Tag Archives: philosophy

Ma Yuan: Walking on a Path in Spring

Love at First Read–A Daoist Thanksgiving

The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
— the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*

On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility


Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.

One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**

But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! — expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.

So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading

Confucius on Teaching

Confucius and his students

Confucius and his students

Not the most politically correct sentiment for our day, but still worth a share for its vision of what a student should — and can — be:

Historians of religion consider Kongzi (Confucius) the single most influential “religious” figure in world history, and all he was was a history teacher who thought the present had something to learn from the past. I love the guy — if you were a teacher, and read this quote, you might love him too:

The Master said, “I will not enlighten a heart that is not already struggling to understand, nor will I provide the proper words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”
Analects 7.8

He was lucky enough, too, to love what he studied:

Lord She asked Zigong about Kongzi. Zigong had no reply. [Upon Zigong’s return], the Master (Confucius) said, “Why did you not just say something like this: ‘He is the type of person who becomes so absorbed in his studies that he forgets to eat, whose joy renders him free of worries, and who grows old without noticing the passage of the years.’”
Analects 7.19

You can read all of the Analects online. I posted these maxims on my History of China class wiki, and it seemed a shame not to share it to the wider world.

Cassandra, Mammon, and the Death of Critical Thinking

Hear, hear:

University students worried about getting a job see the study of the humanities as a waste of precious time. . . . Times are hard for humanists.

But when economic growth becomes the focus of education, both democracy and human decency are in jeopardy. In her new book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton), acclaimed University of Chicago philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum argues that our culture of market-driven schooling is headed for a fall.

As the critical thinking taught by the humanities is replaced by the unexamined life of the job-seekers, our ability to argue rights and wrongs is silenced. In a society of unreflective, undiscerning yes-men and yes-women, politics becomes meaner and business can invite disasters such as the economic meltdown or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (read the rest)

I had a nice dinner a couple nights ago with some students heading off to college, and this very issue came up: how so many unquestioningly buy into the “economic growth” model as the basic pre-requisite for the global “good life,” when that very model, to anybody who sees with their eyes instead of their media-, ideology-, and cultural-bias-saturated ears, is shredding not just the fabric of the planet, but also of the social well-being of much of its population.

The philosopher above gives us images clear enough to cut through the thousands of words so daily arguing otherwise everywhere: meaner politics, disastrous business ethics, economic meltdowns caused by successful frauds, the Gulf of Mexico BP (Exxon, Petrobras, whatever), and the army of young yes-men and yes-women marching off to serve all of these forces in the name of being successful. Continue reading