What Confucius may have said about Liberal Education

Nikki Fisher

I’m currently enrolled in a philosophy course, Eastern Great Philosophers, where we are reading the Analects,a major text of Confucianism.

The Analects is comprised of series of quotations, rather than a straightforward narrative. This means that one must intuit the shape of the philosophy fragment by fragment, rather than passively receiving an explicit moral framework.

I enjoy learning in this method, which keeps you on your toes rather than force-feeding you a well-packaged thesis in its introduction paragraph, academic essay style. You have to work for your understanding, but once you get it, the resulting knowledge has depth and personality.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in Confucianism. I just started the course two weeks ago, but already a few passages of the Analects have influenced my thinking.

One quote in particular stuck out to me in my last reading, so I thought I would share it with you.

“The Master said, ‘Exemplary persons demand themselves, whereas petty-minded persons demand others’” (15.21, translated by Ni).

The Master listed is Confucius, the revolutionary thinker and namesake of the ideology. Though Confucius did not write the Analects himself, much like Plato spoke for Socrates, his disciplines used the book as a medium to present his lessons to the public. Perhaps this quote seems vague or biblical.

Perhaps it doesn’t stick with you as much as it sticks with me. Perhaps, to you, it’s common sense. That’s fine.

To me, this quote illustrates something I’d like to be better at. An ideological shift that, I think, could make the world a little better, a little less sad. To me, these are worthy things to think about.

Bring the quote into focus with your most cherished interpersonal relationships. What kind of standards do you hold for others? How does this compare to the standards you hold for yourself?

The golden rule, we’re told, is to treat others how we would like to be treated. That seems to lead logically to a place where standards for the self and others are equal, too.

That being said, I’m not sure this actualizes in equal standards. I think we’re more selective than that. Rather, I think, we often hold others highest to the standards which we most value. Perhaps that’s honesty or work ethic, sense of humor or intellect. You get it. The list of these values, broad and specific, goes on and on.

This is something I’m sure I’m guilty of. But even with a partner or a close friend, I’m not sure this is a fair belief to hold, whether implicitly or not. Because everyone else has their own values, too, and likely, they’re holding you to them.

If you find someone whose values line up with yours, awesome. But odds are, there will be a disconnect, a crumple in the chain somewhere. Are we really right to impose ourselves on others this way?

It would be perhaps better, as Confucius points out, to reserve the highest standards for ourselves and ourselves alone.

Confucianism strives for transformation of the self.

True learning under this tradition happens only with transformation. You can read all the books you want, but if they do not change you as an individual, you may as well have not read them at all.

Perhaps this is something we ought to keep in mind with regard to our liberal education: if we attend all these lectures, write these papers, and read these textbooks and they do not transform us as individuals, perhaps we may as well have not attended school at all.