tiny bowl of the opium pipe which was turned to the heat of the lamp so the smoker could ignite the pellet with several big puffs followed by a gigantic long inhale. The whole procedure was known as a “mouth.” Since this took place thirty years before the prevalence of drugs in middle-class America, it seemed incredibly exotic
and offbeat to me.
Dr. Liebenthal and I visited Gerald a number of times in opium dens to watch and listen. He talked of northern and southern differences in preparation, of the gentleness of the habit, of how he had smoked socially off and on for a year, and even regularly for a month in order to cope with an intestinal ailment, before he realized he had a habit. By the time I knew him he was compelled to smoke two or three “mouths” both morning and evening. He was eager to show us how benign and peaceful the dens were, how civilized smoking was, how unrelated the whole process was to the ill-informed and prejudiced ways in which it was usually perceived by Westerners.
Gerald possessed a romantic image of a perfect and purified Chinese culture that led him to an obsessive conviction that the Chinese way of
doing anything- in art, in language, in manners, in dress, in architecture, in agriculture and organization, in religion- was demonstrably the
best. Initially, I found this view of life sympathetic, but it risked slipping from novelty and stimulation to tedium and aggravation.

Eventually he sours on Gerald, but for me the opium smoking was the most interesting part. Apparently for Gerald opium smoking was a vital part of connecting to China. Liu Wendian seems to have felt the same way. Needless to say that is not true now, but it was part of the package as recently as the 1930s

  1. p.16 []


When the internet gives you bad historical analogies…..

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:45 pm

From Washington Monthly using the Chinese exam system as an analogy for the S.A.T., referring to an essay from n+1.

The anecdote that began the n + 1 piece discussed the exam system in ancient China. That system, which looks disturbingly similar to our own standardized test-based admissions process for entrance into institutions of higher learning, was designed to ensure merit and talent in the Chinese bureaucracy. It resulted, in the long run, in exorbitant debt and vast corruption. It ended, ultimately, with the Chinese Revolution.

As a historian I am supposed to like people using historical analogies. As a historian of Asia I am supposed to like them using Asian ones even more. And I am willing to cut people quite a bit of slack in these things. This, however, is pretty bad. Like most undergrads this writer seems to think “Ancient China” refers to everything up till the Communist take-over in 1972. I’m not aware of anyone who suggests that high interest rates on government bonds (“exorbitant debt”) were major problems for the Ming and Qing dynasties, but if history is just a place to look to find confirmation of your ideas about the present I suppose you could do it in China as well as anywhere. Suggesting that the exam system ended, “ultimately, with the Chinese Revolution” suggests either that  the author thinks that the fall of the Qing and establishment of a Republic in 1911 were a mistake, or is unaware that anything happened in China between the last metropolitan exams in 1904  and 1949. Or, more likely, he just does not care. Still, the author is apparently not taking the analogy too seriously, so I don’t see why I should, and there is not much reason to post just about this.

The N+1 piece is also pretty bad, but in a much more interesting sort of way.

In 605 CE, a year after murdering his father and seizing the throne, the Chinese emperor Yang Guang established the world’s first meritocracy. Weary of making bureaucratic appointments solely on the basis of letters of recommendation, Yang set aside a number of posts for applicants who performed well on a new system of imperial examinations. In theory, any peasant who took the trouble to memorize 400,000 characters — which is to say, anyone who conducted six years of study with an expensive tutor — could join the country’s political elite.

Over the centuries, as China’s scholar–bureaucrats grew more powerful, their metrics of assessment became increasingly intricate. Those who passed were stratified into nine grades, and each grade was further divided into two degrees. Exam performance corresponded exactly to salary, denominated in piculs of rice; the top brass received more than seventeen times as much rice as the lowest tier. But the true rewards of exam success were considerably higher: besides the steady salary, bribe collection made it very good to be a bureaucrat.

As time went on, more and more people took — and passed — the exam’s first round. Test prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions. When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult. By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over 1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates — .016 percent — passed all three.

This is a lot better. The system is started at a particular time, by a person with a name. The wrong person, since if you were going to assign responsibility for the early exam system to one person it would probably be Empress Wu, but, baby steps. The system changes over time. And the disaster it causes is not problems with the bond market but the Taiping Rebellion. Admittedly the size and destructiveness of the Taiping does not have much to do with whatever drove Hong Xiuchuan nuts, and the exams were never a matter of memorizing 400,000 characters, and they did not grant you an automatic position in the bureaucracy and salaries were in cash rather than rice, and the exams were never intended nor expected to provide social mobility to the poor. Still, there is some connection to history here.

Specifically, the references to letters of recommendation, test prep academies and metrics of assessment. They had an educational elite, we have an educational elite. Maybe a comparison would be helpful.  The n+1 piece is arguing that Real Americans are just as right to resent our educational elite as they are to resent our financial elite.

Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings…..Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge….as long as access to the workforce is controlled by the bachelor’s degree, students will pay more and more.

I don’t buy a lot of this, but the idea that the university has replaced the labor union as a crucial institution is an interesting one. And, with a bit of help, you can get a nice analogy to the Late Qing exam system out of this. The n+1 piece does not do that, as they are analogizing the entire American post-secondary educational system to both the Chinese civil service exams and the type of 1% cultural elite school that you need a test prep tutor to get into. Like a -lot- of people who write about higher ed in America the n+1 writers are aware that there are some people who can’t get into a good school and are thus forced to die in a ditch, drive a truck or go to the University of Minnesota or something, but they are not really talking about those people. Can lack of a four year degree keep you out of parts of the labor force? Yes. Can lack of an Ivy League degree keep you out of “cultural affairs”? Yes. Does it make any sense to lump these two things together? No.

To make a historical analogy you need not only to have some knowledge about history but also know what comparison you are making. The modern American college system is like the Chinese civil service exams in that it has grown far beyond its original purpose. While the civil service exams were originally intended to create bureaucrats by the Qing only a tiny fraction got any sort of government job and even fewer had a government career. Passing or at least studying for the exams marked you out as a member of the cultural elite. American higher ed. has, despite what n+1 thinks, a much larger base in actual education, but it has grown far beyond its job of certifying a small elite and a bunch of teachers into certifying a big chunk of the population, although it is not clear what they are being certified for or why it should matter.

By about 1900 the exams had lost a lot of their old cachet, and there were several attempts to reform them. As Elman points out, however,  almost as soon as the exams were abolished the state began creating new examinations for government officials.1 That part stuck around, but the larger task of defining China’s elite fell to a mass of new institutions including Western-style schools and universities and military academies. Is the American academic enterprise due for a rapid decline down to those few places where there is definite technical knowledge to be gained or a real desire for certification? There are lots of majors where students seem to learn nothing. Why not get rid of them and let people take those jobs without four years of college? Maybe the most interesting bit of data is the campaign against law school and especially the third year of law school. Law school has for many years been the place for bright kids who were not sure what they wanted to do with their lives. Now that it is a lot more expensive it seems silly to go there if your goal is to do anything but work at a big money law firm. Will law school (and pre-law) enrolments shrink down to just those who really want to be lawyers? More importantly, will someone be able to offer a 2-year law degree? That would save students a bundle of money and supposedly have little effect on their ability to pass the bar or practice law. Guild rules, however, forbid it.

The law school example is what I think of when people suggest that MOOCs might replace college. I don’t think they are anywhere near being able to replace what you can actually learn in college, but to the extent that you are just going through the motions to get a certificate they could work fine. If you were going to sleepwalk thorough Astronomy 170 anyway why not do an on-line class and not have to get out of bed? Is a University of Phoenix degree as good as a real one? If you are just getting it for the piece of paper of course it is. If all you want is to have your future employees make it through the 18-20 years without achieving much other than learning to drink a collection of MOOCs might work as well as a degree in Business Administration. I think the real issue is not what can we learn outside school (lots)2 but to what extent are the formal and informal rules about the bits of paper you need to do things going to change? I would guess a lot less than in China. The Qing court could surprise everyone and just abolish the exams in 1905, but how, in a formal, legal, sense,  could a President Paul Ryan abolish all the gatekeeper roles that college education plays in the U.S.? I suspect that the Chinese 1900-1911 example (the death of the exam system) might be a useful analogy for the changes in American post-secondary education, but it is going to take a lot more work than has been done so far.



  1. Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. 1st ed. University of California Press, 2000. p.617 Your best bet for a light beach read about the exam system []
  2. As Holbo points out, the original killer ap for taking learning outside school is not the internet but the book []


ASPAC Blogging: Change in Rural China

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:46 am

Flowers of Soka - Pink LotusI heard a few China papers at ASPAC and, though they weren’t all on one panel, they might well have been, because they all dealt with the rural response to changing 20th and 21st century circumstances.

On Friday I heard Soka University’s own Xiaoxing Liu discuss rural responses to the marketization of the labor and agricultural economy in China over the last few decades. She noted that the share of Chinese workers involved in agriculture dropped below 50% in 2003, a critical landmark for modernization theorists: many former agricultural workers have become migrant laborers (more about them below) and the remaining agriculturalists have a great deal of structural and economic trouble: lack of land rights being high on the list. (more…)


Zhu Xi on liberal education

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:24 pm

I’ve been reading Gardner’s Chu Hsi: Learning to be a Sage. The book consists of a long introduction to Zhu Xi and his work (He was the Thomas Aquinas of China, a comparison that does not mean much to American undergrads) and a translation of Conversations of Master Chu (朱子語類) ,thematic selections from Zhu’s many writings and commentaries on the classics.1 Two of the chapters are on reading, which was a major theme for Zhu and is a major theme for American academics. Trying to figure out what texts our students should read, trying to teach them how to approach these texts and trying to figure out what the heck they did with them as you read their reactions are some of the main things we do. In fact it they are -the- main things, since students will usually forget us, our lectures and our exam questions fairly quickly. They should not forget their encounters with Zhuangzi, Thomas Paine, or Paul Cohen, at least if liberal education has any meaning at all.

Zhu Xi was somewhat critical of reading. Book learning is a secondary matter for students. ( 4/1) since moral principle is originally complete in man, and does not need to be added from outside. Despite that he spends a lot of time on reading, since it is the a way to have contact with the sages and worthies. It is worth a lot of work.

Here’s what is necessary: one blow with a club, one scar, one slap on the face, a handful of blood. Your reading of what other people write should be just like this. Don’t be lax! (4.14)


  1. The full text of his conversations with his disciples was compiled after his death and a thematic edition was published in 1270. Garner works from Chang Po-hsing’s 18th century abridgment with additions of this own. []


You lost to a girl?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:56 am


Reading through 中华民国文化史 (Cultural History of the Chinese Republic)1 I found something interesting in the section on 国术. 国术 is a term for what today would be called 武术, i.e. martial arts. Although there was a lot of interest in physical education in China in the 20s and 30s traditional martial arts were not part of this, as they were often seen as backwards peasant stuff. The Guomindang did make some efforts to encourage the modernization of the martial arts, however, setting up the 中央国术馆 (Central Martial Arts Academy) in Nanjing in 1927. Eventually there would be provincial-level organizations as well. At first the Academy seems to have been organized like a traditional martial arts school with masters and disciples but in 1929 it was reorganized as a more modern type of school. The top rated teachers were 王子平,吴图南,姜容燕,胡容华 (), 陈志和 () the younger teachers included 张文广, 李锡恩,傅淑云 () As the () indicates two of the top five teachers and three of eight were women.

This actually surprised me a lot. In movies and fiction there may be a lot of female martial arts experts, and there were certainly some in reality as well. Still, this ratio strikes me as a little high. In 1933 there was a national martial arts exam and of the 427 competitors only 9 were women. Was this part of an attempt to modernize the martial arts? Was it a regional thing, since the academy drew heavily from the Northwest and followers of 张之江? Has anybody written anything on this?

  1. 编 史全生,吉林文史 []


Chinese tools

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:25 pm

Here are a few cool tools for those of you (like my students) who are learning Chinese.

Beijing sounds is a cool blog about how Chinese is spoken in Beijing, with soundclips to help you learn the true Beijing hua

Pinyin News Thrilling updates from the world of Pinyin This is connected to PinyinInfo, which has cool tools

Chinese Pera-Kun Dictionary. This will let you mouse-over Chinese text and see an English translation. (works with Firefox)

And of course, the Asian Studies Toolbar 


Teaching Confucius

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:26 pm

Tomorrow I get to teach Confucius to my Rice Paddies class. This used to be a fairly easy thing to do, until the unspeakably annoying E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks published The Original Analects It is a very good book, but unfortunately it is based on the (correct) view that Analects as we have it is not the words of Confucius, a man who died in 479 BC, but rather the ideas of a school of thought that were written down over a long period of time and attributed to a semi-mythical founder.



Why Study?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:30 am

Jeremiah from Granite Studio has  post about the debate in American universities about the relationship between education and training. Anthony Kronman claims that American universities spend far too little time teaching students about the meaning of life and far too much time doing research and teaching people how to have successfully careers. Kronman claims that our reluctance to teach students the meaning of life has weakened the humanities and made us subject to “being hijacked for political ends” He is particularly hard on how America’s humanities faculty have ceded their position to those in the university who value research and careerism (which is sort of rich coming from the dean of Yale Law School) and longs for the return of the pre-1870 university with its single, coherent curriculum, clear moral sense, and lack of interest in either the German innovation of research or the modern American consumerist idea of students choosing their own majors. Lots of people in America talk like this, but I find most of this sort of rhetoric to be faux-nostalgic blovating. I actually think education as opposed to training is important, and I’m glad places like St. John’s, Wheaton College and Northland exist, and I’m glad many students at other schools learn things beyond preparing for a career, even if they were not planning on it. but I can’t imagine a national Ministry of Higher Education forcing the current American higher-ed system in a pre-1870 direction.

Jeremiah claims that looking at China is worthwhile when thinking about this (which I agree with), and Chinese intellectuals spent an awful lot of time talking about the purposes of education and above all the relationship between education as moral cultivation and education as getting and doing a job. In fact Chinese scholars talked so much about this I am going to limit myself to one figure, Zeng Guofan.1 Zeng one of the most important provincial officials of the mid-19th century and responsible for putting down the Taiping Rebellion and restoring the fortunes of the Qing dynasty. As patriarch of his family he also left a lot of writings about proper education and its purposes. Of course many of the educational debates of the Late Imperial period seem to have little contact with ours. The debate on the role of philosophy vs. literary skill, learning of the mind vs. learning of the heart, etc. all of these seem rather distant to us. Like Anthony Kronman, however Zeng thought education had two purposes, to advance virtue and to prepare for a vocation. In his case the vocation was government service and the gateway to government service was the exams and the 8-legged essay. The 8-legged format could be and was criticized for encouraging students to strip-mine the classics for clever tidbits they could toss into their essays. Some would say it was possible to have a good career without really becoming a good person. Zeng, of course did not see it that way, as he did not draw a sharp divide between exam learning and moral learning. The exams really tested your worthiness, in his view. If you could write a good 8-legged essay you were a good person, and fit for government work.2 If you were successful at learning it would help you even if you were not lucky enough to pass the exams and instead had to work as a private secretary or a teacher.

If the farmer works hard at plowing, there may still be famines, but there will surely be years of good harvest. If the merchant adds to his stock of merchandise, there may be times when sales are slow, but there will surely be times when the market in unimpeded. If the scholar is excellent in his vocation, how could it be that he will never obtain a degree? Even if he never obtains one, are there not other paths to livelihood? Therefore, the problem lies in one’s not being excellent in work.

If you did not want an official career, like his son Qihong, study became even more important as the road to happiness.

Since you are not interested in degrees and positions with emolument, you must read more of the ancient books. You should frequently hum verses and practice calligraphy so as to foster character an sentiment; there will be enjoyment in store for you for your lifetime and to spare

Our modern attempts to make students value study as a road to joy have not seen much success, and I don’t think anyone today sees a direct connection between moral education and landing a job. Zeng certainly did, and would have seen little point to a division between Gen Ed and a major, or worse still a multiplicity of majors. He did recognize the importance of specialization, but in an almost religious sort of way. One should start a text, and read through it carefully, stopping and re-reading any sentences that puzzled you until you understood them and then moving on. On should read only one book at a time. This is entirely different from the way we encourage students to approach texts. We encourage them to mine them for the information they want, molding texts to their purposes rather than assuming that texts are things that they should mold themselves onto

Zeng admonished his family to study, but backed up his words by continuing his studies throughout his life. Like most literati he practiced his calligraphy daily, and throughout the war years he continued work on his Random selections from the Classics, history and various writers. He apparently though that liberal study was part a life-long process of self-cultivation, which is not usual with us. I rather doubt Anthony Kronman is showing up at the freshman seminars at Yale in hopes of becoming a better person and dean.3

This is just China, of course, but I think the Western model of education before 1870 has a lot in common with this. You really can’t have meaning of life education without a common agreement on what the good life is and a society which values those who have learned about it. We just don’t have that and are not going to any time soon. This is a capitalist society, and universities sell what people want to buy Student demand drives what is produced in American Higher Ed, and will for the foreseeable future. I’m glad almost every college in America has some sort of baseline Gen Ed program (our concession to the meaning of life), and while I may disagree with how some of them are run, I also realize that liberal education is a poor sister to the football team and the Law School and always will be. American students will always be able to choose a major, rather than having the proper course decreed for them,

Ours is also at least rhetorically an egalitarian society, and it’s hard to see where the teachers for meaning of life education would come from. For Zeng Guofan this was not a problem. He increasingly came to be free of doubts, and was quite willing to set himself up as a sage, and in fact this was the point of traditional education. As Confucius put it, only the ren can love or hate others, i.e. the point of education is to reach the level where you are a superior being who can judge others. I for one would feel quite reluctant to grade students in a Meaning Of Life class. I can certainly assess how well students can explain the Self-Strengthening movement, or how well they write, but to award someone a B- in Meaning of Life would seem to be antithetical to most of what I think a faculty member should be. Not everyone thinks like this, of course. Nabakov’s vision of a college with “murals displaying recognizable members of the faculty in the act of passing on the torch of knowledge from Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Pasteur” is popular it its way with a lot of faculty but most of them seem to be people like Ward Churchill. Churchill is criticized for politicized teaching, and Kronman claims to oppose that, but I don’t see how you can square non-politicized teaching with knowing the meaning of life. Zeng Guofan certainly thought students were learning how to be better people outside the classroom and would have had no problem judging them on how they behaved outside class.

I think liberal education is important, and I am happy that so many of our students seem to be getting it despite our repeated failures to figure out what it is or how to teach it. I don’t think that abstract wishing for the pre 1870 world is much help, however. While we may draw on old ideas about education and the Good Life we have to think seriously about the context these ideas came out of and how we have to adopt them.

  1. I will also limit myself to one source on him, Kwang-Ching Liu “Education for Its Own Sake: Notes on Tseng Kuo-fan’s Family Letters” from Elman and Woodside eds. Education and Society in Late Imperial China California U.P, 1994 []
  2. Even Zeng came to doubt that the 8-legged format could embrace all knowledge, but he never became Wu Jingzi []
  3. I could be wrong about that, of course []

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