I have to do my part to make sure that Harvard friends see this: Thomas Friedman’s did a really fun piece this week about Michael Sandel’s “Justice” class which, if you didn’t know it, is a big deal in Asia. The class, in which Sandel uses the arguments from famous philosophers to frame debate on contemporary moral dilemmas, is infamous at Harvard. Anecdotally I can confirm what Friedman says about the runaway popularity of the class in China; I have several friends who have downloaded and watched lecture videos from the whole class, which have at this point can be downloaded fully subtitled in Chinese. Sandel’s fame in China is, probably, second only to Greg Mankiew, whose intro economics textbook is used, as far as I can tell, almost universally in Chinese universities.
I would like to believe what Friedman suggests about the implications of Sandel’s popularity for the Chinese (and, more broadly, Asian) education system:
Sandel’s popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.
I think he’s right that, at least in some small scale, Chinese universities are starting to experiment with the possibility of broader-based, interactive learning. The Yuanpei school at Peking University, which has taken the radical step of allowing students to choose their own majors in their second year rather than entering as freshmen into a particular department, is one of the most prominent examples. I know that it was my Chinese friends’ own dissatisfaction at the rigid nature of their university curricula that drove them to find external resources like “Justice.”