Is Harvard Regressing?

Michael Metzger

“This course will change your life,” promises Michael Puett, a Harvard professor of Chinese history. His class is the third most popular at Harvard, a school founded on this date in 1636 with a promise: “Truth for Christ and the Church.” Some might see Puett’s class as a sign that Harvard is regressing. C. S. Lewis might have said that’s progress.

In 2006, Michael Puett began teaching a course on ancient Chinese philosophy. The next year, “so many students crowded into the assigned room that they were sitting on the stairs and stage and spilling out into the hallway,” writes Christine Gross-Loh in a recent Atlantic article.1 Harvard moved the class to the biggest venue on campus. It has since become the third most popular course at the university.

Puett exposes students to Confucius’s Analects, the Mencius, and the Daodejing. He contrasts these works with contemporary Western thought. For starters, Eastern thought says decisions are made from the heart. Western thought says humans are essentially rational creatures, making decisions mostly from the brain. Puett shows how the Chinese word for “mind” and “heart” are the same, which is why Eastern thought says where the body leads, the mind will follow. Behaving kindly can make a difference in how you behave. Western thought believes the opposite: mind leads, body follows.

Recent research into neuroscience is confirming that the Chinese philosophers are correct: Brain scans reveal that our non-conscious awareness of emotions and phenomena drive decisions more than logical rationality. We feel our way through life more than think our way. This is one reason why, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, interest in Chinese philosophy is taking off around the nation – not just at Harvard. Two centuries of Western rationalism have left Harvard students feeling empty and struggling “to figure out how to be good human beings; how to create a good society; how to have a flourishing life,” writes Gross-Loh.

Some might say this is a sign that Harvard is regressing from its original mission. Founded in 1636, Harvard’s “Rules and Precepts” of 1646 hold that “the maine end of [a student’s] life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life…the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Harvard adopted this motto in 1693: Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae (“Truth for Christ and the Church”).

When Unitarians took charge of Harvard in 1805, Western Enlightenment rationalism and humanism came to the fore. But as George M. Marsden writes in The Soul of the American University, this shift was not occurring “in the name of an attack on Christianity but under the banner of its expansion.”2 This was viewed as “progress.” By the end of the 19th century, Harvard’s motto had simplified its mission: “Truth.”

C. S. Lewis might have been tempted to say Harvard’s regression could foretell real progress. When Lewis came to faith in 1931 he was working on a book, The Allegory of Love. In it, he discusses the central role of metaphor in the ancient world. “We cannot speak, perhaps we can hardly think” without metaphor, he wrote. Searching for a metaphor for his conversion, he decided the image wasn’t a battle. While Lewis liked John Bunyan’s book, Holy War, he recognized that it didn’t capture his coming to Christ. The Pilgrim’s Progress did. Lewis’ coming to the faith was like a journey, except that he felt he first “regressed” into Enlightenment rationalism before being regenerated. In 1933, he penned The Pilgrim’s Regress, a play on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

In The Pilgrim’s Regress, John, the main character, journeys to an enchanted island. This creates in him an intense longing for meaning and purpose. He meets such people as Mr. Enlightenment, Mr. Sensible, and Mr. Humanist. They are a step backwards, but that’s not entirely bad. Just like Lewis’ search for meaning and purpose in an Enlightenment world, The Pilgrim’s Regress is a story of sometimes first regressing to make progress.

Could it be that the Western Enlightenment’s empty understanding of human nature is creating in some students an intense longing for purpose? That could end up being progress. Finding purpose is presently in short supply in most universities. Western thought cannot supply it, as modernism is leery of metaphor, a function of the right hemisphere, where meaning is found. Modern Western thought leans toward rationalism, a function of the left hemisphere. Little wonder why Harry R. Lewis, a former dean at Harvard, would write in 2006 that Harvard students receive “neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”3

That was the same year Michael Puett launched his course. Adam Mitchell, a Harvard graduate, says it lived up to his promise. “The course did in fact change my life.” C. S. Lewis would say Of course. “I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true,” he wrote. Christianity is “the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best.”4 Professor Puett is teaching the best parts of ancient Chinese philosophy. The popularity of his course is not necessarily a sign that Harvard is regressing. The hope is always that, if students regress far enough, some might progress to the ancient Christian faith.

1 Christine Gross-Loh, “Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?” The Atlantic, October 8, 2013.
2 George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 186.
3 Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), p. 17.
4 C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 54.


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  1. Exceptionally well done, concise, yet comprehensive, inquiring minds will dig deeper.
    I know you know this Mike, but I just want to add it here for we students, I recently learned after years in the Word – amazing, never heard it shared in pulpit or speaker – where we read “heart”, especially in Proverbs, where I mainly study, we don’t have an English word for this OT word. That it represents the entirety of the mind, the emotions and the heart – spiritual bent. But it clearly demonstrates how the emotions are primary, why obedience is our most important characteristic in our relationship with God. D. Khanemann, pyschologist, Princeton U, won a Nobel in economics about 10 years ago, unveiling these very things.
    Thank you Mike, you are iron sharpening my iron.

  2. This is so relevant to me today, as I prepare class notes for moving from epistemology into philosophical ‘proofs’ for God. . . . Most of my class has favored Empiricism as a model of how we know what we know, by the way, not Rationalism. Of course, they do not attend Harvard.

    I think I might just print this out, though, and see what they make of Metzger today! I’ve been trying to encourage them to grapple with the “meaning” piece, and to realize that, without meaning, our remaining view of the world gets bleak, indeed.

  3. Mike, having a purpose is so important. A colleague of mine and I visited a slum school in Nairobi ten years ago in which all classes repeat their purpose in life each morning by saying in unison, “Our purpose in life is to subdue and rule Saweto (their community), Nairobi, Kenya, Africa, and the whole world in the name of Jesus Christ.” I have watched this school long enough to know that this daily saying has given these kids – who otherwise are at the very bottom of the social structure in Kenya – a purpose which is motivating them to make a difference in their world.

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