Special Feature

Harvard students fed intellectual drivel
By Gerard Murphy

Michael Puett is the new guru on the self-help block. His History of Chinese Philosophy is one of Harvard University’s most popular courses.
Confucius, Mencius and Lao-zi are among the figures studied. And students attending the course generally seek not just knowledge, but direction on how to live life.
In an article for the UK Guardian, Professor Puett outlined what he teaches from the Chinese thinkers.
Out for him is “Mindfulness”, now a huge money-spinning fad, a narcotic for those without faith or hope.
Catholic retreat houses promote it, Galway university lecturers practise it and the Manchester police force employs a Buddhist to teach it to its members.
We hear,” wrote Puett, “that mindfulness will help us achieve peace and serenity in our fast-paced lives. It is now even touted as a tool for productivity and effectiveness by business schools, corporations and the military.”
He was not impressed. Today’s brand of mindfulness, he claimed, “is the opposite of what mindfulness was meant to be,” the opposite of the ancient Buddhist practice.
What Western self-helpers are being told and sold was concocted for modern consumers, “including looking within and accepting what you find with detached non-judgment.”
Buddhism, the source of mindfulness, he observed, “is, after all, the doctrine of ‘no’ self.”
What he recommended instead was “Confucian self-cultivation”. Note that; it could be the next big fad!
Prof Puett is a fan of Confucius and Co. but, “unlike the philosophers we are more familiar with in the west,” he says “these Chinese thinkers didn’t ask big questions.”
So there’s no point in asking them for answers to questions like: what makes humans special?, has life any purpose?, how much should we love?, is death the end of everything?
Instead, the Chinese thinkers offer “an eminently pragmatic philosophy, based on deceptively small questions such as: ‘How are you living your daily life?’.”
Indeed, says our guru, “their teachings reveal that many of our most fundamental assumptions about how we ought to live have actually led us astray.”
Really? But if students have no answer to the “big” questions about life, then they simply have no idea as to how they should live their daily lives. And neither have the Chinese thinkers nor Puett.
Indeed, there is no should. Everything is reduced to choice, you do as you please. How clever of the ancient Chinese to have been so modern!
Elsewhere Puett argues that today’s vision of how to build a good life, with its emphasis on finding yourself and embracing your true self, “is rooted in history, specifically 16th century Calvinist ideas…”
These notions began in Europe but were taken to America and became a major force in shaping US culture.
While “we” today no longer accept such limiting ideas, and some people no longer even acknowledge God, “much of our current thinking is a legacy of these early Protestant views,” says the guru.
He wants to use what he claims are teachings from the ancient Chinese thinkers to eliminate the remains of this Protestant legacy.
Getting rid of that legacy would, indeed, be no great loss. But is Puett really doing what he says he is?
He seems rather to have simply reshaped the ideas of the Chinese thinkers to make them fit in with the modern focus on self, on today’s secularised Protestant view of life.
Which would mean that America’s brightest young students, the future leaders, sincerely trying to do their best, are being fed a load of intellectual drivel.
College students in Ireland mostly come from a Catholic background, but they too are being fed this nonsense. No surprise then, that so many of them leaving university are an intellectual and moral mess.