02 June 2017

Hit the Books, for real

Private Confucian education appears to be a topic which is gaining some traction and attention from abroad (albeit attention loaded down with the usual tired nickel anti-PRC invective from FP and general hack-journalistic bloviation over the gaokao). The trend of Confucian private academies is one I did notice in English-language media some time back. It’s also one about which I expressed some scepticism on the basis that Confucian education cannot (if it is to be meaningful) merely consist in the modern rote pædagogies and memorisation-heavy learning methods which have been en vogue since the Republican era. Study of the Classics is beginning to take root in state schools as well, though there, of course, that latter caveat applies double.

The question that should be haunting the former, though, is this: what are the true aims of these private Confucian academies, particularly the exclusive ones that charge exorbitant tuitions and aim their pædagogies at the children of wealthy urban professionals? The Master himself was not in the business of training a new élite from the bones of the old – indeed, he had harsh words for the sons of privilege in his own age. And he would be insulted by the suggestions, both that he would seek to profit and that he would aim his education at a specific class. He demanded no tuition from his students – literally anyone who showed up at his threshold with a bundle of jerky and a true eagerness to learn found a welcome.

The Master said, ‘From the man bringing his bundle of dried flesh for my teaching upwards, I have never refused instruction to anyone.’ (Analects 7.7)


The Master said, ‘I admit people’s approach to me without committing myself as to what they may do when they have retired. Why must one be so severe? If a man purify himself to wait upon me, I receive him so purified, without guaranteeing his past conduct.’ (Analects 7.29)


The Master said, ‘In teaching there should be no distinction of classes.’ (Analects 15.39)
And Confucius was particularly hard on students who merely memorised the Odes but did not understand and could not apply them, and had not learned more than how to recite them:

The Master said, ‘Though a man may be able to recite the three hundred odes, yet if, when entrusted with a governmental charge, he knows not how to act, or if, when sent to any quarter on a mission, he cannot give his replies unassisted, notwithstanding the extent of his learning, of what practical use is it?’ (Analects 13.5)
There is nothing at all wrong, of course, with training children in manners, having them respect elders and help the young, and teaching them to criticise the selfish materialism and rampant, atomistic individualism of the liberalising society around them, which is indeed what many of these private academies purport to do. And the question of funding for many of these academies is undoubtedly a thorny one. But aren’t those lessons wasted, if they do not follow the methods of the Master himself, who taught by example and not by rote? What can be learned by their students, if the administrations of these schools behave as selfishly and as individualistically as the society that they criticise?

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