A confucian note on modern liberal education

Yim Tze, Charles KWONG

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It might seem anachronistic to bring Confucius’s educational vision and modern liberal education together across distances of time, space, history and culture, but the two may share more common ground than initially meets the eye. For one thing, both aim at cultivating students to become humane and responsible people. For another, both involve a broad-based education imparting general knowledge and developing all-round intellectual and creative capacities, in contrast to the narrow utilitarian curriculum of vocational training. Confucius believes that education should make one not a limited “tool” (Analects2/12), but an open-minded person with flexible inner resources able to meet the changing circumstances and unpredictable challenges of life; what he taught his pupils include at least language and writing, poetry, history, philosophy, rites, music, government, and above all moral praxis. The modern liberal education concept is perhaps best exemplified by the US undergraduate system, which stands in relation to the early specialization system of the British model somewhat like a pyramid stands beside an obelisk. Usually entailing basic requirements in language, culture, and the three main divisions of knowledge of the humanities, nature sciences and social sciences, the American system can be traced back in spirit to the medieval curriculum of the seven liberal arts and four branches of philosophy, and beyond that to the Hellenistic, Aristotelian and Platonic models. In addition, modern liberal education has increasingly moved away from a more unilateral mode of knowledge transfer to emphasize participatory, interactive learning approaches like “constructivism”, which sees knowledge acquisition as an experiential exploration through which one reconstructs any knowledge presented by way of internalizing it. This is essentially the practice of Confucius, who expects his students to “come back with three other angles” once he has “raised one angle” of a matter (Analects 7/8). In fact, Confucius refines this participatory process of learning by taking into consideration the character of his students. For instance, he has given opposite answers to the same moral question, and, while mentioning the ideas of humanity (ren) and the morally noble person (junzi) over a hundred times each within the short length of the Analects, never defines the ideas neatly, but responds to every question about them as it comes, tailoring his answer to the drift of the question, the student’s character, as well as the situational context.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe liberal arts: Lingnan University and the world
PublisherLingnan University
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2002


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