'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 “Philosophy 176 – Death,” 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 Kagan’s sometimes abstruse classes since Netease, one of China’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.

“We want to be like a digital Confucius, spreading knowledge” says Mr. Zhang, whose site has posted scores of courses – under Creative Commons licenses – 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.

“It is hard for people to keep at it alone” says Zhao Xing, a young public relations executive who established the “Get Up Early in the Morning and Take an Online Course Each Day” group on Douban, a website popular with young intellectuals.

“When a lot of us do it together, we feel the strength of a team” Ms. Zhao says. “The ones who understand help the ones who don’t.” 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. “There is nothing like this in China” says Zhao. “Classes here are just about academic things. There is nothing for the heart.”

The most popular courses that are drawing hundreds of thousands of Chinese auditors each, says Netease’s Zhang, are on profound subjects such as happiness, justice, and human nature.

Netease chooses which courses to post “on the basis of what is missing in China and what would be popular” says Zhang. “We choose the courses we choose because of our dissatisfaction with Chinese education.

“People are looking for enlightening education,” he goes on. “But just like kids get obese if you keep feeding them heavy food, young people get materialistic if you just keep teaching them practical courses.”

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, “they all tell us what we should do” he says. “But they all speak with the same voice. We are trying to teach people that there are different moral values, different choices.”

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. “It is hard to watch and study alone” says Li Yun, an advertising manager who has been struggling with “The Philosophy of Love in Western Culture” and “Biological Engineering,” among other courses. “If you are going to really follow a class, you need discussion.”

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.

“The lectures make points that I would never have thought of,” she says. “Studying like this is worth it if only because of the conversations I can have with myself.”

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