You probably missed the recent special issue of China Newsweek, so let me bring you up to date. Who do you think was on the cover—named the “most influential foreign figure” of the year in China? Barack Obama? No. Bill Gates? No. Warren Buffett? No. O.K., I'll give you a hint: He's a rock star in Asia, and people in China, Japan and South Korea scalp tickets to hear him. Give up?
It was Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University political philosopher.
This news will not come as a surprise to Harvard students, some 15,000 of whom have taken Sandel's legendary “Justice” class. What makes the class so compelling is the way Sandel uses real-life examples to illustrate the philosophies of the likes of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill.
Sandel, 58, will start by tossing out a question, like, “Is it fair that David Letterman makes 700 times more than a schoolteacher?” or “Are we morally responsible for righting the wrongs of our grandparents' generation?” Students offer competing answers, challenge one another across the hall, debate with the philosophers—and learn the art of reasoned moral argument along the way.
Besides being educational, the classes make great theater—so much so that Harvard and WGBH (Boston's PBS station) filmed them and created a public television series that aired across the country in 2009. The series, now freely available online (at http://www.JusticeHarvard.org), has begun to stir interest in surprising new places.
Last year, Japan's NHK TV broadcast a translated version of the PBS series, which sparked a philosophy craze in Japan and prompted the University of Tokyo to create a course based on Sandel's. In China, volunteer translators subtitled the lectures and uploaded them to Chinese Web sites, where they have attracted millions of viewers. Sandel's recent book—Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?—has sold more than a million copies in East Asia alone. This is a book about moral philosophy, folks!
Here's The Japan Times describing Sandel's 2010 visit: “Few philosophers are compared to rock stars or TV celebrities, but that's the kind of popularity Michael Sandel enjoys in Japan.” At a recent lecture in Tokyo, “long lines had formed outside almost an hour before the start of the evening event. Tickets, which were free and assigned by lottery in advance, were in such demand that one was reportedly offered for sale on the Web for $500.” Sandel began the lecture by asking: “Is ticket scalping fair or unfair?”
But what is most intriguing is the reception that Sandel (a close friend) received in China. He just completed a book tour and lectures at Tsinghua and Fudan universities, where students began staking out seats hours in advance. This semester, Tsinghua started a course called “Critical Thinking and Moral Reasoning,” modeled on Sandel's. His class visit was covered on the national evening news.
Sandel's popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.
At Tsinghua and Fudan, Sandel challenged students with a series of cases about justice and markets: Is it fair to raise the price of snow shovels after a snowstorm? What about auctioning university admissions to the highest bidder? “Free-market sentiment ran surprisingly high,” Sandel said, “but some students argued that unfettered markets create inequality and social discord.”
Sandel's way of teaching about justice “is both refreshing and relevant in the context of China,” Dean Qian Yingyi of Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management, explained in an e-mail. Refreshing because of the style and relevant because “the philosophic thinking among the Chinese is mostly instrumentalist and materialistic,” partly because of “the contemporary obsession on economic development in China.”
Tsinghua's decision to offer a version of Sandel's course, added Qian, “is part of a great experiment of undergraduate education reform currently under way at our school. …This is not just one class; it is the beginning of an era.”
Sandel is touching something deep in both Boston and Beijing. “Students everywhere are hungry for discussion of the big ethical questions we confront in our everyday lives,” Sandel argues. “In recent years, seemingly technical economic questions have crowded out questions of justice and the common good. I think there is a growing sense, in many societies, that G.D.P. and market values do not by themselves produce happiness, or a good society. My dream is to create a video-linked global classroom, connecting students across cultures and national boundaries—to think through these hard moral questions together, to see what we can learn from one another.”