David Brooks has a piece in the NYT today, discussing a new book by Jin Li, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West. Let me say right up front that I have not read the book (though I look forward to learning from it). I am simply reacting to Brooks' interpretation of it. And that interpretation raises a number of questions.
Let's start with this paragraph:
The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.
Perhaps this is an overly simplistic summary; I imagine Li has a somewhat more sophisticated analysis (as suggested in this NPR discussion). The first problem here is the Western/cognitive versus Asian/moral distinction. To begin with, these are rather obviously massive abstractions. What is "West"? What is "Asian"? These categories, to my mind, are simply too big to be of much real analytic utility. In any event, is it true that "Westerners" are more focused on cognitive learning while "Asians" define learning morally? When? Now?
It is certainly true that Confucian classics - The Analects and Mencius - emphasize moral learning. Analects 16.9 gets this on the table:
Confucius said, Those born with understanding rank highest. Those who study and gain understanding come next. Those who face difficulties and yet study - they are next. Those who face difficulties but never study - they are the lowest type of people. (Watson)
"Understanding" (zhi - 知) here denotes a knowledge of proper ethical conduct, something like wisdom, or, as Hall and Ames (52-53) have it "performative wisdom". Some people just instinctually know the right thing to do in virtually any circumstance. Most of us have to study to learn what is, and how to do, the right thing. And some avoid that kind of normative engagement and those are morally deficient. Confucian learning is all about morality.
Of course, Confucius and Mencius are not the only Chinese philosophers to write about understanding (zhi - 知). There is a treatement of it, made by Mohists and Xunzi, that is more empirical ("cognitive" in Brooks' use above), based on our perceptual experience of the world external to us. We can't really delve too deeply into this point here, but we should keep in mind the range and diversity of ancient Chinese thought.
But let's assume that Confucian learning is, generally, an exercise in the development of one's moral discernment and that understanding is predominant in traditional Chinese culture. Two questions follow:
- Does that emphasis on morality distinguish "Asian" learning from "Western" learning?
- Does the ancient Chinese sensibility obtain in contemporary Chinese society?
I think the answers to those two questions could well be "no".
On the first point, classical "Western" learning was, and is, geared toward a kind of moral development of the individual. Socrates tells us to "Know thyself," and works to live a good life. Here is Pierre Hadot (90):
Thus, the Socratic dialogue turns out to be a kind of communal spiritual exercise. In it, the interlocutors are invited to participate in such inner spiritual exercises as examinations of conscience and attention to oneself; in other words, they are urged to comply with the famous dictum, "Know Thyself."
Classical "Western" learning is, in short, a kind of moral learning, not radically different from the Confucian ideal. It could be argued, of course, that that classical tradition has been lost, overwhelmed by the tide of scientific, rationalist empiricism that takes us away from normative concerns. And that is true, to a degree. Much of the learning that takes place in American colleges is technical and not explicitly normative (even though all knowledge may be normative in one way or another), designed to facilitate the accession to a career or profession. But the ideal lives on, and can still be realized to a degree, in the liberal arts project. Here is the opening of the "Mission Statement" of my college:
Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character. Academic virtues include the capacities to explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly, and connect ideas creatively. Civic virtues include commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life, and the skills to do so effectively. These virtues, in turn, have associated traits of character. For example, free inquiry requires open-mindedness, and commitment to community draws on concern for others.
Notice: "traits of character" and "civic virtues." Now it can be argued that we might not live up to those goals, but it is clear that the institution publicly declares a mission that is explicitly normative in a manner that resonates with not only the ancient Greeks but also, I would hold, classical Confucians as well.
So, are we "Asian"? Perhaps we are, and, from my point of view, that is just fine. But we are also "Western" because that other sort of "cognitive" learning also goes on here. So we are both. But, then, what is the distinction, really?
It gets more complicated because when we look at learning in China today the "Asian/moral" versus "Western/cognitive" distinction just doesn't hold up, either. And we need go no further than The Onion to get a sense of this: "Report: Chinese Third-Graders Falling Behind U.S. High School Students in Math, Science". We know that, if globally standardized tests, like the PISA exam, are measures of cognitive learning, and I think they are, then many Chinese students are incredibly good at this. My sense is that the extreme competitiveness of comtemporary Chinese society creates very powerful incentives for "cognitive learning." Students there work incredibly hard to master standardized test taking. The stakes are high, and the winners in that system, some of whom wind up in my classes, are extraordinarily good "cognitive" learners. Are they thus "Western"?
At a certain level of abstraction the distinction is essentially useless. Because The "West" is not as "Western" as Brooks' simplistic summary implies, nor is "Asian" as Asian. And contermporary China is not a Confucian society in the classical sense.
One last thing. Brooks writes:
Li argues that Westerners emphasize the Aha moment of sudden insight, while Chinese are more likely to emphasize the arduous accumulation of understanding. American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary. Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination. Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.
It may be true - and, again, I want to emphasize that I have not read Prof. Li's book and I am sure there are valuable things to learn from her work - that hard work and struggle are culturally valued more highly in Chinese school environments (that is an empirical question I will leave to others to debate), but it is also true, as suggested in Analects 16.9 above, that Confucius recognized that some people have a stronger innate moral sense and thus can know what best to do without need of study. The sage-emperor Shun, discussed in Mencius is a model of this sort of person. He just got it. He worked hard to maintain his filiality in the face of a depraved father, but, in the first instance, he was just naturally good. Some people don't have to work as hard at moral learning as others.
Maybe, in the end, we should avoid overly general characterizations of "Western" and "Asian."