'Digital Confucius' introduces Chinese students to liberal arts at Yale and beyond
Hundreds of thousands of young Chinese are joining a new craze: auditing American university courses available online. Of most interest: topics like happiness and justice.
When Prof. Shelly Kagan sat cross-legged on his desk in front of a class of Yale University students in the spring of 2007, introducing his course â€śPhilosophy 176 â€“ Death,â€ť he could hardly have expected that he would one day gather an enormous and avid fan base in China.
But that is precisely what has happened. Professor Kagan is at the forefront of a new craze sweeping educated young Chinese: auditing the courses that Yale and other top universities around the world now post on their websites.
Several hundred thousand Chinese have begun following Kaganâ€™s sometimes abstruse classes since Netease, one of Chinaâ€™s largest Web portals, posted them last October says Zhang Rui, deputy chief editor of the site.
But the Yale philosopher is not alone in drawing such virtual mega-crowds to his video-recorded lectures.
â€śWe want to be like a digital Confucius, spreading knowledgeâ€ť says Mr. Zhang, whose site has posted scores of courses â€“ under Creative Commons licenses â€“ given at Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and other leading seats of learning.
Teaming up for maximum benefit
The courses have spawned online study groups, dedicated to particular courses.
â€śIt is hard for people to keep at it aloneâ€ť says Zhao Xing, a young public relations executive who established the â€śGet Up Early in the Morning and Take an Online Course Each Dayâ€ť group on Douban, a website popular with young intellectuals.
â€śWhen a lot of us do it together, we feel the strength of a teamâ€ť Ms. Zhao says. â€śThe ones who understand help the ones who donâ€™t.â€ť Zhao set her group up in early November and within a month it had drawn 2,000 members, the most that Douban allows in a group.
Something for the heart, not just the mind
The foreign courses are popular, say Chinese fans, because they go beyond the standard Chinese university fare. â€śThere is nothing like this in Chinaâ€ť says Zhao. â€śClasses here are just about academic things. There is nothing for the heart.â€ť
The most popular courses that are drawing hundreds of thousands of Chinese auditors each, says Neteaseâ€™s Zhang, are on profound subjects such as happiness, justice, and human nature.
Netease chooses which courses to post â€śon the basis of what is missing in China and what would be popularâ€ť says Zhang. â€śWe choose the courses we choose because of our dissatisfaction with Chinese education.
â€śPeople are looking for enlightening education,â€ť he goes on. â€śBut just like kids get obese if you keep feeding them heavy food, young people get materialistic if you just keep teaching them practical courses.â€ť
An army of volunteer translators
Chinese young people do not lack for sources of advice on how to behave, Zhang points out. The ruling Communist party, parents, teachers, â€śthey all tell us what we should doâ€ť he says. â€śBut they all speak with the same voice. We are trying to teach people that there are different moral values, different choices.â€ť
That lesson would not reach very far if Netease simply reposted the original lectures in English. Instead it calls on an army of volunteer translators around the world, and some professionals, to sub-title the lectures in Chinese.
Even so the courses are not always easy. â€śIt is hard to watch and study aloneâ€ť says Li Yun, an advertising manager who has been struggling with â€śThe Philosophy of Love in Western Cultureâ€ť and â€śBiological Engineering,â€ť among other courses. â€śIf you are going to really follow a class, you need discussion.â€ť
To that end, Ms. Li spends up to an hour making notes on each class she streams, and posting them to her study group on QQ, a popular instant messaging service. Though she says she is disappointed that not many of her fellow students take up the debate, she says the courses still satiate her thirst for knowledge.
â€śThe lectures make points that I would never have thought of,â€ť she says. â€śStudying like this is worth it if only because of the conversations I can have with myself.â€ť