The Value of Education – East Asian versus Western thought by Lloyd Lofthouse

Posted by on Nov 17, 2014 in China, Historical Tidbits | Comments Off on The Value of Education – East Asian versus Western thought by Lloyd Lofthouse

To understand the Chinese mind, we should start with Confucius (552 – 479 BC), who is arguably the most influencial person in Chinese history and by extension the rest of East Asia: Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia—thanks to China being a regional super power for more than two thousand years, while its merchants helped spread Chinese cultural influence and thought to the other East Asian countries they traded with.

An important Confucian influence on Chinese society and the rest of East Asia was his focus on education and scholarship, and it’s no secret that Chinese (and other Asian) students put in more hours in classroom study today than their Western counterparts—even in the United States.

In fact, we can measure the influence of Confucius on Asian-American students in the United States. For instance, in 2012, The Washington Post reported, “Researchers found that (high school) graduation rates vary by race, with 91.8 percent of Asian students, 82 percent of whites, 65.9 percent of Hispanics and 63.5 percent of blacks graduating on time.”

In China, the hallmark of Confucius’ thought was his emphasis on education and study. He disparaged those who had faith in natural understanding or intuition and argued that the only real understanding of a subject comes from long and careful study.

The goal of Confucius was to create gentlemen who carried themselves with grace, spoke correctly, and demonstrated integrity in all things. He had a strong dislike of the sycophantic “petty men,” whose clever talk and pretentious manner easily won them an audience of easy to fool people.

Confucius political/educational philosophy was also rooted in his belief that a ruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by his own example, and should treat them with love and concern.

To understand the importance of education in Western culture, we first look at what Plato (about 423 – 346 BC), Socrates (about 469 – 399 BC) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) thought.

When Plato talked about the education of the body, he said we had to take Spartan military gymnastics as a model, because it was based on physical exercises and prescribed severe control over all pleasures. Plato also argued for the public character of education and that it had to be given in buildings especially built for that purpose. In these schools, boys and girls should receive the same teaching and that the educational process should start as soon as possible, as young as three-to-six-years old.

Socrates believed that there were different kinds of knowledge, important and trivial. He acknowledges that most of us know many “trivial” things, and he said that the craftsman possesses important knowledge, the practice of his craft, but that this is important only to the craftsman. But Socrates thought that the most important of all knowledge was “how best to live.” He concluded that this was not easily answered, and most people lived in shameful ignorance regarding matters of ethics and morals. Socrates devoted much thought to the concept of belief, through the use of logic.

Aristotle, however, said that the purpose of the state was to educate the people—to make them virtuous. He said, virtue was the life principle of the state. The goal of the state was to educate with a view toward its own institutions (to preserve them)—through the political education of all citizens.

It is also arguable that the Bible probably has a large impact on what many Westerners think about the value of an education, but the focus of the Bible is mostly on fear of the Lord when it comes to learning—a mixed message at best when compared to what Confucius, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle thought.

Proverbs 9:9-10 says, “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

2 Timothy 3:16 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

2 John 1:9 – Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.

In conclusion, the value of an education is clearly defined by Confucius providing a solid foundation for East Asia, while in the West, the message is murky and confusing at best, because the Bible focuses on fear of the Lord, and that Scripture is profitable for teaching and training the righteous compared to Plato’s focus on harsh Spartan physical training in addition to severe self-control over all pleasures starting at an early age, and Aristotle focused on preserving government through political education of the people—by brainwashing them.

Socrates may have been closer to the way Confucius thought about the value of an education, but not as clearly defined as Confucius.

Out of this muddle of Western thought eventually emerged the 18th century, Prussian Industrial Model of education more aligned with what Aristotle thought, and this system was adopted by most of Western Culture during the industrial revolution, including the United States.

The Prussian system instituted compulsory attendance, specific training for teachers, national testing for all students (used to classify children for potential job training), national curriculum set for each grade and mandatory kindergarten.

The Prussian public education model attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount. There was no room for individual thought or questioning authority that would develop in the United States and other Western countries after World War II.

Maybe the blind obedience that gave power to dictators like Hitler had something to do with that change in Western thought about public education after World War II, but today, with the emphasis on the Common Core State Standards and harsh punishment of children and teachers who don’t measure up, the United States may be returning to the harsher Aristotelian, Prussian Model of education to brainwash children so they grow up and give blind obedience to their leaders.

What’s interesting, and maybe tragic, is that Robert Hart (1935 – 1911), who’s the main character in my historical fiction novel, My Splendid Concubine, reformed China’s education system by implementing the Western Prussian model of education in China when he was the Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs from 1868 to 1907. It probably helped that Hart was the most trusted foreigner in China.

Lloyd Lofthouse, November 17, 2014