I had a very pleasant dinner Saturday night: tasty Korean food with friends. The main chef of the evening was a young woman who is interested in reforming higher education in South Korea. We talked a bit and that conversation has inspired these thoughts here...
She pointed out that, generally, South Korean higher education is overwhelmed by a very powerful instrumentalism: students compete fiercely to get into the best schools and this creates not only an "exam hell," but also a privileging of rote learning and practical knowledge. Creativity, innovation, and knowledge (and perhaps even beauty) simply for its own sake (i.e. without reference to practical application) are all subverted in the obsessive rush to excel at standardized tests. Much of this happens before students get into college, but the same sort of narrow utilitarianism infuses higher education generally. While there are efforts to develop a broader possibility of liberal arts education (see for example Korea University's College of Liberal Arts), my friend, a Korean who graduated from a US liberal arts college, suggested that much more could be done to cultivate a more open-minded, free-thinking, critical and creative approach to the humanities and social sciences.
And as one who has championed uselessness, I am completely sympathetic to her analysis.
Oddly enough I also believe that an answer to this problem can be found in Confucianism.
I know that Confucianism is often pegged as a key part of the educational instrumentalism in East Asia. The argument goes something like this: because of the rigid and rigorous examination system in imperial China and Korea (Tokugawa Japan was different), a general culture of rote memorization arose and that has carried over into the modern era. This culture runs deep into family life: parents will sacrifice much and push their children to succeed educationally. And the limitations that this imposes on creative and critical thinking are exacerbated by the extraordinarily competitive pressures of large populations struggling for scarce opportunities in a global economy.
But all of that gets Confucian education wrong. It is true that Confucianism was appropriated by state managers, as early as the Han dynasty, and infused with Legalist principles to serve as a legitimating political ideology. And that the examination system was the key institution for reproducing state structures and ideology. Confucius himself, however, did not have such a strictly instrumentalist vision of education. For him, education was all about moral development. We have to learn, and teach, how to rightly apprehend what Duty means in particular social contexts and how Ritual is best expressed in specific moments if we are to progress toward Humanity. There are many ways in which the sensibilities of Humanity can be instilled. In his times, he and his immediate followers (i.e. before the Qin dynasty) encouraged a curriculum that included: ritual,
music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and computation. Arts, sciences, athletics - sounds rather like a liberal arts ideal.
Technical and professional training were less important to him than a broader humanistic awareness:
The Master said: "Devote yourself to the Way, depend on Integrity, rely on Humanity, and wander in the arts." 7.6
Way, for a Confucian, is the organic totality of human relations and how they are embedded in broader natural and cosmological dynamics. Integrity is the understanding and practice of moral goodness, knowing and doing the right thing. And Humanity is the highest achievement of ethical conduct, it is what we all strive to be. Analects 7.6 ends with a reference to the arts, which, to me, suggests that art - in all of its various forms - helps us cultivate the kind of moral virtuosity required of Humanity.
None of this is about competition and standardized exams. Indeed, Confucius disdained competition of any sort:
The Master said: "The noble-minded never contend. It's true that archery is a kind of contention. But even then, they bow and yield to each other when stepping up to the range. And when they step down, they toast each other. Even in contention, they retain their nobility. 3.7
And asking questions is central to Confucian pedagogy, however much our image of East Asian classrooms is one of the authoritative teacher giving forth correct knowledge to unquestioning students:
When he was in the Grand Temple, the Master asked questions about everything he saw. Someone said: "Who says the son of a Tsou villager understands Ritual? When he was in the Grand Temple, he asked questions about everything he saw."
When he heard this, the Master said: "That questioning is itself Ritual." 3.15
Asking questions is proper behavior, especially for someone in a setting that naturally elicits questioning. Not every circumstance calls forth questioning, but in educational settings it would seem that questions are an effective teaching tool.
I could go on. But suffice it to say the strictly systematized and standardized, rote-memory educational system that now often bears the name "Confucian" is not at all in keeping with the educational ideas of Confucius. And those original Confucian ideas could be relevant to educational reform in Korea and other parts of the world.