At dinner at a recent conference I had a very interesting conversation with Liu Qing from East China Normal University. He told a few of us how the television show Growing Pains (starring Alan Thicke and Kirk Cameron) had made a big impression when it was shown in China. For many children at the time, it was their first acquaintance with parents who reasoned with their children instead of just giving orders. He said the younger generation (meaning now people in their late 20s or 30s) began to ask their parents why they couldn’t be more like the parents on the show and explain their position to their children instead of expecting to be obeyed all the time. They began to question the parameters of the parental relationship they had grown up with and ask for more equal treatment
Surely changes in parent-child relationships in China cannot be attributed solely to one TV show, but as possibly the first generation with sustained exposure to American TV, it is interesting to consider the influence. Although I recall thinking Growing Pains was pretty idiotic when I was young, what Liu Qing told me has got me reflecting on a couple of things. First, when I teach the virtues of being filial in my classes it is good to keep in mind that the reality as experienced by people in East Asia now may not be so wonderful. While it is good to remember that, I’ve seen this myself before and it wasn’t a real surprise to me.
What I have been doing is thinking about why I teach and do philosophy and what it can accomplish. In both my teaching and research, I think of part of what I do as filling in some of the gaps in reasoning and argumentation in the original texts and trying to make the best philosophical case for various positions in Chinese philosophy. Yet one of the reasons I was attracted to Chinese philosophy (and I’m guessing I’m not alone here) is its focus on how to bring about ethical action instead of develop the perfect ethical theory. If one teaches Western ethics, it seems par for the course not to care if learning the subject actually changes students’ behavior (or one’s own, as Eric Schwitzgebel has shown). When I teach, I do want learning the material to affect how my students think and act.
But can anything I do compare with the impact of Growing Pains? Should I show movies and TV shows featuring filial protagonists instead? I’ve seen studies about how people find it easier to pay sustained attention to narrative rather than non-narrative discourse, and there seems to be prima facie reason to believe that would be more effective. Of course, I do want to keep my job and so I won’t do that, but I have to wonder whether developing good arguments for Kongzi is helpful at all in affecting behavior. Should I have tried to go into writing for movies or TV instead? For all the debates about whether China had philosophy, it is indisputable that it has philosophy now and Chinese philosophy is taught in philosophy departments in and out of China. But from the point of view of the goals of the actual philosophers I study, I wonder if that is a good thing.