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Great Educator: Confucius 551 to 479 BCE

Confucius, or K’ung-fu-tzu, married at the age of 19, got employed as a storekeeper and later as a superintendent of parks and herds. He established a private school when he was about 30 years old (522 BCE) and gained a reputation for his expertise in ‘rituals’.

“If one loves humanness but does not love learning, the consequence of this is folly; if one loves understanding but does not love learning, the consequence of this is unorthodoxy; if one loves good faith but does not love learning, the consequence of this is damaging behaviour; if one loves straight forwardness but does not love learning, the consequence is rudeness; if one loves courage but does not love learning, the consequence of this is rebelliousness; if one loves strength but does not love learning the consequence of this is violence.”


During his lifetime the private school he established had enrolled 3000 students. It is generally agreed among historians that Confucius’ philosophical and education ideas are recorded in the ‘Four Books’  The Analects of Confucius (Lunyu), the Book of Mencius (Mengzi), the Great Learning (Daxue), and the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong); amongst others.

In Chinese society, prior to the twentieth century, these four classics were among the textbooks for those who planned to take the imperial examination which selected officials for the imperial government.

The psychological foundation of Confucius’ educational thought is that human nature is neutral at birth. He observed that ‘By nature, people are close to one another; through practice they drift far apart.’ Because of the neutrality of human nature at birth, the environment, including education, plays a very important role in raising the young.

Confucius’ private school has been extolled as an institution which provided educational opportunity to the common man as well as the elite. He said: ‘I instruct regardless of kind… to anyone who spontaneously came to me with a bundle of dried pork I have never denied instruction.’

The students who had conversations with Confucius as reported in the Analects came from various social backgrounds. Although many of his philosophical notions were about maintaining the status quo his educational policy enabled outstanding students from poor family backgrounds to become important officials in the government. He said: ‘Those who excel in office should learn; those who excel in learning should take office.’ The notion of the scholar-official was the primary justification for the later emperial examination.

Confucius was heavily involved in teaching and there are several texts about his ideas and practice related to teaching method and instructional content. Confucius paid attention to students’ individual characteristics and suggested they were best suited for varying kinds of jobs.

He expected his students to be motivated and active learners. In his words ‘If I have brought up one corner and he does not return with the other three, I will not repeat’. Confucius urged his students to take the initiative in learning. They should be eager in and dedicated to learning. When students were taught something, they were expected to draw relevant inferences from it.

In terms of instructional content he said “Inspire yourself with Poetry, establish yourself on The Rituals, perfect yourself with Music. Amongst other books Confucius used the so called Five Classics  The Book of Odes (Shi Jing), The Book of History (Shujing), The Book of Rites (Li), The Book of Changes (Yijing) and The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu) as the primary instructional materials.

One of Confucius’ students, Fan Chi, requested to learn farming: Confucius responded ‘I am not as good as an old farmer.’ When Fan Chi requested to learn vegetable gardening, he said ‘I am not as good as an old vegetable gardener.’

In addition to intellectual education, moral education also played a very important role in Confucius’ educational theory and practice. He is reputed to have instructed in four aspects: culture, moral conduct, wholehearted sincerity, and truthfulness.

According to Confucius’ ethical theory humanity is the supreme virtue and the total of all virtues, and it was manifested in many aspects of our lives. He said ‘To restrain oneself and return to the rituals constitutes humanity; ‘For a man of humanity is one who, wishing to establish himself, helps others to establish themselves, and who, wishing to gain perception, helps others to gain perception and a man of humanity places hard work before reward’.

Confucius emphasized the importance of humanity in daily life in the way one treats parents and others. He said ‘What you do not wish for yourself, do not impose on others.’ He also stressed the importance of humanity in governing observing that ‘if you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are incorrect, although orders are issued they will not be obeyed’.

In the Analects he similarly remarks: ‘If you can set yourself correct, what difficulty do you have in conducting state affairs ? If you cannot set yourself correct, how can you correct others ?’ Confucius and his followers had a tremendous impact on education and culture in Chinese and many other Southeast Asian nations. So much so that in some dynasties only scholars from the Confucian school could advise political leaders.

Many of the traditional values advocated by Confucius such as filial piety, respect for the elderly and moderation still play a very important role in Chinese people’s life. Confucius and his followers emphasized education and learning which became the corollary notion for the imperial examination that selected officials based on individual merits; a system not abolished until 1905.

In order to prepare the most able and virtuous rulers, Confucius held that education should be available to all, irrespective of social class. He was a pioneer in providing education to the common people.

Confucius’ purpose of education focused more on social impact than individual development. The moral values he advocated were ultimately related to governing and regulating social relationships. The developmental path he laid out for his students was first to achieve self cultivation, then family harmony, then good order in the state and finally peace in the empire. The instrumentality of educational purpose is still one of the most serious issues in current Chinese education.

Cheng did an interesting intercultural study in ‘A Study of the Philosophy of Education of Confucius and a Comparison of the Educational Philosophies of Confucius and John Dewey’ (University of Wyoming, 1952) which focuses on some of the strong similarities between these great educators.

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