Families that Discuss together, stay together

Families that Discuss together, stay together
Families that Discuss together, stay together

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Education Reform and Ancient Chinese Secrets


 States across the nation are scrambling to solve the prevalent problem of the achievement gap in schools. Utah business leaders cry out to the “village” for help. “If we want Utah to stay competitive, business leaders believe raising the education level for all kids is key.”[1] The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now recognizes that the gaps are steadily growing. Director Jennifer Alexander states, “We’ve got to do something to fix these numbers,” adding that it will take “bold reforms and bold leadership.”[2] From ever-increasing performance awards to ever-increasing numbers of teacher’s aids, school districts implement dozens of programs designed to increase achievement. Experience shows that student achievement has declined over the past several decades and yet society continues to implement new programs and technology to solve these issues. Solutions lie not in complicated plans and reforms, but in the ideas we glean from an array of great literature and histories. These teachings are available to any at a small price compared to the current plan of costly programs. As we look to the past, we remedy the present. I propose we delve into some ancient Chinese secrets and ask Lao Tzu and Confucius to consider the remedy of today’s educational ills.

It would be efficacious to understand the underlying premise of their teachings. Living in an immoral and degenerate society, both Lao Tzu and Confucius[3] recognized the urgency for reform, not from the top-down, but from deep within the individual. In a sagacious manner, they counseled their people to return to the Way (Tao) of the ancients. Lao Tzu gracefully describes this return to Tao: 

Hold on to the Tao of old in order to master the
Things of the present.
From this, one may know
the primeval beginning(of the universe).
This is called the bond of Tao.[4] 

In the literal translation, bond refers to “a thread” and indicates discipline or principle, thus, the actual study and lifestyle of Tao is its fundamental concept. The authors of Tao devoted their lives to promote the Way as a panacea for societal corruption. Lao Tzu describes that the action of the Tao is to perpetually return to it, suggesting that human nature inherently and eventually pulls us away if we are not careful to check ourselves: 

Reversion is the action of Tao.
Weakness is the function of Tao.
All things in the world come from being.
And being comes from non-being.[5] 

Lao Tzu’s two basic concepts underlying the Tao are the non-being and the being. Both are not without the other and come from each other. For example, imagine a clay pot. The usefulness of the pot is not found in the clay, but in the emptiness. The non-being is to the emptiness of the pot as the being is to the clay. Non-being suggests a state of calmness, an absolute peacefulness and purity of mind. It may be that being implies a soul empty of worldly cares and primed for the Tao. If so, then the non-being could be those virtues that fill the soul.

Invariably existing before heaven and earth, the eternal Tao is without beginning or end and operates in a manner corresponding to irrefutable laws and principles. One of Tao’s earliest commentators, Han Fei Tzu states that, “Tao is that by which all things become what they are.”[6]  Here, the key word is become and hints of transformation. Tao provides a coarse of action by which we both prime and fill our waiting and ready soul with virtue (te).

Supposing that our Chinese sages were correct and that Tao is foundational to all learning, then I propose that our educational reform take the direction of the Way. According to Confucius, learning pertains to one’s actual conduct first before the acquisition of academic knowledge. He believes that learning is a mixture of scholarly studies, which he calls cultural refinement built upon native substance, which is the moral character that is learned in early childhood. In other words, a student must bring with him a foundation of virtue before he can add to it academic scholarship. Confucius maintains that a man becomes a gentleman, a possessor of Goodness, “Only when culture and native substance are perfectly mixed and balanced.”[7] What virtues do our children learn outside the home and away from the family?

Commentator Wang Shu[8] compared the education of his day with that of the ancients, “The primary focus of students in ancient times was to cultivate themselves by being meticulous in speech and careful in action, rather than merely memorizing, reciting, and composing texts…Students nowadays, on the other hand, devote themselves exclusively to memorizing, reciting and composing texts with the sole purpose of passing the civil service exams and obtaining official positions. Very few of them never get around to paying careful attention to their actual behavior or speech. Perhaps this is why they pale in comparison to the ancients.” I find it very interesting that Wang Shu wrote this in the fifteenth century and it is still extraordinarily applicable to our day, over 500 years later.

The universal call for academic achievement seems to be to get the students to achieve scholastically. This process of enticing students to learn often requires incentives, rewards and external motivation. The dictionary enlightens us to the true meaning of educate, which means “to draw forth”.[9]  A teacher cannot educate, but can only help a student educate himself or “draw forth” what is already there. As our Chinese sages see it, the only way is to teach those who have the desire to learn. That desire is nurtured more abundantly as children are taught the Way at the feet of a loving and firm parent. Only then do they go on to seek higher learning with great desire and accountability. Confucius spoke of the great responsibility of the student to learn. He suggests that the teacher require great inner desire on the part of the student, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”[10]

Ultimately parents are the real solution to education reform as they carry the weighty obligation to teach virtue to their children. Confucius teaches the best order for learning the Tao, “Those who are born understanding [the Way] are the best; those who come to understand it through learning are second. Those who find it difficult to understand and yet persist in their studies come next. People who find it difficult to understand but do not even try to learn are the worst of all.”[11]

The inertia of our current path of education with its reforms and programs will be a difficult one to break. States will do well to learn from the ancient Chinese sages. Instead of pushing and even coercing students to achieve through extrinsic rewards, they ought to allow parents to assume the duty of teaching virtue to their children before sending them to the schools. Parents hold the very key to change as they begin to understand the power of Tao in rearing their growing children. No educational program can compete with the simple and ideal foundation of learning virtue first at home and in all aspects of life.   

[1] Richard Platt, Leaders say 'village' mentality is key to educational success, http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=690&sid=15808814&title=leaders-say-village-mentality-is-key-to-educational-success, June 2011 

[2] Abbe Smith, Connecticut students show little progress on Nation's Report Card, http://www.registercitizen.com/articles/2011/11/02/news/doc4eb1ec0c42687228221092.txt, November 2011 

[3] Both sages lived in the sixth century BC. 

[4] The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, translated by Wing-Tsit Chan, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963), chapter 14, pg. 124 (The comma added on the third line was added for reading comprehension.) 

[5] Ibid, chapter 40, pg 173

[6] The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, translated by Wing-Tsit Chan, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963), 7 

[7] Confucius, Analects, translated by Edward Slingerland, (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 6.18, pg. 59 

[8] A virtuous and effective minister of the Ming Dynasty who believed in the “essential unity of knowledge and action, with action being the natural unfolding of any sort of true knowledge, as well as in his assertion that the purpose of learning is realized in words and actions, rather than empty speculation.” (Edward Slingerland)

[9] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 833

[10] Confucius, Analects, translated by Edward Slingerland, (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 7.8, pg. 66

[11] Ibid, 16.9, pg. 196
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