Saturday, January 18, 2020

Confucius (551-479BC) - Authority and assessment

Like Plato and Aristotle, Confucius had his own school, which he 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 his fame was secured. China invented paper and printing which meant that the dissemination of his ideas through texts was also possible, in an early echo of Gutenberg in Europe. It may be wrong to categorise Confucius a ‘religious’ leader but he certainly had religious beliefs that shaped his view of the world and prescriptions based firmly in those beliefs. But his influence in China and beyond is immeasurable and still obvious today. His significance is in a deferential respect for hierarchy, authority, ritual and, above all, learning. 

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 also define his approach. He did not admire a totally passive form of learning, 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. 

Instrumentalist education

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. Although it has also to be remembered that neo-Confucianism in the 10th to 12th century loosened Confucius from the state toward a more personal experience. Education is the key to good government, by this he meant administrative and military efficiency. Institutions, texts based on the past, a cultural heritage; all are to be respected as worthy traditions. There is also the idea of an elite, with a common cultural core, that could rule, something that remains an ideal in modern China. Many of these ideas are still prevalent in Chinese education. 
Although China has Confucian continuity, in the 20th century, after 1949, Maoism led to compulsory Marxist-Leninist, ideological schooling, then a period of suppression during 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 dialectical materialism and sacrifice to the state. Some argue that this was Confucianism in another guise, with respect being displaced from state to party. Although Mao wanted to destroy Confucian beliefs, he was Confucian himself, in his strong belief in hierarchy. In fact Confucianism may have been strengthened, as other rules that held people together had been so methodically eliminated.
China today is a post-Mao society, where education has exploded in just a few decades. Its cities are its economic dynamos and the Chinese salt away up to 40% of their income for their old age and education. This was exacerbated by the one child per family policy, now loosened. 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 'harmonious 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.

Academic assessment

Confucian education 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 an abstract, academic affair, 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, by comparison, 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. The cream of the crop is likely to be employed in government, still the aspiration of many students in China. Confucius can therefore be seen as a champion of meritocracy through standardising examinations.


Confucianism has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it provides stability, balance and continuity along with respect for teachers, adults, and a meritocratic approach to official jobs through state exams. Education was also promoted as a general good. He also put emphasis on learners and their role in the family, state and society. 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 also having strengths.


Confucius (Transl. Lau 1979) The Analacts, Penguin Classics
Jaques M. (2009) When China Rules the World Allen Lane

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