Confucius (551-479BC) 2500 years of order, state, meritocratic assessment
Like Plato and Aristotle, Confucius had his own school, started in 552BC. Despite a period of exile he became a very influential official and adviser but it was through his four texts, especially The Analects, that he has had an immense and constant influence on education in the China and the East over an astonishing 2500 years.
Order and the status quo
Confucius is unusual in learning theory in being a conservative among so many non-conformists. He is not progressive and strongly promotes the status quo. However, there are some lessons to be learnt, in learning, that shine through. He did not admire a totally passive form of learning and encouraged students to be active learners but did see respect for teachers as important, along with manners and decorum. The first two books of The Analects are full of aphorisms about teaching and learning, tempered with conservative advice. However, it was submission to ritual, moderation, respect for parents, elders and teachers, and a strong moral outlook, that characterises his theory. Order is a primary concept, order in one’s own life, behaviour, speech, relations with others and the promotion of order in society.
Unusually, especially in modern times, he is clear that the purpose of education is not the enlightenment of the individual but the health and stability of society, especially the state. This idea is still prevalent in Chinese education.
Although China has this Confucian continuity, in tthe 20th century after 1949 Maoism, led to compulsory Marxist-Leninist, ideological schooling, then the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, encouraged by Mao, where school teachers and intellectuals were ridiculed, tortured and even murdered by their students. The education system literally imploded, to be replaced by massive ideological teaching through the Little Red Book, with its emphasis on sacrifice to the state and dialectical materialism. Some argue that this was Confucianism in another guise, with respect being displaced from state to party.
China today is a DengXiapeng inspired, post-Mao society, where education has exploded from nothing to top speed in 30 years. Its cities are its economic dynamos and the Chinese salt away up to 40% of their income for their old age and education, exacerbated by the one child per family policy (apart from minorities). Strong Confucian trends have come back, encouraged by the Government, who see it as an antidote to corruption and moral decline. It also has appeal in terms of his vision of a 'harmonius society'. China’s foreign cultural and educational presences are called ‘Confucian Institutes’ and Chinese education and students are often seen by other cultures as being highly deferential.
Confucian education is nearly 2,500 years old and is based on hard work, compliance to the state, a focus on personal behaviour and competitive examinations. Dismissive of vocational learning, Chinese education was for centuries was abstract, academic, with examinations based on a set syllabus of classic texts. This selection process has an ancient pedigree in China. Confucian exams were taken so seriously in the past that papers were kept locked up, examinees body searched, essays transcribed into identical calligraphy and read by at least two independent examiners. The penalty for abuse was death and exile for one’s family, and nepotism was avoided through quotas. In was highly meritocratic. One study showed that 83% of the top students were from lower-class families. Note that it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that meritocratic examinations were introduced in Europe and the US.
The Imperial Examinations were only abolished in 1905 but still over 10 million Chinese sit the gaokao, the entrance exam for Universities and only 6 million will succeed. The cream of the crop are likely to be employed in government, still the aspiration of most students in China. Confucius can therefore be seen as a champion of meritocracy through standardising examinations.
Confucius has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it provided stability, balance and continuity along with respect for teachers and adults and a meritocratic approach to official jobs through state exams. Education was also promoted as a general good. The downside has been an inflexible, instrumentalist approach which limits innovation, critical thinking science and vocational learning. These issues are now being openly debated as China transforms itself into a complex superpower. Confucius values may remain but the Western model of education, is now increasingly seen as a more appropriate model.
Confucius (Transl. Lau 1979) The Analacts, Penguin Classics
Jaques M. (2009) When China Rules the World Allen Lane