Education in Chinese Philosophy

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Erik Thomas
Chinese Civilization
10/24/12
Jingyu XUE

Compare the attitude towards education in Confucian, Taoist, and Legalist thought

There were several salient schools of philosophy that arose during early years of the development of Chinese civilization. The era was subject to not only political fragmentation and excessive warfare, but also the birth of unique intellectual foundations as well. Confucius rallied together a school of thought that underscored the utmost importance of humanism and virtue. Han Fei and the legalist movement advocated for a centralized, domineering government that subordinated all citizens to absolute obedience. Taoism insisted on a spontaneous, free-spirited, and laissez-faire approach to life. These three prominent philosophies of the time were very different. For instance, they all placed radically different values on education. In particular, Confucianism promoted intellectual pursuit for both the individual and the populace, whereas Legalism and Taoism had a diverging attitude that was strongly against education.

The Confucian ideology is the only one of the aforementioned schools to place a heavy emphasis on intellectual cultivation for both personal purposes and for the sake of a virtuous government. The philosophy looks down on those with faith in intuition and natural understanding, which is a notion that is present in Taoism. They believe that genuine understanding derives primarily from studying a subject; it does not necessarily come to someone spontaneously. Confucius supposedly said, “By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart” (Analects 17:2, Chan 29). He outlines that men are inherently good for the most part, but interaction with the surrounding environment can significantly mold their values. The influences of external forces are not always for the better and people will often need guidance. Thus, through the practice of education, one can cultivate a strong sense of moral intellect and reinforce virtue. Of the possible areas of study, Confucianism places the most emphasis on morality. One of his most prominent followers, Mencius, frequently underscored the importance of education on the individual level. He stressed that human nature is extremely malleable and that if people are “comfortably lodged they will become like animals” (Book of Mencius 3A:4, Chan 69). Mencius goes to greater lengths than most Confucians to highlight the detrimental effects of the lack of proper schooling on a person. Without teaching in the realm of ethics and morals, he believes that one will inevitably stoop to the nature of an “animal”. He saw much more idealized benefits of education than other Confucian thinkers. Xunzi, Mencius’ naturalist counterpart, argued that the intrinsic nature of humans is flawed and “goodness is the result of activity” (The Hsun Tzu part 3, Chan 128). Even though Xunzi sees humanity as inherently flawed, it is universal in the Confucian philosophy that “activity”, or education and conscience thought, brings forth the “goodness” of an individual. However, Confucius believed that “in education there should be no class distinction” (Analects 15:38, Chan 44). A selection of individuals does not necessarily claim intellectual superiority over the rest of the populace. All people should have equal access to moral and intellectual cultivation. With this mindset, the school aims to create a virtuous society. Although he advocates for the widespread promotion of learned humanism and wisdom, he believes that it begins with the ruler. He insists that as a leader, “if you desire what is good, the people will be good. The character of a ruler is like wind and that of the people is like grass. In whatever direction the wind blows, the grass always bends” (Analects 12:19, Chan 40). A society will garner the benefits of education through the education of a ruler, as they will “bend” in whatever direction the leader so chooses to “blow”. “Good”...
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