"Growing Pains" and Chinese Philosophy

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.

17 replies on “"Growing Pains" and Chinese Philosophy”

  1. Interesting topic. Don’t you think that there are different kinds of students and that more analytic ones would find it more difficult to follow what is really at stake in *Growing Pains*? Such students might be a minority if compared to the number of students/people who can be reached by the multi-media approach of movies (which can reach auditory and visual types, as well as people caring most of all for the plot), but they also deserve a good teacher. And a good analytical teacher might be better than an average movie-maker.

    p.s. Autobiographically speaking, I used not to enjoy movies and to utterly dislike sit-coms, unless and until I started reading about their narrative strategies and I learnt to “read” them in the way I would have read a philosophical essay. Nonetheless, I still find myself thinking: “Why don’t they just write it down in a plain way? Why the hassle of adding so many characters and making me loose my time following the story?

    p.p.s. Regarding a different field (didactic of classical languages), I elaborated recently on the various learning styles here: http://elisafreschi.blogspot.it/2012/09/didactic-of-sanskrit.html

    • Hi Elisa,

      (I tried to post this on your blog, but I couldn’t beat the machines.)

      I gather Sanskrit is a language with innumerable endings. Or for a learner, innumerable charts of endings. I guess that for any learner there will be several years when she doesn’t have immediate comprehensive intuitive access to what ending means what, but needs to be able to call up much of that information from memory rather than from a book. For this purpose I think the following device might be helpful.

      Take some middle-sized chart of endings, say a chart with 8 or 12 endings. Write a cute poem in your native language such that each line or half-line ends with a syllable that approximates the ending in the corresponding position in the chart.

      It might be much easier to memorize fifty poems than to memorize fifty charts of endings.

      Does modern technology prevent one from making money by publishing such sets of poems?

  2. Some scattered thoughts:

    Paul Woodruff’s book The Necessity of Theater looks interesting and may be relevant. I haven’t read it; I’m waiting for the movie.

    Part of the power of television surely is not in the form, but in the number of people it reaches (and the fact that each knows the others have seen it).

    Moving away from radical error may take only a small push; small adjustments may be harder.

    Also the one-child policy came into effect in 1979, and seems to have had a huge effect on the power balance between children and parents. The children Liu Qing mentioned are old enough to have been in the first cohort of lone children. So the show may have been more of a catalyst than a cause. Indeed the practice of open discussion in general had been suppressed for a time.

    When I taught, I thought of my main job as training general skills; and not just because I taught mainly intro courses that were gen-ed requirements. In publishing I aimed to make strong cases for really important points – I published too little too late. This blog is yet a third kind of philosophical activity; can it be more powerful than the others?

    Philosophers are one kind of academic specialist who might have a claim to have something to say about parent-child relations; they aren’t the main kind. On such matters I suppose we should defer in significant part to other kinds.

    A main job in philosophical teaching and publishing, I think, is to defend the intellectual respectability of ethical thought. Moral argument isn’t just mask or weaponry for warring preferences. Some of that battle is within academia, and some is in the classroom. On this matter I think lots of teachers go wrong in the classroom by using the methods more appropriate to the academic battle. Students aren’t really relativists; they’re confused and defensive. Relativism, nihilism, egoism and Divine Command Theory look like powerful defenses against the professor’s demand to think about ethics.

    In the classroom, one thing that works for me on the first day is to put the Ten Commandments on the board (and point out that bearing false witness against someone is only one kind of lying; maybe not the main kind, which is defensive), and I ask for additions and deletions to make the list a better summary of morality “in your personal opinion.” I make it clear that I’m talking about general rules, not exceptionless rules: I want a good general sketch of what it is to be a moral person, a good person. There’s the option of offering reasons, briefly, but mainly we just take quick voice votes on each proposal, and I change the list on the board accordingly. Usually the first few commandments drop off and others come on such as rules against rape, beating, slavery, and lying in general; and some positive duties too. Once students get involved in this sort of discussion they forget to think ethics isn’t a real topic. When they try to add very general things to the list such as “Respect people” or the Golden Rule, I ask whether they think that’s one item like the others on the list, or do they instead think it’s a general overview of morality, to explain all the items on the list. They say the latter, and I point out that they’re doing ethical theory. And I’m in.

    That’s not argument.

    • Well, you can’t steal what’s freely given! I’d like to hear how it works for you. (I’ve found that it helps to come supplied with expert knowledge about the 10C: about the two versions in the Bible, the different ways different religions divide the passage into 10 rules, some of the trickier questions about hebrew terms, etc. –It shows respect for the text.)

  3. It doesn’t surprise me that TV shows (and movies) can influence more people than the written word. I enjoy both and learn from both, but very memorable stuff lives on in me that I saw on Battlestar Galactica (the newer version) and the various Star Trek series, especially with regards to ethical problems. And BSG made me think harder about what good character is (e.g., it includes ‘faults’). Perhaps people can relate more to practical applications in stories about daily situations, perhaps seeing a face helps. Good acting can facilitate this too, (which could translate to being a good classroom teacher: Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory took some acting lessons to help with his teaching).

    This reminds me of something Ted Slingerland wrote abou the difference between Confucians and Mohists in early China, that Mohists seem to expect that just hearing a reasoned argument will change people whereas the Confucians did not.

    • Yeah, that one was interesting to be sure. There was an episode of Star Trek Voyager that dealt with the dilemma of whether to use medical knowldege gained through ‘immoral’ means to save someone. The various angles and arguments were brilliant. But sadly, I doubt few people have seen it.
      You know, there seems to be a significant market for TV/movies and philosophy (e.g., Star Trek and Philosophy, The Matrix and Philosophy, Battlestar Galatica and Philosophy and even The Simpsons and Philosophy). Are these used in classrooms? Who is the target audience?

    • I haven’t read any of those. Aside from people who like the shows and are interested in philosophy, or who are just fanatical about the shows, I think the target audience is students. Lots of colleges require all undergraduates to take one or two philosophy courses (e.g. Intro Phil, Intro Ethics), and lots of majors other than philosophy require one or two philosophy courses. So the very beginning level philosophy courses tend to be full of people who don’t have any particular interest in philosophy. One wants a way to hold their interest, at least a little bit.

      The day I knew I was old was when none of the students in my class knew what I meant by “Lieutenant Commander Data.”

    • “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!” said the alien to Captain Picard, when they were both stranded somewhere; but what did he mean? The universal translator got only this far, and the alien seemed unable to explain. Eventually we find out that the language of these aliens consists in metaphorical allusion to events in their narrative literature; what he was saying was “Our situation here is like that of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” I think the episode must have been inspired by an attempt to read the Analects and the Mencius. Unfortunately of course the account of the aliens’ way of communicating doesn’t make sense. You can’t have the metaphorical without the literal (though you don’t have to have a sharp boundary between them, and you don’t have to notice the distinction explicitly).

  4. I guess one of the skills one wants to train is the skill of attending to non-narrative presentations. How does one train that? I think I’ve never thought about this.

  5. When I teach, I do want learning the material to affect how my students think and act.

    David, what are your current strategies toward that end?

  6. Oh, I’ve just remembered one thing I often did in Intro Phil, Intro Ethics, and even sometimes in Asian courses. I would scour the New York Times first thing each morning for extremely interesting articles pertaining directly to main current themes in the previous or upcoming class session – there were always several – , and email a couple of articles (as attachments I made) or at least the links to my students each day. Whether this was required reading, or how the reading was used or tested in class, varied. I think students tended to find the stuff exciting and illuminating. I was especially interested in showing students that philosophy talks about real things, getting them interested in current events, and reminding them that there’s a world outside the USA. I think the device was pretty effective.

    One difference between newspapers and other sorts of readings is that students can’t easily feel that newspaper articles are written above their level, or that it’s inhuman to expect people to read a few newspaper articles a day above and beyond their other pursuits. The whole idea of newspapers is too obvious a counterargument. But maybe it’s a dying idea.

    • When I first started doing this, I used the articles (I mean the ones closely pertaining to whatever very abstract thing I was teaching from Kant or whatever) to draw the students’ attention to horrible problems and looming crises in the world, things to challenge their complacency. After a while it occurred to me that this could be counterproductive, overwhelming. I noticed that the Times frequently included stories of moral heroism, so I started including plenty of those too. Exemplary tales.

  7. Apologies for starting this discussion and then abandoning it–it’s been a very busy few days.

    Surely there are many other factors at work in how parent-child relationships have changed in China recently. I just thought it was very interesting that a television show (and not a very good one in my opinion) would be among the factors at all. So I’ve been reflecting on what makes certain kinds of behavior seem attractive, reasonable, valuable, etc., and to what extent reason-giving has much effect on that at all. It surely has some, as I’ve found myself persuaded I should do things I otherwise wouldn’t have through argumentation. But where does it rank on the list of possible ways to influence someone’s ways (which might include a number of things)? Probably not as high as one might like. This is why there is (to steal the title of someone’s book) a moral problem: we can assent that there are good reasons to do X, but still not feel motivated to do it.

    So if this is right, it seems like if one cares about changing people’s behavior, giving reasons why someone should do X should not be the first thing one should turn to. Does helping extract clear arguments from classical Chinese philosophy, as I often do in class, actually change what anyone does? So it seems like there’s a disconnect between what I do, and what Kongzi or Mengzi, for example, cared about.

    Bill, to answer your question about how I try to do this, I don’t know that I do a good job. Particularly with classical philosophy, I try to get students to see that we face similar choices even if the details differ considerably. For example, the classical debate about Mohist impartial care or Ru care with distinctions is something that I think can be relevant. Or Mozi’s concern about ensuring everyone has their needs satisfied before expending resources producing luxuries (I was teaching Mozi today, if you couldn’t tell). We face similar choices in our own politics now. So I try to get students to think about what it would mean to take these philosophies seriously. Does it have much lasting effect? I have no idea, honestly. I’ve never had a student tell me, “I’m now a card-carrying Ruist [or Mohist, etc.].” I’m not sure what else to do. I can’t apply rewards and punishments, as Mozi recommends, and I wouldn’t call myself a junzi or someone who’s worth emulation, either. Would showing more films or TV shows featuring moral exemplars help? There’s some evidence to think it would. Even Kant recommended using narrative in moral education. Maybe I should do more of that.

  8. I think the ancient Greeks and modern Anlgophones too are concerned about how to bring about ethical action. Aristotle wrote, “… a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science [i.e. ethics]; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit …”
    and there’s lots more in the Ethics and Politics about how to get people better.

    I wonder whether your aim is (a) the general aim that the students become better, act better? Or is it (b) something more specific, e.g. cheat less, smoke more, care about the environment?

    If it’s (b):
    One might present reasons to think that cheating less is good or right; and the argument will have purchase only if the students want to do whatever is good or right (unless the argument also has the side-effect of getting them to want that more). Alternately, one might present reasons to think that cheating less is in one’s own interest (or something like that).

    If it’s (a):
    There’s no point in presenting reasons to think that living well requires living well. Would the argument then be an appeal to self-interest, or something like that?


    I’ve just remembered another of my old tricks. I offered the students extra credit simply for submitting up to three true narratives, 2-3 pages per story, and each story covering all of the following ground:

    a. Describe a hard moral decision you (or someone you know) have faced. What were the options you had to choose between?
    b. What were the main reasons you considered on each side – the reasons that pulled you?
    c. What did you choose, and why?
    d. How did things turn out?

    I received loads and loads of interesting stories. Though I promised not to grade on quality, I had the sense that the narratives were by and large genuine and serious (which is consistent with their being hilarious). I sometimes insisted on false names (in the text) and electronic submission, so that I could post everybody’s essays for everybody on Blackboard.

    I think I usually gave this assignment at the end of the term, not the beginning. If it were done at the beginning, it could be better used in training. On the other hand, one might receive fewer enlightening stories about cheating. And early in the term students aren’t so concerned about extra credit, because, well, you know.


    In my last year or so of American teaching I started using another device. That was to propose a rough sketch of morality, of what the word means, so that it would be clearer what our philosophical questions about morality were about. My sketch was this (I’ve laid it out before in this blog):

    To be moral is to:
    • appreciate that you are one person among others,
    • care about people,
    • respect all people (including yourself),
    • look at things also from others’ points of view, and
    • hold yourself to those standards you hope others will hold themselves to.

    The account is vague, but it paints a picture. It’s a little weak on cats and trees (though it arguably protects them). But I think it can help orient people for whom the word ‘moral’ prompts a bit of a brain freeze. As the Godfather said, “Mention it. Don’t insist.” I don’t remember exactly what I did. I think I might have proposed, without insisting, that the idea that morality is roughly this is fairly uncontroversial, that this is in fact roughly what people mean by the word, though the account itself is not widely known.

    I think the account is sort of like the Golden Rule in this way: that simply contemplating it in connection with any particular action, asking oneself what it might recommend, has the power to change one’s motivations. And the five-point account can help one see in general the rationality of morality, in this way: A teacher can convincingly argue that each of the five practices/attitudes is very important for a good understanding of human affairs and one’s human environment. (Students have certain reasons for wanting to ramp up their understanding of their human environment.) That is, the five things are essential organs of theoretical reason, at least about people (and about most other things too in fact).

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