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« The China-is-not-Confucian Watch, Episode 5489 | Main | Off to Yunnan »

April 10, 2011


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Hi Sam,

I wonder if you are slightly too pessimistic. A couple of years ago, I was invited to lead a session of my daughter's 7th-grade social studies class, and we read and then discussed a few passages from the Analects. I chose passages that were roughly on the themes of how to be a good person and how to think about responsibilities to others...and I think it went reasonably well. The teacher told me at the end of class that she liked it so much that she planned on posting the passages on her classroom wall so students could be reminded of them!

Now admittedly, this was a brief, one-off thing; I don't claim it solved any social problems. Perhaps you are right that, when implemented in Taiwan classrooms, it will simply come across as so much coercion. But at least I think there are possibilities.

My problem is not whether they're teaching Confucian classics, but what classics they are teaching. If these Taiwanese conservatives are serious about solving moral issues using Confucian classics, I do not see how the four classics would help.

There are some other Confucian etiquette guides. I can think of some like the 小學, 明心寶鑑, and 菜根譚 that might be of use.

I see your point here, Sam, and I certainly agree that this is hardly a realistic way to stop bullying and gang violence in Taiwan (or anywhere else). At the same time, your argument here seems to imply that forcing children to read things that they might not fully understand cannot have positive effects on their developing moral notions. Perhaps this is an empirical question that can answered through empirical investigation, but this type of educational method is really the basis of the vast majority of educational practices the world over. Pretty much everything kids read in middle school is forced on them, but that doesn't mean it doesn't enrich their emotional and moral lives and change them in positive (or negative, depending on what they read) ways. Yes, Confucius wanted curiosity in his students, but I think it's pretty clear that he assumed that they would have already memorized, not simply read, a substantial number of texts before even getting to that point. Moreover, the whole Confucian tradition is quite clear that this act of memorization, though it is ultimately not sufficient by itself for full moral maturity, does have a positive moral effect on students.

I don't think having US middle school students read "To Kill a Mockingbird" is going to end racism and clearly most students would read something else (or listen to or watch something else) if given the choice, but I do think being "forced" to read and discuss a book like this can have positive moral results (and I imagine you do too).

Yes, you, and Steve, make a good point: there is something salutary about reading classics at a young age. My complaint is with the idea that this will somehow be a key in overcoming difficult social problems. I suspect that parental guidance is more important in a child's moral development than what he or she reads in school. And I further suspect that broader economic and social conditions will shape the incentives for doing good that any particular child might face. Reading the classics in school, while good in a variety of ways (many are just excellent reads in and of themselves), comes further down the line, to my mind, as a response to social problems...

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